CHICAGO - Over 4,000 teachers, parents and students completely surrounded City Hall here May 25 demanding no teacher layoffs or funding cuts for the city's public schools. The crowd grew so big that several streets were shut down during rush hour traffic.
"We're here to protest the cuts and putting 37 children in a classroom," said Mark Ochoa, financial secretary of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). With such slashes, he said, "there will be no learning and teaching done."
The outpouring was the latest and biggest protest reflecting the growing anger and frustration since Chicago Public Schools chief Ron Huberman announced layoffs of 3,000 teachers to close a $600 million budget gap.
The Illinois Legislature passed a budget the same day without including additional help to the schools. The state is already $1 billion behind in payments to local school districts.
"They don't care about working class people," Marilyn Stewart, CTU president, told the crowd, referring to the city public schools administration and Mayor Richard M. Daley. "They only care about money and power. And they think you don't have any power. Do you have power?" They crowd responded with a resounding "Yes!"
"Do you vote?" she asked. "Yes," responded the crowd. "Are you pleased with Mayor Daley and the state Legislature?" "No," the crowd yelled. "Will you vote in November?" "Yes," they vowed.
Teachers and education advocates are calling on Daley to take money from Tax Increment Financing (TIF) accounts to fund education. The TIFs have accumulated hundreds of millions of dollars by siphoning off property tax monies that would have gone to public education in the first place but end up in development projects instead.
One recently displaced high school history teacher said that with 35 children to a classroom little learning would take place. It only takes a year or two to damage or destroy a child's education, and students fall behind for years, he noted.
"They are cutting 275,000 teachers nationwide. The damage to this nation is inconceivable. And the money's all going to Afghanistan," he said bitterly.
"Less teachers means less teaching and that's the bottom line," said Willis Neiderfrank, one of three teachers laid off at Ariel Community Academy. Neiderfrank said this was the first time his school had ever experienced layoffs.
Teachers weren't the only public workers protesting. They were joined by some of the 1,200 laid off city transit workers. Bus driver Courtney Walker said, "We're here to save these kids from overcrowded classrooms and so we can get our jobs back. And in November we all will be voting!"
Another transit worker said, "Today we're marching with the teachers so they will support us. It's going to take federal funding to save our schools and jobs."
A group of students from King College Prep High School attended the protest together with their parents. One student told the People's World, "They shouldn't do all the cuts because we won't learn anything. It'll be a waste of time. It's going to take more of us supporting each other and our teachers to stop it."
Vincent Hare, a fourth grade student at Beasley Academic Center, said, "There are already 34 students in my classroom. With more cuts I probably won't learn anything."
Students from across the city have been walking out of classes weekly to protest the teacher layoffs and elimination of junior varsity sports programs. Several hundred had attended a "study in" on May 24 at Federal Plaza downtown.
Photo: At Chicago's City Hall, May 25, as over 4,000 city teachers, students and parents protest impending teacher layoffs. (PW/John Bachtell)