Education Mon May 03 2010
Teachers, parents, and students are not happy at Chicago’s education leadership–there is mounting frustration with the Board of Education, the CPS bureaucracy, and the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) leadership. As President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan take the Chicago model of slow-burn privatization national, Chicago may just be seeing a full fledged revolt against it. With the recent revelation that there are now no educators among the CPS’ top leadership, scrutiny of a reform program dominated by entrepreneurs and private interests (including a Board of Education stacked with financiers and real estate developers) is likely to sour people further.
Teachers, Parents, and Students, Oh My
Chicago’s teachers are angry; but that matters less than the fact that even more are discouraged, leaving the profession, burning out and warning the next generation away from teaching all together. Teachers have been under a full assault by corporate interests and the disingenuous reformers they underwrite for decades, and this assault has only intensified since the election of Barack Obama to the White House and the elevation of former CPS CEO Arne Duncan to the top of the Department of Education. Obama and Duncan have undertaken to bring Chicago-style education reform to the level of national policy, without any evidence whatsoever that that reform works.
The (arguably illegal) Race to the Top program, which embodies Chicago Renaissance 2010 model of school turnarounds, privatization, and “pay-for-performance” incentives, is just getting underway, and teachers around the country are finding out, too late, that Obama et al are hostile to public educators.
But here in Chicago, where the method to this madness was born, teachers and parents are organizing revolts to protect their schools. Unhappy teachers are lining up to challenge a union leadership they characterize as ineffective or accommodationist and an insular Board of Education, as parents and students are fighting to keep their schools public and democratically controlled. And what happens here, at ground zero of school privatization, could presage what happens nationally as the federal government tries to strong arm school districts into dismantling their public schools; a policy instituted as a sop to “centrism” could end up sparking a serious fight in the moderate liberal wing of the Democratic Party as urban community groups and teachers union factions resist.
That’s Why There Will Be a Change
The Chicago Teachers Union is in the middle of a bruising factional fight as union elections approach in May. Several caucuses are vying for leadership by running slates to unseat the current ruling caucus, the United Progressive Caucus (UPC) and CTU President Marilyn Stewart. The gentlest of the criticisms against the UPC are that they are inept, unable to effectively advocate for teachers and students; the more stinging criticisms allege outright accommodation by union leadership of the Board of Education (and, by proxy, Mayor Daley). Whatever the various grievances, there is undoubtedly frustration among teachers that they are being vilified and left hung out to dry with little support. Teacher activism is as high as it has been in years, and that activism is a direct result of the privatization policies of Renaissance 2010 and the inability of the CTU–under different administrations–to halt those policies.
Deborah Lynch is a former president of the CTU–she served one term, between 2001 and 2004–and heads the slate of one of the union caucuses, Pro-Active Chicago Teachers and School Employees or PACT. She demurs the allegation that the current union leadership is accommodating the Board of Education, but “they appear to be more asleep at the switch…they are marginalized. They are not even part of the decision making. The union is 5,000 members smaller in number, and the influence of the CTU has really waned. The Marilyn Stewart administration has also run the union finances into the ground. The CTU if it wasn’t getting a monthly flow of union dues would be bankrupt. In fact the [American Federation of Teachers, CTU’s parent organization] had to step in and put the CTU in virtual receivership. They had to cosign a loan for $3m.”
“That is why there is so much dissatisfaction, and that’s why there’ll be a change.”
CTU spokesperson Rosemaria Genova was incredulous. “Ms Lynch is absolutely–how do I say this nicely–is gravely incorrect on the fact of finances with regard to CTU. Part of the problem was that Lynch reduced the dues amount that members were paying. What happened then was that we as an organization were subsidizing every member’s dues in our per caps [payments-per-member to the AFT]. She doesn’t understand the difference between receivership and having a fiscal crisis. The CTU is not ‘virtually’ in receivership, nor literally in receivership, never has been.”
“I have watched Ms Lynch give false information year after year. She’s not very clean with her facts.”
Lynch is echoing the concerns of teachers across the system, that the union has been wholly ineffective in staunching the sluice of jobs and the eroding drip of policies that degrade conditions, and irresponsible in their management of union finances.
Indeed, earlier this year the CTU’s parent organization, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) had to cosign for a several million dollar loan to the CTU. Ms. Genova attributes this to problems originating with Ms. Lynch’s tenure.
“First of all Renaissance 2010 started under her watch. For her to continue to say this was all under Marilyn Stewart’s watch is wrong. The expansion of charters [Lynch] saw under her administration makes this a situation that is kind of rewriting history…Three auditors have looked at the books at CTU. We have an independent certified CPA who could provide members with ample information to show that there’s $4.2m in net assets that the union could show right now.”
