The Perfect Education Storm in Chicago

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.


A Walk on the Moon

A Walk on the Moon* Published in Intrepid Report September 5, 2012

In the 1999 film A Walk on the Moon, set in a Catskills, New York bungalow colony in the summer of 1969, the characters Pearl and Walker develop a relationship over the course of that momentous summer that saw the Woodstock music festival staged in nearby Bethel and the iconic actual walk on the moon by Neil Armstrong just weeks earlier on July 20. Pearl and Walker make love for the first time in Walker’s RV/retail “blouse shop” while an unwatched portable TV documents the first steps that Armstrong took on the lunar surface.

Like the day John Kennedy was shot and the attack on the World Trade Center, the day and date of Armstrong’s historic walk are etched indelibly in the minds of those who lived through that tumultuous era!

Last night, reading of Neil Armstrong’s death (August 25), I was immediately catapulted in my mind from the exquisite moonlit night in the Southern Berkshires of Massachusetts to a similar summer night so long ago in the rolling hills that meets the coastal plain in northeastern Connecticut.

I had just graduated from college and took a temporary summer job as a counselor at a school and camp in Connecticut that served a co-ed population of special needs children from the area. The school and campgrounds were unspoiled forested land dotted by two lakes. A farm was located just beside the first, smaller lake on the property. Boys at the camp lived in cottages just off of a baseball field, while the girls and their counselors lived in a dormitory on the other side of the baseball diamond that also served as the school and cafeteria.

Counselors paired off within days of the beginning of the camping season. I had arrived a few days late and became friends with a person who was a student at Mount Holyoke College in Western Massachusetts. The counselors often met as a group after the workday was finished and listened to rock and folk music in a lounge on the second floor of the dormitory.

The camp counselors were an irreverent group. We looked out for the best interests of the kids we worked with and wore armbands in protest when the quality and the monotony of the cafeteria food became apparent.

Nearly everyone was gathered around the TV set in a second lounge of the dormitory on the evening of the moon landing. My friend and I chose to ignore the historic event and took a moonlight walk to the nearer of the two lakes on the school’s property. We set a blanket out and chatted amicably while the lunar module descended down to the moon’s surface and Armstrong took the first steps down the ladder from the module and set foot on the thick dust of the moon.

Ignoring the event, from my perspective, fit into the political ethos of the 1960s. I believed that the space program had close ties to the military and I had long since become a critic of the military, the government, and its conduct of the Vietnam War. Astronauts were seasoned military veterans and often had taken part in sorties, the consequences of which seemed apparent, especially from the lens of the Vietnam era. I also believed that the space program was a monumental waste of resources that could have been spent on tangible scientific research here on Earth, funding schools, and eradicating the poverty that plagued millions of people throughout the US. When I asked my wife Jan what she did on the night of the landing, she said she also had avoided it because “I thought they were spending too much money on the space program…I thought that there were better ways to spend money.” I imagine that there were many who felt the same way on that night.

Recently released recordings from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library document a conversation between Kennedy, the top administrator at NASA, and Vice President Lyndon Johnson on the space race. The topic being discussed was the importance, according to Kennedy, of the race to get to the moon between the US and the Soviet Union. In unmistakable Cold War rhetoric, Kennedy addresses NASA Administrator James Webb. “This is important for political reasons, international political reasons. This is, whether we like it or not, an intensive race.” (“The Cold War Push Behind Neil Armstrong’s ‘One Small Step,’” Andrew c. Revkin, The New York Times, August 15, 2012.)

And so many years later, and after a significant cost in US treasure, Neil Armstrong stepped out onto the lunar surface followed by his co-pilot Col. Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin, Jr. Apollo 11 had done what it had been intended to do. And forty-three years later I stood in the silence of the forest looking up at the half waxing moon shrouded in mist. Now I can recognize that it took an enormous store of raw guts to mount the top of that Saturn V rocket at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and blastoff on that immense package of scientific know-how and land four days later at a distance some 238,855 miles away. I don’t think we have moved one iota away from the waste of resources on war and economic hegemony from those days so long ago, but there’s something so irresistible of the photographs and film from that mission of the Earth rising above the lunar horizon in all of its blue and cloudy majesty. It’s a view that long ago needed to chasten us as a nation to begin to make things right on this vulnerable and beautiful spot in the cosmic landscape.

A Walk on the Moon, (Directed by Tony Goldwyn, 1999).

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer.