Racial justice and the teachers' strike

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor looks at the role of the Chicago teachers' strike in the ongoing struggle for education and racial justice.

Teachers and parents picket outside a Chicago Board of Education meetingTeachers and parents picket outside a Chicago Board of Education meeting

WERE BLACK students the real losers in the recent Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strike?

Local African American activist and commentator Phillip Jackson of the Black Star Project makes the claim in a recent article published on the group's website. Jackson writes of the strike:

What is different for Black Chicago children two weeks after a grueling, internationally watched, hard-fought strike than two weeks before the strike? By most accounts, Black children will go back to the same schools they attended before the strike with few difference-making improvements...There is an old African proverb: When elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled. When big cities and school boards fight with teachers' unions, it is the children who get trampled!

Jackson cites a litany of damning statistics detailing the vast educational and social injustice African Americans face in Chicago as evidence that the teachers' strike did nothing to advance the struggle against racism. For example, Jackson points out that only 39 percent of Black male teens graduate from Chicago Public Schools; 54 percent of Black men in Chicago are not working; and in Illinois, twice as many African American men were in prison than in college.

These injustices represent only the very tip of the iceberg when it comes to racism and inequality in Chicago and the state of Illinois.

But it was precisely these conditions of poverty, racism and inequality that the Chicago Teachers Union placed at the center of its strike against Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Of course, Emanuel and his billionaire cronies worked hard, with the passage of Senate Bill 7 last year, to further narrow and restrict what issues Chicago teachers could formally strike over. Thus, it was easy for the media to portray the teachers were only striking over wages and job security.

But for anyone paying attention, the CTU strike has done more to highlight the racial and economic injustice at the heart of education in urban school districts than any event in at least a generation.

The handmade signs of teachers, parents and students have educated the nation and the world about the abysmal conditions in Chicago Public Schools. It is now common knowledge in Chicago and around the country that 86 percent of CPS students are low-income. It is now common knowledge that in June, while school is still in session, students swelter during 90 degree-plus days in classrooms without air conditioning.

It is now known that CPS students went up to six weeks into the school year without textbooks--this is one of the issues where the union won a promise of change in their new contract. The supposed common sense logic of evaluating teachers based on the performance of their students on standardized tests--while ignoring larger social factors like violence and poverty--has been forever punctured.

Because of the strike action taken by the CTU, a long overdue discussion connecting race, poverty, standardized tests and inequality in the system of public education in Chicago and beyond has intensified.

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THIS WAS not by accident--it was by design.

The new leadership of the CTU, which took office after a sweeping election win in 2010, is made up of former classroom teacher-activists who formed the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) to organize for a fighting union. And from long before CORE won union office, its members participated in the struggle against public school closings and the conversion of public schools into privately controlled charter schools.

Because Chicago public school students are more than 90 percent students of color and almost 90 percent poor, the fight against school closures inevitably raised issues of racism and class inequality.

Chicago is the most segregated city in the U.S. and its schools are wracked by inequality. According to government statistics, the child poverty rate is over 30 percent, yet 87 percent of students in CPS come from low-income families. A 2010 study on public education in Chicago identified 46 "truly disadvantaged" schools in Chicago, in which the students come from families with a median annual income under $10,000, 99 percent are African American, and almost 25 percent have substantiated claims of abuse or neglect filed with a city agency.

The CTU underlined all this when they declared "education apartheid" as a key issue facing CPS in the union's report titled "The Schools Chicago's Students Deserve." On the other hand, CPS chief Jean-Claude Brizard rejects the idea that racial and economic inequality are part of the crisis in CPS schools. "No one can say that money is the solution," Brizard said at a forum at a South Side church last winter. "These schools have been resourced appropriately. We have not gotten a return on the investment. Our kids are not getting what they need."

But in the real world, money always matters. For example, in the wealthy suburbs north of the city, the Niles Township school system spent $22,500 per student in total operational expenses, according to a news report late last year. In Chicago, the comparable figure was $13,080 for the same time period.

Even within CPS, the minority of white students who still attend public schools are showered with resources and money compared to the Black and Brown student majority.

White students are only 8.8 percent of the district, but they make up 25 percent of students in the system's exclusive selective enrollment and magnet schools. A disproportionate number of these schools are located on the largely white North Side of Chicago--and new enrollment rules at some schools requiring more spots for neighborhood children will ensure that white students have even more access.