At least two other caucus–the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) and the Coalition for a Strong Democratic Union (CSDU)–associated with ousted former VP Ted Dallas–are vying for leadership of the union. CORE has been particularly stinging in its rebuke of the CTU’s deficiencies as a policy-driving institution, organizing protests of BOE actions, working directly with parent and community groups such as the Grassroots Education Movement (or GEM), Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE) and the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization (KOCO), led by the estimable Jitu Brown, and spreading the word to other cities about the destructive results of mayoral control and privatization.
Tensions came to a head over a directive by CEO Ron Huberman directing teachers to not hold “unauthorized meetings” discussing the union election. Lynch led a lawsuit to challenge the directive, citing the violation of basic First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The courts eventually sided with Lynch and company. In the course of the case, according to the independent CPS newspaper Substance, the Board of Education’s attorneys produced emails from the union urging Huberman to ban any such meetings:
In their March 24 reply to the plaintiffs in the case of ‘Lynch vs. Huberman,’ the Board reproduced a number of e-mails from Stewart and top union staff demanding that Huberman take the action that ultimately got him into trouble in the federal court. In their 57-page response to the plaintiffs’ lawsuit, CPS attorneys reproduced more than a dozen e-mails to Board officials over a period of more than two years demanding that the Board restrict the rights of teachers.
The accusations thrown back and forth between the competing caucuses should be taken in the same context as any election-time brawl. Whether or not the CTU’s inability to halt the tide of privatization can be sourced to Ms. Stewart’s administration or a previous administration, its fact is undeniable. And the spike in teacher activism represented by the pointed election competition can be attributed at least in part to anxiety over the future of public education in Chicago and the degradation of a career many teachers see as a calling.
Privatization Works Because Privatization Works
Despite efforts to deploy typical false equivalence in characterizing the fight against privatization as one between free market “reformers” and teachers union “special interests”, CPS families have been in the vanguard of the fight against school closures and privatization schemes.
While the free market zealots hype the “warchest” of teachers unions (funded by small dollar amounts contributed by tens of thousands of people), their underwriters are few but with enormous pockets. Families have seen the painful results of school turnarounds, as students lose long-time mentors, communities lose the institutional memory of master teachers, and students are forced to cross neighborhood lines–and gang territories–to attend alien schools, all with no evidence that this trauma has any positive effect.
It is not trivial that these traumas are not accompanied by any attendant increase in positive results; free market reformers are acting on faith, not data, and in fact are often working against data.
Results are trickling in that the suite of privatization schemes–including vouchers and charter school expansion, based on the outright harmful No Child Left Behind testing metrics–have done little or nothing to improve education, while also undermining public education and favoring students with already active parents. Even if we charitably assume that more time is needed to gauge the effectiveness of school privatization, the explosion of privatization schemes–and its official, heavy-handed sanction by the federal government–is hardly justifiable. For the state to bring so much pressure on states to privatize their school systems, you’d assume that there was hard data behind the move; but there isn’t, just new economy sloganeering about “efficiency”, and execrable race-baiting.
No Child Left Behind has led to an obsession with testing that has enriched the test making companies but done nothing to improve critical thinking or education. In fact, the standardized tests themselves often verge on the meaningless. The ed reformers’ major proposal is that teachers should be judged solely or primarily on standardized test scores, which is patently absurd. Is there any other profession where pay and job security rests solely on one measure?
Intellectual fuel flowing from several quarters is adding to the growing conflagration, perhaps none so combustible as that coming from Diane Ravitch, a universally respected scholar of education policy and history in the United States. Her latest book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, details how a good-faith effort to inject accountability into failing urban school systems was exploited and eventually transmogrified into a scheme to “measure and punish” schools.
It’s 2010. Has Chicago had a renaissance yet? … Usually when you set a goal, that’s the goal you plan to meet. I’ve looked at the evaluations of the Chicago plans and what I’ve seen is that when schools are closed, communities are disrupted — in some cases, shattered. Kids are sent to unfamiliar neighborhoods. Gang activity intensifies. About half the kids in the closed schools are sent to other low-performing schools. And overall, there is no difference in performance. I’ve seen the same thing in New York City, where small schools are created, old schools are closed, and in the meanwhile the existing schools get overloaded with the most low-performing kids because the new, small schools don’t want them. So they push them off and they destabilize yet another school.
I think this is a terrible way to reform schools. The results are certainly not impressive. I don’t know of any place that can say kids are learning better, that education is better. And we’ve at the same time created this aggressive private sector that wants to take over public schools. And I don’t think that’s a good thing for the future of public education.
