Billionaires Target Teachers—and Take the Gloves Off in Illinois
A billionaire gang headed by Bill Gates and Eli Broad wants to convert America’s public schools, with its $600 billion in annual public expenditures according to the Department of Education, into a corporate-owned test-score factory. Their plan faces teacher resistance, and nowhere more so than in Chicago, where a feisty new leadership is making the Chicago Teachers Union among the most effective in the country.
The billionaires have decided to go toe to toe with CTU and with Illinois’s 200,000 unionized teachers. The battleground is the state legislature and a draft bill called the Performance Counts Act. The bill would gut teachers unions, maximize the firing of teachers at will, and ensure that no organized voice remains to advocate for quality public schools. The repercussions for all public employees—and all of organized labor—are clear.
Chicago Teachers President Karen Lewis speaks out against the “Performance Counts Act” at a hearing of Illinois’ Special Committee on Education Reform. On her right is Daniel Montgomery, Illinois Federation of Teachers president. Photo: CTU.
Mysterious Group Arrives
Last October, journalists noticed that candidates for Illinois legislative seats were receiving unusually large checks. “It’s not every day that a group almost nobody has ever heard of gives $175,000 to a single state legislative candidate,” remarked an Illinois Times contributor. Another reporter observed that “a national education reform group has quietly dumped more than $600,000 into key Illinois legislative races.” He added that “the source of much of that money is a mystery,” because of the unusual path it took to arrive in Illinois.
The mysterious political action group is called Stand for Children. Based in Portland, Oregon, and with affiliates in seven states, SFC is an enormously well-funded and sophisticated “grassroots” organization whose largest single funder is Bill Gates: he gave the group nearly $3.5 million in 2010.
Originally, SFC did have a strong grassroots orientation, and its focus was demanding better funding for public schools. The organization grew out of a “Stand for Children Day,” a big 1996 rally in Washington, D.C., headed up by Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund. Civil rights icon Rosa Parks addressed that rally: “If I can sit down for justice, you can stand up for children.”
Edelman’s son Jonah Edelman afterwards established SFC in Portland and mobilized with teachers, the Service Employees union, and community groups to demand adequate funding for Oregon schools. But after a few years, SFC broadened its horizons from simple funding to “reforming education policies and practices.”
The vision it chose, though, is in sync with that of the billionaires and politicians who today are driving school “reform” in America: blaming teachers for educational problems that inevitably result from slashed budgets, unemployment, and poverty; subjecting children to dreary regimens of standardized tests; stripping teachers of job security and tying their pay and future employment to their students’ test scores; and diverting public funds into charter schools and contracting out of services.
While SFC materials generally avoid the subject of unions, or imply a friendly collaboration with them, SFC is fiercely anti-union, especially when the unions do not endorse its notion of school reform. The group promotes Geoffrey Canada—Harlem education entrepreneur and hero of the documentary movie “Waiting for Superman,” in which teachers unions are the scourge of education. Canada was SFC’s first board chair.
SFC’s legislative achievements include Arizona’s SB 1040, which ties teacher pay partly to student test scores. With its current initiative in Illinois, however, SFC is trying out its most virulent strain of anti-teacher union tactics yet.
House Speaker Mike Madigan has created a Special Committee on Education Reform, two of whose members received contributions from SFC this fall ($50,000 for Keith Farnham of Elgin; $100,000 for Jehan Gordon of Peoria). The committee is considering draft legislation which SFC describes as a “historic opportunity to help Illinois students.” The Performance Counts Act, which is also pushed by another corporate-backed education policy group, Advance Illinois, would “help” students by attacking teachers and their unions:
- Teachers’ performance evaluations would be closely linked to standardized test scores, an historically poor measure of learning.
- With a single unsatisfactory evaluation, a tenured teacher could be returned to probationary status or dismissed. A teacher with three unsatisfactory evaluations within a 10-year period would be dismissed and could never teach again in Illinois schools.
- Unions would be prohibited from bargaining over a broad scope of issues affecting student and teacher welfare—contracting out; layoffs, reductions in force, school closures; class size and class staffing; length of the school day or work day; pilot and experimental school programs; use of technology. Unions could not even bargain over the effects of these policies on members or their students.
- Teachers’ right to strike would be virtually nonexistent, and an unlawful strike could mean the union’s decertification.
Stand for Children claims to offer hope, particularly to poor students and children of color who are widely denied access to quality and equitable education. Ironically, it is the children of poverty who stand most to lose because of SFC and its wealthy backers.
Their agenda defunds public schools, and, as education historian Diane Ravitch points out, the charter school alternatives have a lower commitment than public schools do to serving the neediest students—academic poor performers, students with learning disabilities, or English language learners.
Finally, the billionaires seek to weaken, if not destroy, the organizations that are best equipped to fight for quality public schools. Case in point: CTU is Chicago’s lead organizer against school closures, mass firings of teachers, and slashed school budgets.
Teachers and supporters of public education, beware: the fight in Illinois against the billionaire gang’s initiatives may well be yours in the year to come.