When it comes to money, the selective enrollment schools get a wildly disproportionate share of funds from the Tax Increment Financing (TIF) system. City revenue designated as TIF funds are supposed to be directed to development projects in poor neighborhoods, but the TIF system has functioned as what Chicago Reader journalist Ben Joravsky called a "slush fund" for Mayor Richard Daley and now Emanuel to funnel money to their wealthy allies and donors.

That's clearly true about TIF money within CPS. According to a report by a Roosevelt University professor, though selective enrollment schools have only 1 percent of CPS students, they received 24 percent of TIF money that went into construction and repair projects. Schools described as "heavily white" got 23 percent of TIF money, even though fewer than 9 percent of CPS students are white.

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THE SUCCESS of the CTU in making connections to the wider issues of racism and inequality has to be measured, at least in part, by the wide support expressed for the strike.

While the local and national media focused on how parents would find child care during the strike, CPS parents themselves overwhelmingly supported the teachers' union. This was established early on when a local news poll found that parents trusted the CTU over the mayor on education issues by an almost two-to-one margin.

The support actually went up during the strike. A poll from one news website found that fully 66 percent of parents with kids in CPS supported the strike, compared to 31 percent who were opposed--an even bigger majority in favor of teachers than among all city residents. Support was equally strong in communities of color in general--some 63 percent of African Americans and 65 percent of Latinos supported the CTU.

Bruce Rauner, the billionaire venture capitalist, charter school advocate and close adviser to Rahm Emanuel, claimed that the CTU waged a "mass campaign of misinformation," but the only way to explain the overwhelming support for the teachers is that parents know far better than a white billionaire the conditions of their children's schools--and they saw the CTU as attempting to do something about this.

Again, this didn't happen by accident. The CTU developed relationships in neighborhoods around the city, for example, by partnering with community organizations like Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO) to protest school closings on the South and West Side--not in the heat of the strike, but both before and after the CORE activists won the leadership of the union. This past winter, CTU members joined with KOCO and other activists for demonstrations at Board of Education meetings where 17 school closures or "turnarounds" were rammed through.

It's also important not to reduce the gains of the strike to merely how it highlighted inequality in public education, as important as that is. The CTU's fight for decent pay raises and job security on the one hand and opposition to merit pay and evaluations linked to standardized tests on the other are critical in the struggle over the future and quality of public education, in a city where the vast majority of students are Black or Latino.

The corporate education "deformers" want to end tenure and job security to pave the way for cheap, inexperienced teachers who are more affordable in the new era of austerity budgets and diminished public services and public welfare. But given the range of social issues confronting most CPS students, wouldn't they benefit most from experienced educators?

The CTU's fight for job security in the form of teacher recall is a way of insuring that the most experienced teachers are kept in schools, and not sidelined because they cost too much. This is also a way of fighting the disproportionate layoff of Black teachers, who are overrepresented in the schools most likely to face closure or "turnaround"--in which the entire staff is fired.

As of 2000, according to state data, 40 percent of teachers in the CPS system were African American. Today, CPS states that less than 30 percent of teachers are Black. Black teachers have borne the brunt of layoffs because they are more likely to be in low-performing schools with predominately low-income or poor Black students. Thus, in the round of school closings last winter, 65 percent of the teachers in the schools closed or turned around were African American.

The union's fight against merit pay goes hand in hand with keeping good, experienced teachers in the schools that get the fewest resources. If teacher pay and job security are linked to the performance of their students on standardized tests, why would any teacher ever willingly go to the poorest and most resource starved schools in the district? Merit pay would simply institutionalize the trend of the least experienced--and therefore least well-compensated--teachers cycling through the poorest schools.

Likewise, the CTU was absolutely right against linking teacher evaluations to student performance on standardized tests. It is widely accepted that standardized tests do not measure intellect or learning ability; instead, they are indicators of access to resources and markers of class status. Under the system of tying evaluation to testing pushed by Emanuel and the city, teachers who take on the challenge of teaching in under-resourced schools would be punished for doing so.

Then there's the way that the frenzy for standardized testing has reshaped the curriculum and the school day around preparing for tests, rather than promoting creativity and critical thinking in the classroom for teachers and students. This distortion of classroom priorities is all the more pronounced in poor and predominantly Black and Latino schools whose fate--whether they stay open or are shut down--may depend on the next round of tests.