In her Washington Post editorial, Ravitch lays it out:
The districts with the most choice for the longest period — Cleveland and Milwaukee — have seen no improvement in their public schools nor in their choice schools. Charter schools have been compared to regular public schools on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2009, and have never outperformed them.
The public discussion about school reform, since its hijacking, has never been about outcomes, but about process. School district leaders like Duncan and Washington D.C.’s Michelle Rhee get lauded in the petit liberal press not for improving outcomes but for “having guts” in “taking on” special interests. While scholars have been waiting to see if the wave of privatization that swelled to a tsunami with the passage of NCLB would be effective, the popular political discourse got hooked on the “social entrepreneurs versus the self-interested unions” and began rewarding those who picked a fight just for the fact of picking a fight; Michelle Rhee was the patron saint of school reformers because she promised to go after unionized teachers. Duncan similarly was praised in December of 2008 basically for publicity stunts:
Chicago has become a laboratory for reform in Duncan’s seven-year tenure. Officials here court new charter schools, teacher training is being reinvented, and some low-performing schools have been shuttered and reopened with new staff. Officials are also offering some students cash for good grades and seeking proposals for boarding schools. In addition, Duncan backed a plan to start a gay-friendly high school.
As a supporter of the sciences, I’m all for laboratories. But generally scientists conduct experiments pursuing educated hypotheses based on past findings. Not a premise that the experiment itself is a de facto good. (Not to mention using human subjects against their will is generally frowned upon.) Changes need to be instituted: but simply unraveling publicly funded and guided primary and secondary education does not seem to be the answer.
Here is what is facing us from the petri dish: public education in Chicago has been seriously undermined as charter schools have proliferated and neighborhood schools deeply stigmatized.
As Chicago Goes
The reality Chicago’s teacher’s face as they prepare to choose the leadership of their union is grim. As the CPS bureaucracy has exploded–with more and more private contracts and ever-increasing salaries for bureaucrats–teachers are stigmatized as overfed and immovable, blockades to a reform plan that has none of the hallmarks of reform (e.g., “improvement”). Hajiharis for one doesn’t necessarily envision radical change to Renaissance 2010: “All the other caucuses are talking about eliminating [Renaissance 2010]. Realistically, we don’t think we’ll be successful in getting the Board to stop closing schools, but we believe they can accomplish their program by opening performance schools.”
Several caucuses have made overhaul of Renaissance 2010 a linchpin of their election platform; according to Genova, the CTU leadership views Renaissance 2010 as a failure but “I’m not sure that there’s a lot that can be done to stop privatization nationally.” Lynch emphasized the need to reign in the Board of Education in general. In the past, CPS’ projected budget deficits evaporated when the hard numbers were eventually released, and Lynch sees mismanagement, not teacher salaries, as the problem:
The [alleged budget] gap is the result of their mismanagement of the budget. Basically we’re well aware that there are a lot of areas that the Board of Education has invested in over the years. Huge expenditures of money into capital development to improve traditional neighborhood schools to be turned over to charter operators. Billions have gone to misappropriations. The Board has 24 mini offices around the city that absorb millions and millions of dollars. Six hundred ninety million is outsourced to private contractors–administrators who retire and come back as consultants that do all kinds of things, many of which have some kind of connection to leadership, and therefore get private consulting work. This is public money that should be coming into the classroom. Its the result of mismanagement by the Board and their wrong priorities. The Board’s motto is “Children First” but for us in the trenches it often appears to be “Children Last.”
The CPS through a spokesman declined to comment on statements by candidates for union office. Teachers and parents meanwhile are agitating for the Board to “open the books”.
There is little doubt among the contenders that the election will be hard fought and close–Lynch lost the presidency by less than a vote per school–and whatever measure of success they find is sure to be exported to other cities subjected to the cudgel of privatization. The CTU, revitalized by the activities of groups like PACT and CORE, is unlikely to sit back and accept the continued onslaught of privatization no matter who emerges victorious in May. (In fact, without the valve of an impending election to blow off steam, things could become even more contentious). Should an insurgent slate bent on turning back the tide of privatization win, the ensuing battle with the Board of Education will be amplified by its philosophical and practical ties with Arne Duncan’s (and President Obama’s) national policy. A strong reaction by the feds under Duncan’s direction could catalyze a confrontation that would inflict not insignificant damage on the President’s administration, and jeopardize the policy structure he has aligned as a bridge to conservatives.
If the issue of education brings parents, teachers, and the administration to loggerheads in Chicago, it will have national repercussions. It is fitting that the Chicago Teachers Union is “Local 1”–because it was the first teachers’ union in the US. The fight to protect the profession may just be fought here for the first time–again.
— Ramsin Canon