Billionaires Club Targets Illinois Teachers — Howard Ryan in Alternet

Billionaires Target Teachers—and Take the Gloves Off in Illinois

by Howard Ryan | Tue, 12/21/2010 – 3:34pm 

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.

KarenLewisChicago 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.

Union Smashing

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.

An Irony

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.

Lennon, Bono, Belafonte — Lessons for Arts And Social Activism — Mark Engler on Alternet

 

December 22, 2010

Cross-posted from the “Arguing the World” blog at Dissent magazine.

Effective celebrity activists use their fame to bring attention and credibility to legitimate representatives of social movements.

That, in a nutshell, is my standard of celebrity activism done right. Ineffective celebrity activists…well, they do all sorts of things wrong. But, most fundamentally, they approach issues without any awareness of or connection to social movements. They might still have noble intentions, but they can end up being a net negative for social change efforts.

Coinciding with the thirtieth anniversary of John Lennon’s death, Bill Easterly has published an interesting article in the Washington Post comparing the ex-Beatle’s antiwar activism with the social engagement of U2’s front man, Bono. Easterly writes:

For so many of my generation, growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, Lennon was a hero, not just for his music but for his fearless activism against the Vietnam War.

Is there a celebrity activist today who matches Lennon’s impact and appeal? The closest counterpart to Lennon now is U2’s Bono, another transcendent musical talent championing another cause: the battle against global poverty. But there is a fundamental difference between Lennon’s activism and Bono’s, and it underscores the sad evolution of celebrity activism in recent years.

Lennon was a rebel. Bono is not.

Given our age of commodified dissent, I’m not interested in trying to determine who counts as truly rebellious and who doesn’t. But I think Easterly makes some important points.

First, he notes that Lennon paid a real price for his antiwar stances. The FBI tracked his activities, and he fought for years with immigration officials in the Nixon administration who were set on deporting him from the United States. Bono, on the other hand, has turned up to dine in the White House, schmoozing with elites even while encouraging them to do more for the poor. In other words, his activism hasn’t cost him much.

To me, this isn’t a problem in and of itself. But it is a symptom of much larger shortcomings in Bono’s approach. Rather than putting his focus on publicizing and legitimizing social movement leaders (those in the Jubilee debt relief movement, for example), Bono has put himself in a leadership role. He acts as a spokesperson, brandishes his supposed expertise, makes demands, negotiates, and accepts compromises. All these are things that should rightly be done by social movements and by representatives accountable to democratic structures within those movements. Ultimately these people should be accountable to those directly affected by the issue at hand. Absent any such structures, Bono has left himself vulnerable to cooptation.

Easterly describes Bono’s model of activism as that of the “celebrity wonk”:

[Lennon] was a moral crusader who challenged leaders whom he thought were doing wrong. Bono, by contrast, has become a sort of celebrity policy expert, supporting specific technical solutions to global poverty. He does not challenge power but rather embraces it; he is more likely to appear in photo ops with international political leaders—or to travel through Africa with a Treasury secretary—than he is to call them out in a meaningful way….

The singer appeared onstage with Bush at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington in 2002 as the president pledged a $5 billion increase in foreign aid. In May of that year, Bono even toured Africa with Bush’s first Treasury secretary, Paul O’Neill, fully aware that the administration was capitalizing on his celebrity.

“My job is to be used. I am here to be used,” he told the Washington Post. “It’s just, at what price? As I keep saying, I’m not a cheap date.”

While Bono calls global poverty a moral wrong, he does not identify the wrongdoers. Instead, he buys into technocratic illusions about the issue without paying attention to who has power and who lacks it, who oppresses and who is oppressed. He runs with the crowd that believes ending poverty is a matter of technical expertise—doing things such as expanding food yields with nitrogen-fixing leguminous plants or solar-powered drip irrigation.

These are fine moves as far as they go, but why have Bono champion them? The technocratic approach puts him in the position of a wonk, not a dissident; an expert, not a crusader.

In celebrating Lennon, Easterly doesn’t allow for the agency of social movements. Instead he valorizes the figure of the “dissident” who helps to shake things up and discourage “groupthink” among experts. “True dissidents claim no expertise,” he writes; “they offer no 10-point plans to fix a problem. They are most effective when they simply assert that the status quo is morally wrong.”

This is a pretty limited view of how activism functions, as well as of how art can contribute to the creation of critical social consciousness. But, putting that aside, Easterly correctly notes that Lennon was more successful than Bono in using his art (in this case, music) to directly support a cause. He writes, “In 1969 ‘Give Peace a Chance’ became the anthem of the movement after half a million people sung along at a huge demonstration at the Washington Monument…[T]wo more songs released [in 1971]—‘Imagine’ and ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’—expanded his antiwar repertoire.”

While I appreciate Lennon’s artistic contributions, he would still not be my model for celebrity activism. That would be someone like Harry Belafonte, who was a steadfast supporter of the civil rights and anti-apartheid movements, among other causes. Even at the peak of his fame, Belafonte could be relied upon to turn out at rallies and lend his magnetism to events. In just one of many notable instances, he played an important role in bankrolling the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during 1964’s Freedom Summer in Mississippi. Not only did his funding provide a lifeline for activists in the South, his ongoing presence with the civil rights movement helped make it a fashionable cause for other donors, volunteers, and public figures.

Now in his eighties and less well known than he was in the 1960s, Belafonte nevertheless remains active, advocating for the people of Haiti and speaking at the recent One Nation rally. All this has earned him a page of scorn on David Horowitz’s DiscoverTheNetworks.org, a site dedicated to tracking and defaming the Left.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but looking at Horowitz’s site, I notice that he didn’t make a page for Bono.

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