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The Chicago Teachers Strike, Museums, and Economic Disparity

Published in ChicagoNow, November 1, 2019

On Monday and Tuesday of last week, during the Chicago Teachers Strike, we took our grandkids who were visiting from Indiana during their fall break to the Science and Industry and Field museums. My husband was worried they would be crowded due to the strike, but sadly, I knew better. Taking three kids, ages 13, 10, and 7, to these museums, even with child, student, and senior discounts, cost us $354.43. Granted, our visit included parking and a very overpriced and mediocre lunch at Science and Industry, but still, not a cheap date.

As I expected, there was no crowding with kids who were there because there was no school. In fact, the museums were pretty empty and there were almost no children of color there at all. How many parents of children whose teachers were on strike can take a day off to bring their kids to a museum? How many parents can afford these prices to visit our wonderful and educational museums, even on weekends and regular school non-attendance days? I felt our white and economic privilege as we enjoyed this experience with our grandkids.

My husband grew up in Chicago and remembers when museums were free. His family had modest means but was able to take their children to them. I know there is one free day per month and I also understand the economics of running world-class museums. I hope that many children get to visit these and other wonderful museums on school field trips. But wouldn’t it have been nice if the museums opened their doors free of charge to Chicago Public School children for the duration of the strike? Although the Field Museum did offer one extra free day for CPS students on October 31 (October 30 was already designated as one of the monthly free days), there were nine other strike days on which they could have offered this for students shut out of learning by the strike. Maybe some CPS students had an adult who could have taken them there.

As a former public-school teacher and parent of children and grandchildren in public schools, I have a great deal of sympathy for teachers who have to go on strike to get important concessions for themselves and their students when negotiating a new contract. In this case, with the strike lasting eleven days and with only five of those attendance days added to the calendar, I feel for all parties involved. Teachers’ paychecks will be smaller and, more importantly, students will be shorted six days of instruction.

The teachers’ demands, in addition to a pay raise, were not unreasonable:

  • A nurse in every school (a must for students with medical conditions and disabilities)

  • A social worker in every school (a must for the huge number of students with challenging emotional and home issues)

  • A librarian in every school (because reading good books matters)

  • Smaller class sizes (still will be larger than acceptable in most suburban schools)

  • More case managers and smaller classes for special education students (advocates were disappointed that this part of the new contract did not provide enough relief for CPS special education)

Eleven days of no school placed a huge burden on parents to ensure safe supervision for their children, and on teachers, who will struggle to get by with no salary for six of those days that will not be made up. But most of all, it hurt children who needed to be in school to learn and in many cases to eat and be safe. It was those children I thought of as we enjoyed our museum visits with our grandkids.

I wish our amazing museums were accessible to more children, especially those suffering through the CPS teachers strike and those who come from under resourced parts of our city. While we had a great time with our grandkids, looking at our photos also made me feel sad that so many kids are deprived of this wonderful Chicago opportunity for learning and fun.


by Laurie Levy
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