The demonizing, restructuring, and privatizing of our present public education system not only in Chicago but across the country, thanks to bipartisan political (corporate-enabling) will (with the powerful engineering of consent of citizens by the corporate media) has more to do with “disaster capitalism” profiteering, racism, and poverty than the unfairly scapegoated role of the American teacher.
The ruthless union-busting/weakening by this bipartisan political will is also foreshadowing across the board/across the nation slashing of work pay, benefits and conditions for all American workers.
Here are some excerpts from various writers and activists about the “big picture” of what the Chicago teachers' struggle actually represents:
Emanuel has fully embraced Friedman’s ideas, taking advantage of the economic crisis to eliminate liberal arts classes, displace hundreds of teachers, weaken teacher health benefits and tenure, and privatize essential services. He’s also demanded teacher evaluations be tied to standardized tests results of students, an idea that hurts poor students as teachers in crowded inner-city schools are forced to narrow curriculum. Instead of planning lessons that teach students to inquire, students will be force-fed facts to be demonstrated on exams. Students will no longer learn, they will memorize.
From day one, the Obama administration joined and has helped co-ordinate the all-out assault on public education. Obama's campaign pockets are flush with contributions from what Glen Ford called the “charter school sugar daddies,” at whose behest he and Arne Duncan...spent their first year and a half in office coercing states to expand charters or lose out on more than $4 billion in federal education moneys. Obama's allies on Wall Street invest heavily in charter schools, tapping into the public money stream to build their own vision of corporate education.”
Obama's Race to the Top program awards federal funds to states and school districts based upon how many teachers they fire or replace with Teach For America or similar temp agencies, how many teacher pensions are eliminated, how many teachers are subjected to evaluation on test scores and other spurious criteria, and how many public schools are replaced with charters. The Eli Broad and Walton Family Foundations, along with the Bill and Melinda Gates and Heritage Foundations actually wrote Race To The Top, and under President Obama and Secretary Arne Duncan, school districts and states have felt themselves obliged to utilize their consultants to help them qualify under its guidelines for federal education funding.
“The teachers’ strike in Chicago is arguably one of the most important labor actions in probably decades. If it does not prevail, you can be certain that the template for the attack on the union will be carried out across the country against other teachers unions and against the last redoubt of union activity, which is in the public sector, of course—firemen and police.”
One teacher who declined to be identified was shouting, “The biggest problem is poverty, and nobody wants to talk about that!”
An SEP supporter broke in to say, “Workers are talking about it all over. It’s the Democratic and Republican Parties that aren’t talking about it. They refuse to talk about it, but it’s the reality teachers are facing, in the classroom and also at home. The Democrats and Republicans want working people to pay for the financial crisis, and teachers have been first on the firing line.”
[Jinny] Gerhardt [special ed teacher] said. “And there is a sense this isn’t just about Chicago. A lot of teachers are also struggling in Wisconsin and New York.
“The 800-pound gorilla in the room is poor kids. CPS doesn’t want to teach them.”
Strening [a music teacher] connected the attack on teachers and other workers to the financial crisis of 2007-08. “When I saw on CNN that with the financial collapse, when bond traders had lost everyone’s money, featured guests on the programs blamed public workers, unions, pensions, then I knew we were in trouble. They were going to blame the public workers for the lost money they had gambled away.”
[Karen] Lewis acknowledged at the press conference after the delegates meeting that the shutdown of schools was the “elephant in the room” and a driving force of teacher opposition.
Public school systems nationwide, starved of funding as a result of the economic crisis, have eliminated more than 300,000 teaching positions since 2008. Obama has responded by tying meager federal funds to the elimination of restraints on charter schools and the implementation of test-based evaluation systems.
In this process, the trade unions—including the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and its parent organization, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT)—have been active participants. Whatever their occasional criticisms of Emanuel and other “reformers,” the unions have collaborated every step of the way. At every point they sacrifice the interests of teachers to maintain their political alliance with the Democratic Party.
This assault on teachers’ job security will allow the city to push out better-paid, more experienced teachers and replace them with ones who are younger, less experienced and lower-paid. Similar motives are behind the administration’s drive to more closely tie teacher evaluations—which are the basis for pay and tenure decisions—to test scores.
