Despite flooded roads which made travel difficult, teachers students and parents filled the auditorium of Ariel Community Academy on the south side of Chicago July 24 for a summit called by CORE (the Caucus Of Rank-and-file Educators of the teachers union, recent overwhelming victors in the hotly contested union election). Judging by today’s meeting, CORE is not going to rest on its election laurels. Karen Lewis, co-chair of the caucus and the new CTU president, spoke vigorously about the threats that come with concessions to the Board of Education and CEO Ron Huberman. While demanding budget transparency, Lewis pointed out that concessions to the powers that run the schools has led to firing teachers in spite of agreements. Tom Tresser, a Green Party candidate for Cook County Board President and a long time arts and community activist, revealed figures that show how the city is hiding a massive cash surplus created fom Tax Increment Financing districts (TIFs) that rightfully belongs to the schools and could close the funding gap that threatens schools, according to the city. Lewis was even more insistent as she closed her speech out, calling on her audience to call their state representatives, who have withheld state moneys from public education for years (long before the “budget crisis” started). She urged attendees to tell their representatives that, “when you don’t pay your house payment, you lose your house; when you don’t pay your visa card, they won’t let you use it any more.” Where, then, is the accountability for the state not paying its contractual bills?
Union leaders may have been thinking of the article in Friday’s New York Times that detailed how Washington D.C. school superintendent Michele Rhee just fired 5% of public school teachers under an agreement reached with AFT president Randi Weingarten. Earlier this year Weingarten accepted tying teacher evaluations to test scores. The result: Rhee fired 241 teachers (302 employees all told). The excuse? Most were given very low ratings based on test scores. Lewis and others object that this ratings system is flawed, without institutional efforts to give teachers resources to improve their own scores. They also point out that teachers are handicapped by under-resourced schools and community issues beyond their control. Most important, this system puts in the hands of administrators the same kinds of power to hire and fire that famously exists throughout private industry (and existed in teaching for many years) where hiring and firing is subject to the whim of the employer, all under the guise of objectivity — the same objectivity that we use to judge the success and failure of our students.
Underlying this process is the increasing automation of teaching. While the high stakes testing is largely detested by teachers who find that it undercuts any effort to stimulate critical thinking processes, at the same time it makes it convenient for grading larger classes with fewer and less experienced staff. It fuels a multibillion dollar private industry that feeds on new textbook publishing and testing. It is the leading edge of the educational corporate advance (comparable to that is seen in every service industry, from McDonald’s to Walmart to Barnes and Noble). Unleashing new technologies into teaching is not in itself inimical. But in the hands of private, commodity producing corporations it necessarily aims at making redundant a skilled work force.
CORE holds its next membership meeting at Operation Push Monday, July 26. Non CPS teachers are welcome to join as associate members.
July 28 the Board of Education meets again. Once again the charade of a public meeting will take place. Once again CORE is calling on teachers and community to attend an 8 AM rally in front of the Board building at 125 S. Clark St. and to stand with CORE in confronting the Board. Make no mistake, Lewis and the new CTU leadership are making efforts to meet and negotiate with the Board. At the same time, they recognize that meetings with the Board do not substitute for organizing and educating the CTU membership.