Chicago Students Launch 'Union', Demand Voice In Decisions

Chicago, August 8, 2013 - A group of students enrolled in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) district are demanding a seat at the table when school officials make decisions that impact their educational environment.

At a kick-off meeting Wednesday night, a small group of students announced the formation of the Chicago Student Union (CSU). The group aims to unite students from various grassroots organizations across the city, such as Chicago Students Organizing to Save Our Schools (CSOSOS) and Voices Of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE), to ensure students’ voices are heard during the school action decision-making process.

“We’ve all seen in our fights that we’ve been out-powered and out-spent by CPS. No matter how many marches we did, they still voted to close 50 schools and fired thousands of teachers,” said Ross Floyd, 16, a member of CSOSOS and co-founder of the CSU. “We have to come up with a new plan, and as any civil rights movement has shown us, when people come together they find strength in numbers.”

Floyd, who is going into his junior year at Jones College Preparatory High School, said because students are the individuals most impacted by school actions, they should be present when officials from CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) make decisions that affect learning.

The CSU would operate in largely the same way as a labor union, with a charter and a fully democratic policy-making process.

“We believe in democracy, which is why we’re so upset with the Chicago Board of Education,” said Floyd.

According to the students’ presentation on Wednesday, they are demanding “collective bargaining rights” with CPS, the CTU and the Chicago Board of Education; CSU representation during any negotiation regarding issues related to education in the CPS district; consultation from the Chicago Board of Education regarding school budgetary decisions; and the right to strike when CPS, the CTU and the Chicago Board of Education don’t “bargain in good faith.”

“We have not seen enough action and accountability from the Chicago Board of Education,” said Oswaldo Gomez, 17, a member of CSOSOS and co-founder of the CSU. “We want to come to a consensus, but they need to acknowledge us as a priority and what we are: the most important members of the educational system in Chicago.”

Gomez, who joined Floyd in conducting Wednesday’s presentation at downtown Chicago’s First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple, 77 W. Washington St., is headed into his senior year at Lincoln Park High School. The school is slated for more than $1 million in cuts for the upcoming academic year. Gomez said that translates to the loss of eight teaching positions.

With a reported $1 billion deficit and an impending $400 million increase in pension payments, CPS’ proposed $5.6 billion budget for next year looks to cut classroom funds by $68 million and raise property taxes by 1.5 percent, the highest permissible level.

The district, which is closing 49 elementary schools and a high school program, has revised its budgeting process to per-student funding, slashing funds and reducing resources available to principals across the district. More than 3,000 teachers and school personnel have been fired in the wake of the cost-cutting initiatives.

“There’s not enough input from Chicago’s students,” said Gomez, who added that, in closing schools and slashing budgets, the Chicago Board of Education is not acting in students or teachers’ best interests. “What we hope to is accomplish is, give more power to the students and say ‘our voice matters.’”

Gomez said his and other CPS students’ quality of education is deteriorating as a result of the school board’s actions:

The CSU plans to host monthly meetings and would like to eventually have representation in every school in CPS. Also, a committee within the organization would be dedicated to regularly meeting with CTU and CPS representatives.

“We need the Chicago Board of Education to hear the students’ voices when they make decisions, because their actions affect our lives more than anybody else,” said Avelardo Rivera, 15, a sophomore at Whitney Young Magnet High School, who attended Wednesday’s meeting. “It’s our public education that’s on the line.”

Whitney Young, a prestigious high school on Chicago’s West Side, is poised for a budget cut of $1.1 million and consequently, the loss of more than eight faculty positions next school year.

“Our educational system is not efficient because students, who are the foundation of the entire system, are not being heard,” said Rivera, adding that he planned to join the CSU. “Without students you would not have classrooms, you would not have teachers; but the students aren’t being included in major decisions that are affecting the quality of our education. It’s our future that’s being affected.”

Rivera was one of several students who attended the meeting to suggest Mayor Rahm Emanuel dedicate tax increment financing (TIF) funds to the debt-stricken school district.

In the midst of the district’s cutbacks, members of the CTU and education activists have called on Emanuel to declare a TIF surplus to offset CPS’ budget shortfall.

But according to the city’s annual fiscal analysis, released by Emanuel last week, roughly $1.5 billion, of the $1.7 billion in TIF savings, is already committed to current or future projects. The mayor has said the funds would fail to make a dent in the district’s massive deficit and instead, has urged members of the Illinois General Assembly to pass pension reform legislation that would curb CPS’ pension obligations.

“We have a priority problem in this city, and they need to start reinvesting in public education,” said Floyd, who criticized the appropriation of TIF funds to projects such as a new DePaul University basketball arena.

He pointed out that his school was “fortunate” to only get its budget slashed by $71,000.

“If we can get every student in CPS, that’s a long-term goal, if we can get every single student aware of what’s going on, we can put plenty of pressure on CPS to get our voices heard,” said Floyd. “We need to hold these appointed board members accountable for the decisions they’re making that are affecting the quality of our education.”