Saturday, August 8, 2020
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Chicago teacher strike enters calendar week 2

Teachers in Chicago and the city couldn’t reach a deal over the weekend, sending the teachers’ strike for about 300,000 students into its fifth day and a second calendar week, according to a report by Yana Kunichoff on Chalkbeat.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Democrat of Chicago, said she “will always be on the side of educational equity,” according to an op-ed she wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times.

But more than 30,000 teachers, educational support personnel and staff who work for Chicago Public Schools kept classes closed for the third school day. The Chicago Teachers Union tried to strike a deal over the weekend, and news reports say they secured wins in terms of protecting school counselors from other assignments, a cap on charter school expansion, additional support for homeless students, and limits on the number of pre-kindergarten children per teacher.

There’s no deal yet on class sizes, school staffing needs, and the pay given to paraprofessionals in the schools. Along with CTU’s 25,000 members, on strike are an additional 7,500 CPS special education classroom assistants, custodians, bus aides and security officers, represented by Service Employees International Union Local 73.


The Chicago strike in 2012 was different from this one. The fight for smaller class sizes may seem superficial or a veiled attempt to get the district to hire more teachers. But this point is in fact central to the struggle for the quality of public schools. Nobody believes kids will get any more or less out of their education than they put in. But given equal effort on the part of any given student in a CPS classroom, the student in a smaller class would tend to fare better.

Two major studies, probably the best we currently have on the issue of class size—Project STAR and a 1999 analysis of Israeli schools by economists Joshua Angrist and Victor Lavy—address the issue in settings that are about as controlled as a school-based experiment can be. Both studies consistently showed a positive effect from smaller school sizes in the first few years of school.

But the actual class size number is just the most visible component of the struggle in Chicago. What happens too often, especially in urban school districts, is that the class size, already larger than the optimum size, gets exceeded but nobody in the school can do anything about it.

One idea that has come up in the negotiations in Chicago is the idea that the district should suffer a penalty if a teacher’s class is allowed to go above the size specified in the contract. It’s a token penalty—I think I remember it being a payment of a few thousand dollars per kid—but getting it in writing would make all the difference. There would then be a record of the district’s commitment to optimizing education for all children in its schools, or there would be a record of the district’s non-attempt to optimize each child’s education.

The same goes for nurses, counselors, librarians, and other non-teaching professionals who work in the schools. When they are dragged away from their normal work-related duties, they are less likely to meet the needs of some student. Since many CPS students qualify for free or reduced-price meals and many have disabilities, taking these support personnel away from them does a disservice to their education, no more or less than asking teachers to cancel their preparation time in order to do the building’s principal a favor.

These are the kinds of gains you will see in Chicago if the teachers get most of their current demands. As negotiations are ongoing, I don’t know the status of any points, except those reported above. But I’m hopeful the dust from this settles in a way that brings a guarantee for keeping class sizes as small as possible and providing the kinds of support, both in personnel and in prep time, that teachers who work in the nation’s third-largest district need and have clearly asked for.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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