Let Sarah teach

May 3, 2017

Chicago teacher Mike Shea reports on a campaign to defend a fellow CTU activist.

EVERYONE WHO knows Sarah Chambers--a Chicago Public Schools (CPS) special education teacher and activist in the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU)--can see she has ample energy.

Nevertheless, being disciplined for union activity must be exhausting.

Chambers is being charged with "misconduct" and has been removed from her classroom by CPS officials. But she is fighting the bogus charge and remains confident and undeterred, telling journalists, "I know I'm going to win the case."

Perhaps some of Chambers' energy and confidence comes from anger at Mayor Rahm Emanuel's relentless deform shakeups in CPS throughout the eight years she has been teaching. Some probably stems from her family's participation in the antiwar movement and activism for justice in Ireland and Palestine.

Her commitment and determination are also certainly the result of years of successfully organizing parents, teachers and students to defend the most vulnerable special education services and basic student rights from CPS cutbacks.

Chicago teacher Sarah Chambers
Chicago teacher Sarah Chambers

This effective organizing is no doubt the prime reason why CPS officials invented the charges against her--to slow or stop union organizing that interrupts their austerity plans.

LATE IN the afternoon on the last day of school before spring break began in early April, Chambers received an e-mail from CPS administrators stating she was being removed from the classroom for "misconduct," effective immediately.

After pressing for more information, district officials said the misconduct charge is related to administering the PARCC exam, though they wouldn't elaborate on what specific rule she allegedly violated. In classic Orwellian fashion, the school district still has not offered any more context or detail to support the allegation against Chambers--more than two weeks into the suspension.

According to DNAInfo, Chambers said she is accused of encouraging a student to opt out of the PARCC test. According to the website, "Chambers said [parents at the school where she teaches] come from a 'strong activist culture' and make their own decision to opt out of PARCC testing."

Suspending a teacher for "misconduct" related to administering the PARCC exam shows CPS's determination to push ahead with over-testing and school deform.

The PARCC exam doesn't count for student placement, a school's rating or teacher evaluations, and it has inspired a widespread "opt-out" movement in the seven states that haven't yet abandoned the Obama-era exam.

Despite the clear worthlessness of the exam, CPS school administrators and district officials--including former administrators at Chambers' school, Saucedo Scholastic Academy in Little Village--used misinformation and threats to coerce students into taking the exam.

Chambers has long been a vocal opponent of the PARCC exam and a leader in the opt-out movement in Chicago. Removing her from her workplace could have a chilling effect on the opt-out campaign.

Chambers also assisted parents in fighting back against the district co-locating another school in the Saucedo building. She's even had to defend the school's Gay-Straight Alliance from being shut down. She has been a staunch defender of special education services and her students right to receive the services that CPS is legally obligated--though not always willing--to provide.

Yet demanding fully funded special education services has proven to be a bitter fight against a district that has been slashing school budgets for years. In order to silence Chambers and scatter the parent and student activism she's helped to build, the district plucked her from her classroom.

BUT CHAMBERS is fighting for her job, and she says she is confident that she'll win. Fortunately, the CTU has shown that it can subject Emanuel and his handpicked school board to strong public pressure.

In negotiations for the union's last contract, which produced an agreement hours before a planned strike, the mayor promised to use $175 million from his Tax Increment Financing slush fund and gave up on demands for harsh concessions, including its call for current teachers to pay for contributions to their pension fund that CPS owes.

That spirit of defiance was on display at Saucedo Academy when hundreds of students, parents, and community and union members came together for a "Let Sarah Teach" rally after spring break. Thousands more people have signed an online petition in solidarity with Chambers, demanding that CPS withdraw the bogus charge and let Sarah teach.

The rally and petition were well covered by Chicago print and TV media, and as a result, the fightback against this harassment is gaining national attention. "[CPS CEO Forrest] Claypool and Rahm want to scare and silence activists who challenge their neoliberal privatization agenda," Chambers said. "Rahm and [Illinois Gov. Bruce] Rauner hope they can scare other teachers into submission by suspending me."

But the students, parents and fellow teachers who have come to Chambers' defense won't be silenced--because they know, like the old labor movement slogan says, "an injury to one is an injury to all."

"This isn't just an attack on me," Chambers said, "it's an attack on all advocates for special education and for the students of Chicago. We need to stand united, show our power and fight back against the millionaires who are trying to defund and privatize our schools."

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