The Chicago teachers returning to work today earned a victory — not for themselves, but for two important ideas. The first is that dignity and security are not unreasonable for those of us who have to go to work every day. The second is that the job of schools is to build the citizens of tomorrow, not line the pockets of corporate executives and investors.
We can’t understand the reasons behind the “war on teachers” without examining both of these ideas.
An additional message from the Chicago Public Schools teachers’ strike is that democracy and community involvement are indispensable. At almost every demonstration the chant “the people united will never be defeated” is heard, and here we have an example where a significant majority at least were united. The corporate executives salivating over their potential profits, the funders of the charter-school movement seeking more takeovers and, most of all, the willful mayor who expected to steamroll over the teachers each had their agenda stalled.
Not that those powerful people were defeated, nor that the teachers won a total victory. The new contract is a negotiated settlement, with both sides getting something. That is what a “negotiation” is — a compromise by two parties. A “negotiation” is not a dictation imposed by the more powerful party, which seems to be a point of confusion for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. But the very concept of democracy seems to be not well understood by Mayor Emanuel.
Undoubtedly, there was much disappointment on the part of parents that teachers did not call off their strike and return to work on September 17, as was widely anticipated. There was considerable disappointment on the part of the teachers. The principal of democracy was deemed too important to dispense with, and the Chicago teachers’ union deserves praise on this point. The union delegates entrusted with ending the strike believed they should actually read the proposed contract before voting, and that they should discuss the contract with the rank-and-file teachers who will have to live with it. Quelle horreur!
A Chicago teacher, Rita Stephanie, who has contributed daily strike updates to the Kasama Project web site, stressed the democracy of the union:
“In a televised news conference at 6:05 p.m. [union leader Karen] Lewis said that the House of Delegates wanted to exercise their right to review the contract. She said that the union is a democratic organization and that she supported the right of members to review the language of the contract. Schools will not open Monday and members have overwhelmingly decided to continue the strike. When questioned by reporters she said that a key issue was TRUST. Union members do not trust the school board or the mayor to have their interests at heart. This would be an understatement! Union delegates say that their strength lies in the strike.”
The teachers’ union would not have been able to exercise this democratic process if they had not worked with the community ahead of time to explain the stakes, and to prepare parents for the possibility that they would be forced to go on strike. When the inevitable attacks came in the predictable form — “the teachers are greedy” “the teachers only care about getting more of your tax money” — they did not have the usual impact. Mayor Emanuel had clearly expected the community to be on his side; instead the people have been with the teachers. The mayor’s response? Stamp his feet, attack, go to court to force an end to the strike. His reaction says much about the mayor and his complete adoption of corporate ideology. When you give an order, it is to be obeyed!
It wasn’t obeyed — schools are not corporations. Professional educators believe they should have a hand in shaping the education system. Imagine that. Teachers just might know something about education that the hedge-fund managers running television commercials in Chicago don’t. What if people in other professions start getting the idea that they, too, should have a hand in decision-making in the workplace?
Let’s back up here a moment. What do hedge-fund managers have to do with schools? Two hedge-fund managers (who have way more money than the teachers, or you, but likely pay a lower tax rate) run an outfit called “Education Reform Now.” This group, an advocate for charter schools, paid for a series of automated telephone calls to parents during the three-day period in June when the teachers were voting to authorize a strike, and for television commercials attacking the teachers.
Charter schools are the key here. An increasingly stressed component of the neoliberal agenda is privatization of public schools. Public schools are shuttered, and replaced by private charter schools. Sometimes the charter schools are given part of the facilities of a still-existing public school, which is given second-class treatment in its own building. Unionized teachers are fired, and nonunion teachers paid much less are hired in the charter schools. The charter schools are given money diverted from the public schools but without the accountability or requirement to follow existing contracts. Some of the money goes to pay huge salaries to the executives of the charter-school companies and for profits.
The movement for charter schools is not a movement for reforming education, as promoters claim, but rather is naked union-busting. It is a bold attempt to force down wages, parallel with the decline of wages in the private sector.
The hedge-fund managers attacking Chicago teachers used the standard neoliberal line of attack: Those people have something you don’t! That’s unfair! Let’s take it away from them! Chicago teachers are mostly African-American and mostly women. Perhaps Mayor Emanuel and his millionaire backers thought they would be likely to fold. Surely the mayor and his backers, believing their own propaganda, believed they would be easy targets. Down to the similarity of the tactics, their agenda is a straight continuation of the Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s offensive to take away collective-bargaining rights from government workers and to demonize them.
