The Chicago school reform fraud

April 5, 2010

Lee Sustar looks at the model for the Obama administration's plan to remake public education for the interests of big business.

IT'S HARD to keep up with blitzkrieg attack on teachers and public education.

A few of the latest headlines: A proposal in the Florida legislature to eliminate teacher tenure and tie pay to test scores. The closure of half the schools in Kansas City. The rapid-fire passage of legislation in many states to qualify for additional federal education funding by opening the door to charter schools and tying teacher pay to test scores. The proliferation of nonunion charter schools run by outfits backed by billionaires like Bill Gates. Sweeping layoffs and budget cuts imposed on teachers' union locals and schools, from California to Washington, D.C.

Then there was notorious Newsweek headline "Why We Must Fire Bad Teachers." And just in case the message wasn't clear enough, the president of the United States himself endorsed the firing of all the teachers at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island.

It's this litany of privatization, cutbacks and union busting that President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan call "school reform"--and it's accelerating.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan

After forcing states to compete for a piece of $4.3 billion in additional federal money under the Race to the Top program, Obama and Duncan are now revamping George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation, long criticized for its focus on test sores rather than learning.

But the Duncan-Obama plan would retain the NCLB obsession with testing and add a new punitive edge: The lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in each district would have to be "transformed"--that is, with the teachers fired and replaced.

In place of the NCLB requirement that all students make "adequate yearly progress" toward math and reading proficiency by 2014, the Obama-Duncan would mandate students to achieve college or career readiness by 2010. A worthwhile goal--but one doomed to failure in an era of mass teacher layoffs, exploding class sizes and budget cuts so deep that school districts can barely function.

Somehow, after all the trillions of federal dollars doled out to banks and financial institutions, the idea of pumping in more money to help our schools and improve our children's futures never enters mainstream political debate--even though 40,000 teachers were laid off due to budget cuts in 2008-2009 alone.

Instead, poverty, suffering and social disintegration is seen as an opportunity to gut something that's been a cornerstone of U.S. society since the mid-19th century: free public education for all. That's why, according to Duncan, Hurricane Katrina was "the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans."


HOW DID it come to this? How did a man with no professional credentials as an educator, Arne Duncan, come to run the U.S. Department of Education with a mandate to help private capital penetrate public education and wreck decades of collective bargaining with teachers?

Being Barack Obama's basketball buddy didn't hurt. But Duncan has for many years been working on a school reform production backed by billionaire-run foundations, corporate CEOs and business-friendly politicians. And, like an insecure director tinkering with a new play, he rehearsed his show in Chicago before taking it to the big time.

School reform in Chicago actually predates Duncan by more than a decade. It gathered force in 1995 when the Illinois state legislature gave Democratic Mayor Richard Daley direct control of schools. Daley abolished the school board and installed political operatives to run the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), naming his budget chief, Paul Vallas, as CEO. But Vallas' schemes to shake up schools with "probation,' "reconstitution," "intervention" and "re-engineering" didn't work. When he was forced out in 2001, Chicago test scores remained low.

Into the breach stepped Duncan, another education amateur who had given up on an Australian professional basketball career to return to his hometown and work for Vallas. A Harvard grad and the son of a University of Chicago professor, Duncan had political connections to Daley's Chicago Democratic machine and a rising political star, state Sen. Barack Obama, his neighbor in the liberal Hyde Park neighborhood.

With the passage of the NCLB law in 2002, Duncan made use of George W. Bush's toolkit, putting pressure on schools that failed to meet their "adequate yearly progress" in raising standards. Three elementary schools were closed in 2003, the first in a long list of shutdowns that Duncan would impose.

In 2004, Duncan and Daley dropped the big one: Renaissance 2010, a plan to close dozens of "failing" schools and replace them new ones or charter schools. The plan was based largely on a blueprint drawn up the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, an institution of wealthy individuals and business executives determined to socially engineer Chicago to suit their interests.

