Chicago Teachers Strike, September 2012 Photo Credit: BLPerk/Brad Perkins

The following is a guest post by Nadia Jones:

How the Chicago Teachers Strike Illustrates the Need for Education Reform

The recent teachers strike in Chicago sparked a firestorm of controversy in the US over many issues, chief among them being the current state of the country’s education policy. For more than a week teachers in the Chicago public school system protested against the city government’s woefully neglectful attitude towards public education.

A host of problems for educators

Educators in the city’s public schools found themselves overwhelmed by the magnitude of the challenge before them, and understandably so. Many public schools in the city’s system are understaffed and have access to significantly fewer resources than neighboring private and charter schools. Many of the students in these schools come from severely impoverished families, and come to the class without a proper learning foundation to build upon. Teachers have to start from square one with many of their students who haven’t had a proper lesson from an educator in years, if ever.

Moreover, educators in the public school system in Chicago have had to endure a number of budget cuts over the years. The city simply doesn’t fund many programs, services, and staff members that other neighboring schools take for granted. City and state officials agreed and passed legislation many times over to cut funding for the arts, for physical education, for a more complete medical and administration staff, and many other services integral to a well-rounded and robust education. But the funds have decreased with every subsequent education budget.

Despite these crippling handicaps and setbacks, educators in public schools are still expected to adhere to the highest standards of teaching. They’re expected to produce star pupils and shape the minds of tomorrow with just as much skill as teachers in much better prepared private and charter schools. Public schools and teachers facing hardships often score poorly on standardized test scores, and government officials wonder why this is the case when they come up against such odds.

Some signs of progress

And so the teachers of the Chicago public schools went on strike, and miraculously enough, the city’s government started to listen to their demands. As recently reported in The Wall Street Journal, the proposed new contract for Chicago’s included a number of sensible demands, including requests for longer school hours, lessening the focus on standardized testing, and improving the teacher’s morale through fairer treatments.

These teachers’ voices are being heard, and hopefully it will start a national trend. As the WSJ article put it, teachers have “changed the conversation from blaming and shaming of teachers to the promotion of strategies that parents and teachers believe are necessary to help children to succeed.”

The problem with US education and federal spending

I’d like to conclude this piece with a brief aside about the nature of federal government spending on US education. According to The White House’s own figures, there is a significant discrepancy between spending on education and spending on other services such as defense. The White House budget plan for the 2013 fiscal year allows for $69.8 billion in spending for the Department of Education, and yet they provide a whopping $525.4 billion in spending for the Department of Defense.

In other words, the federal government plans to spend over seven times more money on the military than on schools in the upcoming year. This has always been the case, but it seems particularly strange at this point in our history. We’re about to end a war in Afghanistan after recently ending a war in Iraq, two of the longest conflicts in our history are coming to a close. Troops are going home. Our schools are performing poorly and students need help to succeed. And yet the government is only increasing the education budget by little over a single percent? Something seems wrong with this picture.

What’s your take on the Chicago teachers strike and the nature of the US education system? I’d love to hear your feedback!

Nadia Jones is a freelance writer and blogger who specializes in online learning and education policy. Nadia writes about online colleges, teacher’s rights, college student lifestyle, and student loans among other topics. Feel free to leave her comments or questions!