The claim that these measures are motivated by a desire to do “what is best for the kids” and to hold teachers “responsible” turns reality on its head. It is the teachers who are seeking to defend the rights of the students and opposing the attack on the public schools being carried out by the so-called “reformers.”
Conditions of poverty and mass unemployment dominate large parts of cities such as Chicago. Over a third of Chicago’s children live in poverty and more than 80 percent qualify for free or subsidized lunches because their families are low-income.
It is the political representatives of the corporate and financial elite and the capitalist profit system who are responsible for these conditions, not the teachers. Over the past three decades, the public education system has been increasingly subordinated to the demands of big business.
CPS is deliberately starving the most troubled schools—generally in the poorest areas—of funds for infrastructure improvement. The Chicago Tribune in December quoted CPS Chief Operating Officer Tim Cawley as stating, “If we think there’s a chance that a building is to be closed in the next five to 10 years, if we think it’s unlikely it’s going to continue to be a school, we’re not going to invest in that building.”
The horrific conditions in major urban centers are the product of the destruction of infrastructure and industry and an offensive against working class living standards going back decades. Now the same ruling class that is responsible for the crisis is utilizing it to justify the destruction of all of the gains previously won by teachers in decades of struggle.
It is not simply a matter of one city. The concern is that if the Chicago teachers are not decisively defeated, teachers throughout the country—and workers in general—will be encouraged to fight back.
Jerry White, SEP presidential candidate:
Every teacher knows what is necessary to improve educational results. Students have to have enough to eat and decent living conditions. Teachers must have adequate resources, reduced class sizes, and up-to-date textbooks and supplies in order to provide a safe and productive learning environment.
Instead the opposite is happening and public education is systematically being gutted. This attack on public education is one of the most telling signs of the failure of the existing social system—capitalism. A system that cannot educate its youth and provide them with decent employment and a secure future deserves to perish.
In the US and around the world, unemployment, poverty and hunger are growing. Rather than carrying out genuine reform policies to alleviate social suffering, governments in every country are using the crisis to impose austerity and destroy the social gains won by the working class over more than a century of struggle. The assault on teachers and public education is part of a social counterrevolution.
This is the vision that Washington now supports, and that the Chicago school board, appointed by current mayor and former Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, endorses: more school closings, more privately managed schools, more testing, merit pay, longer school hours. ....
The Chicago Teachers Union has a different vision: it wants smaller classes, more social workers, air-conditioning in the sweltering buildings where summer school is conducted, and a full curriculum, with teachers of arts and foreign languages in every school. Some schools in Chicago have more than forty students in a class, even in kindergarten. There are 160 schools without libraries; more than 40 percent have no teachers of the arts.
Jerry White, candidate for president from the Socialist Equality Party:
...The issue is not a lack of resources, but the monopolization of society’s wealth by the super-rich and the exclusion of working people from any decision-making over how the wealth that workers create is allocated. The Bush and Obama administrations found trillions to bail out the Wall Street speculators. Trillions more have been squandered on criminal wars to control the oil wealth in the Middle East and Central Asia.
Decent public schools are today incompatible with the continued existence of a system in which social needs are subordinated to private profit and the enrichment of a narrow elite. Basic democratic and social rights in general cannot survive in a society riven by social inequality.
That is why the fight of teachers, parents and students to defend public education is a struggle against the entire economic and political order. A vast redistribution of wealth is required so that hundreds of billions of dollars can be poured into the public schools to hire teachers and provide the necessary resources to raise the intellectual and cultural level of society as a whole.
Phyllis Scheffer, vice-presidential candidate from the Socialist Equality Party:
....“This struggle is the opening salvo against the living standards and social rights of the entire working class. They will not stop at education. The teachers strike must be made into a general struggle against all austerity measures.”
Many teachers spoke about the conditions imposed on them by Chicago Public Schools (CPS), and the hypocrisy of Emanuel's claim that it is the strike—rather than CPS and the attack on public education being carried out by the city—that is hurting children.
“The conditions for students are horrible. In general, there is one counselor for every one thousand students in the schools,” said Allison, an elementary school counselor. “When they close down community agencies like free clinics and mental health agencies, the students are referred to the schools. I have to decide to refer the student to an agency where they have to pay for services or keep them and provide services for them myself. This is a difficult decision since the ratio between counselors and students is already so high.