The media portrayed the CTU's determination to hold the line on such questions as matter of teachers looking out for their own interests--but the quality of public schools depends on teachers, parents, students and others challenging this broader deform agenda.

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WHAT ALL the attacks on teachers have in common is a staple idea from school deformers--the rejection of the idea that poverty and material deprivation have an overarching impact on student performance. This is the Dangerous Minds depiction of public schools--the myth that transcendent (almost always white) teachers who simply love teaching can overcome the obstacles of poverty and resource-starved schools.

But in real-world cities like Chicago--where poverty, unemployment, violence, foreclosures and evictions are at appallingly high, and in some cases unprecedented, levels--personal grit and will power fail in the face of the institutional hostility that actively suppresses Black academic learning and potential achievement.

The notion that poverty doesn't matter fits into a larger, neoliberal political framework which preaches that success or failure is based on individual responsibility, not access to robust public spending. Poverty is seen as a natural phenomenon, where some people just "happen" to be poor and others "happen" to do better--and so, no legislative or institutional response is needed.

Thus, while hundreds of studies link poverty and under-resourced schools to poor academic achievement, the evidence is willfully ignored. And when the lie that poverty doesn't matter is repeated over and over again without a firm response, the lie takes hold in many people's minds.

But poverty does matter. As Harvard Graduate School of Education lecturer Richard Weissbourd wrote:

What exactly are these quiet problems?...The range...is vast. Hunger, dehydration, asthma, obesity, and hearing problems can all insidiously trip children up in school. Some quiet problems are psychological--depression, anxiety, the fear of utter destitution...In one school outside Boston, a teacher told me that two brothers were coming to school on alternate days because they had only one pair of shoes between them. Certain quiet problems are especially pervasive and concerning. One is caretaking responsibility, such as having to take care of a depressed or sick parent or look after younger siblings.

One consequence of the rejection of poverty as a factor in the crisis of schools and the institutional refusal to undertake anti-poverty initiatives is a reliance in public schools on suspensions, expulsions and arrests to maintain discipline and order. This is similar to the dynamic in poor communities of ramped-up repression by the criminal justice. Where city governments have slashed public service budgets and offer no alternatives to record high levels of poverty and unemployment, heavy policing, stop-and-frisk practices and brutality fill the vacuum.

According to a report by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, Illinois leads the country in disciplinary action taken against Black students. One in every four African American students was suspended at least once in the 2009-10 school year. By comparison, fewer than 4 percent of white students were suspended.

Chicago contributed a disproportionate share to the state's suspensions, with more than 30 percent of Black students suffering disciplinary actions, five times more than white students. The worst category of all was for Black male students with disabilities--72 percent suffered at least one suspension during the 2009-10 school year.

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CTU PRESIDENT Karen Lewis said that during one of her first meetings with Rahm Emanuel, the mayor claimed that 25 percent of CPS students would amount to nothing, and that he wouldn't waste resources on them. Emanuel denies he said this. Readers can decide whether they believe him or Karen Lewis.

But whether Emanuel said this or not, the actions of his administration speak loud and clear. Struggling schools in Black communities are starved of resources, insuring their failure, while the teachers, parents and students are blamed. Mental health clinics and libraries are closed down. Unemployment and poverty are on the rise and not a single anti-poverty program has been suggested, let alone funded by the city under Emanuel.

Instead, the mayor and his billionaire buddies spent millions to bring NATO to Chicago--and, or course, to run an endless loop of TV commercials bizarrely declaring Emanuel as the victor in the teachers' strike.

Phillip Jackson's frustration with racism in Chicago schools is more than warranted. It is criminal that in a city that boasts about being "world class," 95 percent of students in 188 schools located in Black neighborhoods qualify for free or reduced lunches.

But the Chicago Teachers Union is neither the enemy of Black students, nor just another institution contributing to their oppression. Rather, the CTU is leading the struggle for education justice in Chicago and the country.

Whether or not this struggle for education and racial justice stops the school closures and "turnarounds," the unequal distribution of resources, the racist disciplinary policy and more will depend on the CTU's continued commitment to reaching out and partnering with the communities who bear the brunt of these attacks--and on community activists linking arms with the teachers to fight for the schools our children deserve.

We should all stand together with the teachers, parents and kids of this city in what is shaping up to be the civil rights fight of our time.