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Memo from Chicago: We Stood Up to the Bullies, But the Fight Isn't Over

The Chicago teachers strike may have ended, but the struggle for justice in our public schools presses on.

The nine-day strike of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) ended last month with a decisive victory against Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his drive to impose the corporate school deform agenda on the public education system. Around the country, teachers, students and everyone who cares about education justice have been inspired by the showdown in Chicago.

On October 6, some 120 people attended a forum looking back on the struggle, titled, "The Revolution Will Not Be Standardized: What the CTU Strike Teaches Us About How to Fight for a Better World." Among the featured speakers at the forum was Kirstin Roberts , a preschool teacher and member of the CTU. Here, we publish her speech.

I began teaching in 2006. My first jobs were at social service agencies, contracting with Chicago Public Schools to provide preschool on the cheap. These were non-union, very low benefits, very long working hours, high staff-turnover jobs.

They were also jobs working with some of the poorest and highest-needs kids in the city--kids with HIV, foster kids, kids with histories of extreme abuse, kids with cognitive and physical impairments.

This combination--kids with the greatest needs getting the least-experienced and worst-compensated teachers--is of course, no coincidence. This is education policy in the richest country on Earth.

One of the great contributions of the Chicago Teachers Union strike of 2012 is that this realization about our public education system--and how the education deformers are transforming teaching into a short term, lower-skill, lower-wage job--is now being discussed not by a few people, but by millions.

I started working in the Chicago Public Schools in January 2010. The timing of this was significant. A month after starting my job, an article in the Chicago Tribune identified the neighborhood where my school is located as having the second-highest home foreclosure rate in the city.

The impact of this social crisis is felt in our classrooms every day--children whose families have lost their homes suffer profoundly, and they bring this suffering with them to school.

This shows up in a thousand different ways, from minor behavior problems resulting from anxiety to what can only be described as depression. At work, we refer to them as the recession babies--children born in the last five years to moms and dads who have been laid off, lost their homes and who have all the so-called "personal" problems that result from this kind of economic devastation.

Billionaire hedge fund managers or hotel heiresses take particular glee in lecturing teachers for using poverty as an "excuse" to explain away a "culture of failure" we've created through our ineptitude and selfishness. It's interesting that responsibility for the greatest economic downturn since the 1930s--a crisis created by bankers and Corporate America's insatiable greed--isn't something they're willing to embrace.

There is no cottage industry of well-funded think tanks lecturing financiers regarding the culture of failure inside investment banks. There are no politicians screaming for accountability and merit pay for CEOs.

Instead of taking responsibility and preaching sacrifice for themselves, they instead look for creative new ways to divert public funds into their private coffers--through privatization schemes like charter schools, through taxpayer-funded bailouts, through "job creation incentives" (which rightfully should be called welfare for the rich)--thus further robbing the public schools of the resources we so desperately need.

Robbing the poor to pay the rich, and then having the nerve to blame the poor and the people who teach them for the very conditions the rich created--this is education policy in the richest country on Earth. The Chicago Teachers Union strike, I believe, has made an important contribution of pushing these crimes into the public spotlight as well.