“In the state of Illinois, it is over 900 students to one counselor. The American School Counselors Association says that there should be a ratio of 1 counselor for every 250 students. We have four times that in Illinois!”
Jill Stein, Green Party presidential candidate:
“Obama and Romney have made it clear that they think our kids don't need a quality education. They expect middle class people to bear the tax burden, and are not willing to make the wealthy pay a fair share, in order to fund our schools. The situation in Chicago is about whether the superrich pay their share, or whether we have underfunded schools.”
....The severe cut backs in funding brought on by the recession have taken a heavy toll on schools throughout the country. In battleground states like Ohio, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Florida, thousands of teachers and other personnel have been laid off, class sizes have risen and critical programs—kindergarten, music, art, afterschool programs etc. have been slashed or even eliminated.
The most important provisions of the contract, according to the information so far available, are:
1) Expansion of test-based evaluation systems used to victimize teachers and blame them for the crisis of public education. The union highlights indicate that 30 percent of evaluations, and perhaps more in future years, will be based on “student growth” (testing). Tenured teachers will have only one year before they can be fired on the basis of these evaluations, while non-tenured teachers will be subject to immediate dismissal.
2) Capitulation to the Emanuel administration on teacher recall. Principals will have the decisive say in hiring teachers. There are provisions to give laid-off teachers preference in rehiring only at schools that take in students from schools that are shut down.
3) No restrictions on the shutdown of public schools, the mass firing of teachers, and the opening up of charter schools. The Emanuel administration has plans to close up to 120 schools over the next five years—one fifth of the entire Chicago Public Schools system—and open up 60 new charters run by for-profit companies.
4) No provisions to address chronic understaffing and deteriorating conditions in the public schools. According to the union, the CPS is committing to hire some nurses, social workers and counselors “if it gets new revenue.”
A wage increase of two to three percent a year over three years, barely keeping up with inflation. Any increase in wages to teachers will be more than balanced by layoffs and school closings, and the extension of the day and year without compensation.
Students and teachers describe the school as a safe haven, a place where, despite a severe lack of resources, teachers offer innovative lessons with real-world context and organize clubs and after-school programs on topics like literature, science, and the environment.
Curie students say they recognize the extra lengths their teachers go to in making sure they get a stimulating, top-flight education even in such trying circumstances. Hence many students and former students have spent the past few days on the picket lines with their teachers and former teachers.
Students describe teachers regularly buying supplies out of their own pockets.
Unions are under attack in the United States—not only from people like Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, but now, with the teachers strike in Chicago, from the very core of President Barack Obama’s inner circle, his former chief of staff and current mayor of that city, Rahm Emanuel. ...
At the heart of the conflict is how schools will be run in Chicago: locally, from the grass roots, with teacher and parent control, or top-down, by a school board appointed by Emanuel.
This struggle reflects the essence of Occupy Wall Street—community members across class, race and other traditional divides uniting in disciplined opposition to corporate power.
It has been largely successful, thanks to the diabolical genius of American racism, which always assumed that the project was aimed at Black and brown communities. The general attitude in 2002 was: break up that blackboard jungle in the inner cities. By all means, experiment on them! African American communities became the wedge through which could be inserted a corporate network of charter schools. Once the charter model reached critical mass in enough localities, President Obama unleashed an unrelenting wave of extortion and bribery that he called Race to the Top, forcing states to vastly expand the new market for charters. Thus reassured that taxpayer-financed education – a potential trillion dollar “market” – would become a Wild West for no-risk investment, Wall Street’s denizens jumped in the game with all four hooved feet.
Monica Davey and Steven Yaccino:
The strike arrived after months of violence in Chicago — homicides are up 30 percent over last year — and in some neighborhoods, families said they worried that a lack of school might bring still more danger. As of Sept. 2, 1,706 shootings had taken place here since the year’s start, a 10 percent increase over the same period in 2011, and much of the violence has been attributed to young gang members. As the strike began, the Chicago police said they were adding to their presence on the streets, and there has not appeared to be a particular increase in violence.
[cross-posted at correntewire and sacramento for democracy]