If some workers earn a good wage and can look forward to a reasonable pension, shouldn’t the question to be asked be “Why shouldn’t I have that, too?” Shouldn’t the answer be to organize to gain it rather than seek to take something away from somebody else?
The charter-school movement has its eyes set on many cities other than Chicago. In New York, where a billionaire from the financial industry stepped directly into the mayor’s office thanks to his lavish spending, charter schools are heavily promoted. These are promoted as alternatives that spend less and get better results, but that is not so.
Brooke Parker, writing in the Brooklyn community newspaper WG, reports:
“While charter schools receive slightly less per pupil from the city than public schools, the city’s Independent Budget Office concluded that when you factor in that they don’t pay for their use of space, utilities, janitorial services, or school safety agents, charter schools generally spend over $700 more per pupil in public funds each year, and that’s not including the substantial private money they receive. And all those public dollars are spent while charter schools, in general, don’t perform any better than public schools. So much for the idea that charter schools are less wasteful.”
Kicking out experienced teachers and replacing them with freshly minted teachers also doesn’t seem the best strategy for improving classroom performance. But often this is what charter schools do — because they can pay new teachers less than experienced teachers. This is one of the “innovations” adopted from the private sector.
Three sets of billionaires are the primary forces behind charter schools: Microsoft founder Bill Gates, businessman Eli Broad and Wal-Mart heirs the Walton family. Gates become fabulously wealthy through exploiting something he had no hand in creating, the computer, which took off thanks to the government invention of the Internet. Broad first became rich building suburban houses, taking advantage of the many government subsidies that enabled the suburbs. The Waltons benefit from Wal-Mart’s leading role in forcing manufacturers to re-locate to China to meet the company’s standards for low costs.
A Dissent article by Joanne Barkan explained who funds the charter-school movement, then exploded the myth that they perform better:
“Stanford University’s 2009 study of charter schools—the most comprehensive ever done—concluded that 83 percent of them perform either worse or no better than traditional public schools; a 2010 Vanderbilt University study showed definitively that merit pay for teachers does not produce higher test scores for students; a National Research Council report confirmed multiple studies that show standardized test scores do not measure student learning adequately. Gates and Broad helped to shape and fund two of the nation’s most extensive and aggressive school reform programs—in Chicago and New York City—but neither has produced credible improvement in student performance after years of experimentation.”
The rate of poverty, as numerous studies have shown, is the leading indicator of student performance. Gaps in social development and cognitive functions begin before children are old enough to go to school. But to confront the vast inequalities of capitalist societies is verboten — better to blame everything on teachers. And so we come to another component of the corporate charter-school agenda: Judging teachers almost exclusively on standardized tests. Doing so deflects attention from underlying social issues (issues that are much bigger than schools by themselves) and enforces a specific agenda in education: To mold children to be proficient in narrow technical skills without the ability to think originally.
A world of corporate drones. Such a world might be fine for corporate elites wishing for a compliant future workforce, but is no benefit to the students themselves. Teachers in Chicago and elsewhere who push back against heavy reliance on test scores are reasonably protecting themselves against a rigid system that takes no account of social and other issues that are intertwined with student performance, but they are also striking a blow for a more complete, more rounded education — one in which the liberal arts and other topics are employed to teach students how to think rather than imposing a narrow education in which pre-selected answers are simply regurgitated.
It is unconscionable to claim that teachers, or teacher unions, don’t care about students or education. Surely there are scattered individuals who should not be in the classroom — but there is no profession or human endeavor without some people who are poor performers. Such people can be weeded out without tarring entire groups. As Rita Stephanie, the Chicago teacher quoted above, wrote:
“The interests are complex and if the problems of education were easily solved it would have been done already. All morning on the picket line we talked about the problems of poverty. The teachers on my picket line wanted to talk about the big problem of poverty. We still need to teach our babies, but society needs to take responsibility for the problem of poverty.”
Chicago teachers were on the front lines this month: Holding the line against the attacks on public education and the need for a holistic approach on the one hand, and holding the line against the attacks on working people and their ability to earn a good wage and pension on the other hand. A strike, particularly one that is defensive as this one, can’t succeed without significant community support. Even then the odds are often long: industrialists, financiers and the governments over which they have decisive influence possess huge power and a willingness to use it.
There is no choice but to struggle, for there is no other route to a better world. Wars on teachers, wars on women or wars on working people promoted by elite interests should no longer be tolerated. Instead, let’s learn from the experience of the Chicago teachers’ strike to build communities. Democracy is hard work but it is better than bowing and scraping.