Bruce Dixon for Black Agenda Report
Back in June of 2009, BAR told the story of activist teachers who sued the Chicago Public Schools to reverse the firings of hundreds of committed, experienced, mostly black and female teachers in dozens of schools and their replacement with less experienced, younger, whiter teachers at lower salaries. This pattern of discriminatory firings and school closings has since been replicated across the country, and is a core element the Obama administration’s education policy. Since then, some of those same teachers have won the leadership of Chicago's 30,000 strong teachers union. Earlier this week, a US District Court judge ruled in their favor.
As Pauline Lippman explains at length elsewhere in this issue of BAR, the bipartisan quest to first undermine, and then to privatize public education has made educational policy a crucial battleground in the struggle for democracy in the U.S. As one of the laboratories for neoliberal school reform, my home town of Chicago owes the nation a profound apology. There, City Hall assumed mayoral control over public schools in the mid 1990s, replacing the professional educators at its helm with a “CEO” and flunkies from the mayor's staff.
A decade earlier under reform mayor Harold Washington, Chicagoans won locally elected parent councils with teacher representation, democratic bodies with veto over principals' contracts and the expenditures of some Title 1 funds. The most economical way around these local democratic institutions, City Hall decided, was to dissolve entire public schools, firing their staffs wholesale and replacing them with charters and other schools not subject to the law, or accountable to parents.
Paul Vallas, who went on to wreck public education in Philadelphia and New Orleans was the first Chicago school “CEO.” Arne Duncan, now the Obama administration’s Secretary of Education, was the second. Duncan closed dozens of schools and summarily fired hundreds of teachers in a “turnaround” strategy that has become national policy under the Obama Administration.
Back in June of 2009, BAR told the story of activist teachers who sued the Chicago Public Schools for racial discrimination in the firings of hundreds of committed, experienced teachers, most of them black and female, who were replaced by younger, less experienced and mostly white teachers. Since then, the years of resistance to undemocratic “reform” by Chicago's teachers, parents and communities has borne tangible fruit.
This summer some of the teachers involved in the lawsuit were elected to lead the city's 30,000 member Chicago Teachers Union. And this week, a US District Court judge ruled on their discrimination lawsuit, giving the Chicago Public Schools 30 days to come up with a plan to recall the unjustly fired teachers.
BAR talked to Karen Lewis, a high school chemistry teacher and CTU president. We asked her what the significance of Monday's court decision on their case meant.
“It means school districts cannot ignore the law. It means they can't illegally fire tenured teachers. Tenure, by the way, is not a guaranteed job. It's a guarantee of due process. Tenure just means you can't arbitrarily dismiss teachers because you don't like them and you'd rather hire your friends. So the court is just saying that teachers deserve due process, like employees on any job do.”
CTU's Media Coordinator Liz Brown also had some opinions on the outcome of the lawsuit.
“It should embolden other teachers unions, other communities to stand firm when confronted with this kind of practice. These discriminatory firings also point to the failure of mayoral control.'
This summer's victory of rank and file teachers, closely allied with parents in neighborhoods across the city, in assuming leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union
“Our victory in Chicago shows that if you work at making alliances with parents and communities you end up having a much stronger position. We were one of the few teachers unions that did not give some of the last round of concessions demanded of us. CPS (Chicago Public Schools) raided our pension to the tune of $1.2 billion, and when they were awarded an additional $110 million they turned around to insist that we give back $100 million in raises they'd negotiated earlier... We were able to resist, able to stand fast because of those alliances...”
Chicago's insurgent teachers, some of whom now lead their union, spent years forging deep ties with parent and community groups around the city. Parents, students and communities who resisted dozens of school closings and hundreds of acts of petty despotism on the part of City Hall stooges now have a powerful institutional ally in CTU. This is a lesson that teachers, parents and communities around the country can learn.
Last week saw the premiere of the pro-privatization propaganda film “Waiting For Superman.”
We couldn't resist asking CTU's Lewis her opinion of “Waiting For Superman.”
“It's extremely simplistic. It leaves a lot out.. It tells a story of this amazing school but leaves out the fact that the operator of that school gets $17 million a year in outside private funding to make it all happen. That's $100 million in only a few years to make a showcase out of a single school, $100 million from people who have a stake in the charter school industry nationwide. Many of the same folks were involved in financing this movie.
“Waiting For Superman also doesn't tell us that 80% of charter schools don't do any better than comparable public schools, if you use standardized tests as your measure. We need to take a really honest look at education, at problems and solutions. This movie just doesn't help us do that.”
CTU's Lewis isn't alone in her criticism of Waiting For Superman. The educators around Rethinking Schools responded to Waiting For Superman by spinning off a new site at www.notwaitingforsuperman.org
Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor of Black Agenda Report, and based in Marietta GA. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.