One thing you never hear in the education debate, dominated by those persistently shrieking that schools “are in crisis,” is an appeal to the actual data surrounding school performance. The statistics are pretty clear that American students have exceeded their performance over a 30-year period, and that’s true if you control for various populations, both white, Hispanic and African-American. It also happens to be true for the city of Chicago. Students have gradually, maybe slowly, performed better, based on the Trial Urban District Assessment, a gauge of student learning in urban school districts. Chicago students in reading and math are performing a bit better. This fits with the 35-year trend of American students performing better. And it’s based on the best available data.
None of this is to say that Chicago schools are a paragon of virtue. To the extent that there are problems, it appears clear that they have to do with resources. The schools in the lowest-income areas have no air conditioning. Roofs leak. The cafeteria is full of roaches. Mold sits in the ventilation systems. Kids don’t get textbooks for weeks. Administrators pack classrooms with 40 and 50 students at a time. These are pretty obvious and solvable problems.
CPS schools across the district have been begging for basic repairs and fundamentally urgent repairs for decades while the city builds brand-new, state-of-the-art facilities elsewhere. While CPS claims to use a facility repair rating system to help it prioritize the facility needs of the nearly 700 buildings it owns, students, teachers, principals and parents know all too well that their needs — some involving dangerous health hazards — get ignored year after year.
This practice has been solidified with the new CPS administration. Chief Operating Officer Tim Cawley stated twice — once at a Facilities Task Force hearing and once to the press — that CPS will not invest in schools it expects to close in 5 or 10 years.
Worse, there’s apparently money in the system to make these repairs, in the form of TIFs or Tax Increment Financing, that have been re-routed to pet projects, including a Hyatt Hotel and the Chicago Board of Trade.
The corporate-funded “education reform” movement, however, neglects these demonstrable problems. They prefer to describe American education, and in this case Chicago education, as in a state of perpetual crisis (You would think that, regarding Chicago, they would blame the guy in charge of the city’s public schools from 2001 to 2009, current Education Secretary and reform movement leader Arne Duncan). They use this assumption of a crisis, picked up by the media and prominent politicians, as a pretext to enact wide-ranging interventions into schools that may just need a solid roof, no lead in the paint and some relief from the heat. They want to overhaul so-called “failing schools,” and hand them over to entities which don’t run them any better but which make a lot of money for investors and for-profit vendors.
This is a very good overview of the Chicago Teachers Union strike, and this serves as a marker for what Chicago teachers want out of their schools. It’s about a teachers union that finally said no to the rightward drift of education policy, led by a new mayor committed to the corporate-led reform agenda. The issues of student testing evaluations and the like are the means to the end of the ultimate privatization of the education system. When you look at assessment that doesn’t incorporate the standardized tests, you see that the schools have progressed, with student achievement on the rise. But that would be deeply harmful to the corporate-led reform agenda.
Rick Perlstein has a more personal rendering of how one mayor pushed the union too far.
Since Rahm Emanuel’s election in the spring of 2011, Chicago’s teachers have been asked to eat shit by a mayor obsessed with displaying to the universe his “toughness” — toughness with the working-class people that make the city tick; toughness with the protesters standing up to say “no”; but never, ever toughness with the vested interests, including anti-union charter school advocates, who poured $12 million into his coffers to elect him mayor (his closet competitor raised $2.5 million). The roots of the strike began when Emanuel announced his signature education initiative: extending Chicago’s school day. Overwhelmingly, Chicago’s teachers support lengthening the day, which is the shortest of any major district in the country. Just not the way Rahm wanted to ram it down their throats: 20 percent more work; 2 percent more pay.
He had already canceled a previously negotiated 4 percent cost-of-living raise, and accused teachers who balked of not caring about their students. The teachers’ response to this abuse is something all of us should be paying attention to. If Chapter 1 of the American people’s modern grass-roots fight against the plutocracy was the demonstrations at the Wisconsin State Capitol in the spring of 2011, and Chapter 2 was the Occupy encampments of that summer, the Chicago Teachers Union’s stand against Emanuel should go down as Chapter 3. It’s been inspiration to anyone frustrated that people have forgotten how good it feels to stand up to bullies — and how effective it can be.
Emanuel said specifically to Karen Lewis, head of the CTU, that “25 percent of the students in this city are never going to be anything, never going to amount to anything and he was never going to throw money at them.” That’s at the heart of this dispute. And you can apply that kind of logic to the middle class, if the aggression of anti-union forces around the country are allowed to go forward unchecked.