The Perfect Education Storm in Chicago
There is a perfect storm brewing in Chicago. But, unlike the book (The Perfect Storm, Junger, S. 1997) of the same name in which three storms converge to kill fishermen off of the coast of New England, this storm is the convergence of over three decades of the anti-union, the anti-teacher, and the anti-public education agenda in the US. There are also three well-known players in this storm that could spell the end of the race to the bottom in US educational policy. First, there is the mayor of the city of Chicago, President Obama’s former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel; next, there is Education Secretary Arne Duncan; and finally, there is President Obama.
Of course, these three players don’t take into consideration the actual main players of the Chicago teachers’ strike: the children who attend Chicago Schools, the people of Chicago, and the teachers. According to Professor of Education Pauline Lipman (Democracy Now, September 10, 2012), the forces for a pushback against the corporate agenda of privatizing public schools in the US are meeting their match in the heroic teachers’ union in Chicago that refuses to give in to this juggernaut of school privatization of the past three decades.
The triumvirate for privatization of public schooling in the US, noted above, has worked tirelessly to attack public schools, taking on the mantle of George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind program, an educational policy that fast-tracked the growth of charter schools across the country and introduced the nation to high-stakes student testing that is now being used as a mechanism to reward teachers whose students do well on the unending series of standardized tests administered over the course of a school year. Both Duncan and Emanuel are old hands at the charter school charade. Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s boss has pitted school system against school system across the nation with his Race to the Top initiative that rewards school systems that create ever-more intricate programs to test students to death!
Politics aside, however, there is an even more insidious invisible hand at play in education policy in the US. Teachers and the unions that represent them have become the national whipping boys in the race to the bottom of the income barrel! I posted a comment in response to the article “Teachers’ Strike in Chicago Tests Mayor and Union” (The New York Times, September 10, 2012), in support of striking teachers and against the charter school movement that saps tax funds from public schools. Since I have 38 years of experience in education, I thought that my words might strike a positive chord among some of the Times readers. When I returned to the Times article in the evening, I was stunned by the incredibly negative and hostile responses to my support for the Chicago teachers. Reading other comments, I was astonished at the hateful anti-teacher and anti-union sentiments that accompanied the piece.
It’s not difficult to understand why Times readers expressed so much animosity regarding the issue of the Chicago teachers’ strike. After over three decades of lost wages and benefits to workers in the US, and despite increasing worker productivity during that same period, legions of people in this country want those around them to be in as bad an economic condition as they are. As long as we’re all in some undetermined circle of Dante’s hell, we may as well have company! If I’ve got to work longer for less money, then why shouldn’t teachers experience the same situation? If I’ve got to contribute more for my health-care plan, then why shouldn’t teachers be forced to fork over more of their weekly paycheck? If my job is sent overseas and I’m forced to retrain for a lesser position, then why should teachers complain when charter schools eliminate their jobs? The logic of this argument is undeniable!
Chicago may be the last stand of teachers in the US in their battle to maintain some hold on dignity while attempting to provide positive educational experiences for their students. But, like the wagon trains of old, there are very, very powerful forces of privatization and corporatism at play here and it will take the most effective of defense strategies to circle the wagons against this onslaught. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney, no stranger to outsourcing and eliminating jobs told Fox News: “Obama has chosen his side in this fight,”(“Chicago Public Schools offer 16-percent raise to teachers seeking 35-percent hike,” Fox News, September 11, 2012). Notice that Romney does not even accurately portray on what side the President is weighing in on behalf of, or show any support whatsoever for the students or the teachers of Chicago.
Schools are where students meet the human side of government. Teachers don’t teach to get rich, they teach because they believe that their work has a humane purpose and a desirable end by providing for a fulfilling life for their students. In Chicago, the lack of art teachers, music teachers, counselors, social workers, and library facilities speak clearly to how political leaders view the role of public education in a representative democracy. Following World War II, schools across this nation provided the impetus for an unprecedented expansion of the middle class and the working class. With a globalized economy, that expansion came to an end and the total war on public schools, public school teachers, and the unions that represent teachers began.
If figures for FY 2006 ($37.6 billion in federal funds going to K-12 programs across the country) noted by the US Department of Education can be used as an example, then the high stakes for those who wish to privatize schools can be seen for what it is: a bald-face attempt to rip off students in the US!
Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer.