A struggle for education justice in Chicago

March 13, 2012

Lee Sustar looks at the looming confrontation between the Chicago Teachers Union and Mayor Rahm Emanuel--and what forms the fight will take.

THE COMING battle between the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel will have a national impact, and it will be fought over the issues of race, class and social justice--or as Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. put it, "educational apartheid."

Jackson used that phrase at the Chicago Board of Education's February 22 meeting, where the unelected body voted unanimously to close or "turn around" 17 schools--all in African American and Latino neighborhoods.

During nearly two hours of heartfelt testimony by parents, students and teachers, board members like former Northwestern University President Henry Beinen and billionaire Penny Pritzker checked their smartphones and barely bothered to conceal their disdain. But earlier, when Jackson spoke, they looked up, eyes a bit wider than usual.

The situation of African Americans in Chicago schools, Jackson said, recalled that of Little Rock, Ark., in 1957--a reference to the segregated system that the state's racist governor refused to do anything about, in defiance of a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, until he was forced to do so by federal troops. "It's a type of segregation when, within the same school system, you have an upper tier and a lower tier," Jackson said.

Parents, students, community groups and teachers and occupiers protest school closures and turnarounds in Chicago
Parents, students, community groups and teachers and occupiers protest school closures and turnarounds in Chicago

Speaking to reporters after his comments to the board, Jackson said: "There is no balance to make the system democratic. There's no one here fighting for kids and [for] all of them to have the same things other kids have north of North Avenue [on the predominately white North Side]. [There are] 160 schools without a library, 140 south of North Avenue. That's apartheid."

Jackson sounded similar themes three days later at a meeting of his Rainbow/PUSH organization with CTU members three days later. "What we need is an elected school board," Jackson said, concluding: "It's time to march! It's time to save our schools! It's time to save our teachers!"

JACKSON'S INTERVENTION at the school board meeting--the first that veteran journalists could remember since the mid-1990s--followed nearly three months of activism by parents, teachers and community groups at the schools targeted for closure or turnaround. And the facts back up Jackson's characterization of Chicago schools as akin to apartheid. As a new report by the CTU points out:

CPS schools operate in an environment of intense segregation, a culmination of decades of racist public policies and market forces that have segregated Chicago's communities and neighborhoods. Within CPS, 69 percent of all African American students (and 42 percent of Latinos) go to schools that are "intensely segregated"--schools that have more than 90 percent of their student body composed of the same ethnicity. Chicago Public Schools remains one of the urban school systems that [is] "only a few percentage points from an experience of total apartheid."

After her remarks at the February 22 school board meeting, CTU President Karen Lewis said that the struggle would continue to unfold over the issues of race and class. "The struggle around school closings is a struggle around a deeply segregated, deeply impoverished community, and what kind of schools we want for our children," she said.

Lewis also challenged the idea that the nonprofit group that will run six of the 10 "turnaround" schools, the politically connected Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL), provides genuine educational progress. AUSL--which begins its takeovers by firing a school's entire faculty and forcing them to reapply for their jobs--claims to have boosted test scores. But this is only over a three-month period, Lewis pointed out.

What's needed, Lewis said, is for CPS to provide struggling schools with the resources that AUSL typically gets from the board. AUSL "gets more funding, they get more resources, they have extra people in classrooms, they have social services that are provided."

The same themes of educational justice were sounded at a March 10 CTU activists' meeting of 600 union members, said one untenured teacher who participated in the meeting. "Race and class were key issues," she said. "It centered on what's happening to our class--especially African Americans and Latinos--as well as education."

In a plenary speech, CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey said that the union had to fight for working people and their children across the city. "Without a union, we wouldn't have a decent standard of living for educators in this city," Sharkey said. "We have a responsibility to our co-workers and the children of the city of Chicago to lead, to organize to get somewhere, to be effective and unite against banks and politicians."

An untenured young teacher from a South Side high school said the meeting gave those newer to union activism the orientation they need. "I felt like we really got a chance to roll up our sleeves, talk about some of the problems in our schools and begin discussing how to fight back against the way the board and CPS policies are destroying our schools," she said." One thing is for sure--I left the training with a whole lots more confidence."

THE DETERMINED mood of Chicago teachers--and the CTU's alliance with key African American and Latino community organizations--hasn't gone unnoticed by Chicago politicians and bureaucrats. Jean-Claude Brizard, CEO of Chicago Public Schools (CPS), felt compelled to respond to the charge of "educational apartheid" at an appearance at an African American church.

"Ninety percent of our kids are Black and brown," Brizard said. "Ninety percent of our resources go to children who are Black and brown. How can that be 'educational apartheid?'" Brizard, however, avoided Jackson's point that resources went disproportionately to selective enrollment schools at which students of color are grossly neglected.

As a Haitian American and career education professional, Brizard's style differs from that of the political hacks who preceded him as boss of Chicago schools. But as a graduate of the Broad Institute's corporate school reform training camp, Brizard is just as ideologically committed to gutting public education as Emanuel.

In a recent speech at the Economic Club of Chicago, Brizard went so far as to say that CPS money should follow children who transfer to parochial schools. "It doesn't make sense [that] our parents pay taxes and then pay tuition [for their children] to go to [private] school as well," said Brizard, sounding the same arguments that conservative advocates of school vouchers have made for decades.

Thus, the head of the third-largest school district in the country, which is already reeling from budget cuts and facing a claimed $712 million budget deficit, advocates funneling yet more money away from the public school system, in addition to the millions CPS spends on charter schools.

While Brizard serves as Emanuel's front man, the mayor's political apparatus is spreading cash around to try to create the image of popular support for corporate school reform. But the subterfuge was exposed when CTU officials brought the media's attention to the fact that a consulting company closely aligned with Emanuel passed money to preachers who, in turn, paid protesters to demonstrate in favor of closing schools.

The paid-protester scandal highlighted Emanuel's effort to paint the CTU's agenda as putting the interests of greedy teachers ahead of needy kids. The CTU has pushed back by allying with community groups and linking its fight to economic justice for working people--an effort that began years ago when the union's current top officers were getting organized as members of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE).

In recent weeks, this long-term effort has paid off as CTU has changed the terms of debate over the schools and their future. Activism around issues of educational justice came from many places, from the Black and Latino parents who occupied Brian Piccolo Specialty School in an effort to keep it open, to veteran African American activists such as Jitu Brown of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO) on Chicago's South Side.

As a member of the local school council at Dyett High School, one of the schools slated for closure, Brown and other community members and parents had worked with teachers and school administrators to raise test scores in recent years. But despite those improvements, Dyett is set to be phased out anyway--because it is in a neighborhood that's attracting real estate developers, Brown said:

These are transitional schools as they continue to push us out of the neighborhood. A common denominator in every reform that CPS has done since 1995 has been that they locked the voices of parents and the community out.

We tie it to a gentrification agenda. We tie it to a racist agenda. We feel like the voices of parents and the people most directly impacted are not respected. Another common denominator in these reforms is that they have not worked. And so parents learn that when CPS talks, it's doublespeak. They are not speaking in the genuine interest of the child.

Brown and other members of the Dyett Local School Council tried to block the CPS actions in state court, but a judge dismissed the lawsuit. Nevertheless, the group is pressing ahead with a federal lawsuit that will highlight racial disparities in Chicago schools, said attorney Thomas Geoghegan. The veteran lawyer joined with Brown, Dyett students and parent activists at a spirited March 12 press conference outside the CPS building in downtown Chicago.

THE ATTACK on the CTU isn't unique, of course. In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg pushed through plans last month to close 33 schools, firing all the teachers and forcing them to re-apply for their jobs.

The United Federation of Teachers has opposed that policy, but the union hasn't tried to use negotiations for a long overdue contract as leverage over the issue. Instead, it prefers to wait until Bloomberg's term expires at the end of 2013 before making a deal. Public-sector union strikes are illegal in New York state, raising the stakes of any such struggle.

On the other side of the country, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) did win a moratorium on the creation of new charter schools. But there are strings attached: Teachers at each school will face pressure to make separate collective bargaining agreements that will be more "flexible" than the traditional contract--ultimately weakening the union. Moreover, the new leaders of UTLA have also let their contract expire while being hit with the latest in a series of demands for more unpaid furlough days to reduce the number of planned layoffs.

In Chicago, a strike looks all but inevitable, given the aggressive demands of Emanuel--who, as White House chief of staff before he became mayor, was instrumental in formulating the federal Race to the Top education program that dangled $4.3 billion in front of budget-strapped states if they pushed through legislation that weakened teacher tenure, imposed harsh evaluation systems and removed obstacles to the creation of charter schools.

With former Chicago schools CEO Arne Duncan serving as Obama's education secretary, the national implications of this conflict couldn't be clearer.

On the union's side, members' expectations have been raised by CTU leaders who in 2010 won election to the union's top offices on the CORE slate with a promise to fight back.

The buildup to a possible strike is complicated by a state law, known as SB 7, passed last year that restricts Chicago teachers' right to strike. One hurdle: 75 percent of all union members must vote for a strike for it to be valid. Then come various requirements for mediation and arbitration before a strike can legally take place.

Another hurdle is the state's 1995 "school reform" law that narrows collective bargaining to essentially wages and benefits. Issues like class size and job security are formally off the table--unless the union can exert enough leverage to force a deal on those issues. The same is true of a proposed evaluation system--again imposed by state law--that would tie teachers' job performance to student test scores.

Then there's the longer school day for Chicago, another mandate by state law. CPS has already declared that the current five-hour-and-45-minute day for elementary schools will shift to a seven-and-a-half-hour day in the coming school year--even as the board claims that there's no money for teachers' raises after cancelling the contractually negotiated 4 percent pay boost due last year.

No studies prove that this dramatically longer day will boost test scores, and a growing number of parent groups point out that such a longer day without an enriched curriculum will exhaust kids, not educate them.

For its part, the CTU has stated its willingness to have a longer school day if teachers are fairly compensated, and the curriculum is fully funded and enriched with music, art and physical education.

But the miserly pay increases proposed by CPS at the bargaining table wouldn't even keep pace with inflation, much less pay teachers adequately for additional hours on the job.

GIVEN THIS hard-line stance from CPS, the school board and Emanuel, the CTU will likely have few problems in getting the necessary votes to authorize a strike. Moreover, CPS negotiators have agreed with the union's timeline for negotiations and a strike deadline, an indication that Emanuel not only is getting prepared for teachers to hit the picket line, but may actually want them there.

What would a CTU strike look like? Recent experience shows that Emanuel is likely to use every legal and political means available to try to break the union.

In Los Angeles, the school district responded to plans for a one-day teachers' strike in May 2009 by obtaining a judge's temporary restraining order that would have stripped teachers of their teaching credentials and imposed fines of $1,000 on every striking teacher, along with a crippling penalty on the union of at least $20 million. The union called off the strike.

While such a draconian order probably wouldn't have stood up in court, it was indicative of the increasingly harsh attack on public-sector unions in recent years. If Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker felt confident enough to strip public-sector unions of their collective bargaining rights and eliminate automatic collection of union dues, it's because he could follow the example of an anti-union judge in New York City who in 2005 hit the union of striking bus and subway workers with a $2.5 million fine, eliminated employer collection of union dues and, long after the strike, briefly jailed the union's president.

CPS and Emanuel can be expected to launch a similar attack if the CTU strikes. Predictable City Hall press releases will show up as front-page headlines in the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times: "Teachers hold city's kids hostage" and "Teachers put paychecks first, kids last." Photos will show long lines of parents trying to enroll their kids in charter schools. And there will be no shortage of judges ready to order teachers back to work, or face fines and jail.

At the same time, the potential for labor solidarity is enormous. The outpouring seen in the Wisconsin labor uprising and the big union turnouts for Occupy protests in New York City and across the U.S. reflect a growing anger over class inequality and business domination of politics. That solidarity can be more powerful than any judge's fines or jail sentences, and it will have to be.

Chicago will be the test of whether the escalating drive to break public-sector unions will succeed--or whether labor can draw the line.

Nevertheless, some key union leaders can be expected to try to pressure the CTU to moderate its demands. Chief among them is American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, whose strategy is to embrace demands for merit pay and harsh teacher evaluation systems in order to preserve "partnership" with school districts and politicians. Locally, the Chicago Federation of Labor, faced with a general anti-labor onslaught by Emanuel, has sought to avoid conflict with the mayor in the dim hope of reviving labor's old political relationships with the Democratic Party machine and City Hall.

That's why the CTU's efforts to reach out to parents, community organizations and working people generally are so important. By establishing grassroots solidarity committees around schools, the union has prepared the ground for the inevitable clash with Emanuel. And by leading the fight for fully funded, quality schools with equal opportunity for all, the CTU has put itself in the midst of a key civil right struggle of our time: the defense of public education.

Every union member--and everyone who stands for social justice--should be prepared support the CTU in this crucial fight.

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