Ren2010, as it's known, revealed the Daley-Duncan-business agenda for public education in Chicago. Rather than ramping up funding for smaller class sizes and additional classroom resources, their aim was to create distinct tiers of education and ration access to the best schools.

At the top of the heap are elite, selective-enrollment and magnet schools with special programs--and Duncan helpfully maintained a VIP list to make sure the sons and daughters of politicians and others with clout got in. Next came neighborhood schools in gentrifying areas of the city, where the City Hall-contractor-realtor axis made sure resources were available.

If this sounds like target marketing, that's because it is. "I am not a manager of 600 schools," Duncan told a meeting of big-business school reformers. "I'm a portfolio manager of 600 schools and I'm trying to improve the portfolio."

However, the vast majority of Chicago schools--those in working-class and poor African American and Latino neighborhoods--were either left to their own devices or labeled as "failures" and threatened with closure. By 2006, Duncan had closed more than 40 schools. Others were taken over by outside managers funded with private donations.


IN AREAS where schools are most affected by problems of poverty--85 percent of Chicago schoolkids come from low-income families--nonunion charter schools were encouraged to cherry-pick the best students while avoiding the kids who required expensive special education. Black and Latino students are also the target of the five military academies initiated on Duncan's watch.

Chicago charter operators range from foundations backed by the super-rich like Gates or the real estate magnate Eli Broad to homegrown outfits like the United Neighborhood Organization (UNO), a onetime community activist group that's turned into an appendage of City Hall and leading charter school operator.

Since the launch of Ren2010 in 2004, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has lost 4,400 members, with 60 schools closed, 67 nonunion charter schools opened and seven nonunion contract schools opened. "Charter schools and test-score driven school 'choice' have been the watchwords of Duncan's rule in Chicago," wrote high school teacher Jesse Sharkey, currently a candidate for CTU vice president on the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) slate.

Charter school teachers are barred by law from joining the CTU, although teachers at three of the charters have voted to join a sister union in recent months.

But while Daley, Vallas and Duncan sought out business and foundation contributions to further their program, they worked just as diligently to prevent CPS from getting its share of tax money. That's because Daley makes use of a state law creating tax-increment financing (TIF) districts that cap the amount of property taxes used to fund schools, parks and other public works for up to 23 years.

As property values rise, extra money is diverted into development funds controlled by the mayor. Ben Joravsky of the Chicago Reader estimated that TIFS will have siphoned off more than $1.2 billion from Chicago schools between 2006 and 2012.

Perhaps the most atrocious aspect of Duncan's legacy in Chicago was his successful bid to get a federal judge to release CPS from a consent decree mandating steps to racially integrate the schools, which are so segregated that a 2003 Harvard University study found that CPS is "only a few percentage points from an experience of total apartheid for Black students."

Of 400,000 students, 46.5 percent are African American, 39.1 percent Latino, 8 percent white, 3.5 percent Asian/Pacific Islander/Native American, while 2.9 percent multiracial. Yet now, race can no longer be considered as a factor for enrollment in Chicago schools--and sought-after magnet schools will be required to give preference to residents of surrounding neighborhoods, often areas targeted by real estate developers.

The powerful backers of school reform claim that the shortcomings of the Chicago plan are outweighed by its successes. Which are--what, exactly? Even the school reform zealots of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago concluded last year that test scores only rose because state officials lowered the standards. And the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago concluded that closures of "failing" schools simply pushed students into similarly challenged schools, with little or no benefit.


CHICAGO TEACHERS are, understandably, fed up with the school reform pursued by Daley and his hacks--the latest being Ron Huberman, an ex-cop who recently ran the Chicago Transit Authority. His main achievement in that post was extracting big concessions on pensions from the transit union locals--and that's his top priority at CPS as well.

Huberman recently got some help from the Democratic-controlled state legislature, which rammed through a bill that requires all newly hired public employees in Illinois to work until they're 67 to get a pension and defers some pension costs. Gov. Pat Quinn, who recently won a primary election with big union support, is expected to sign the bill.

The shafting of future teacher retirees was the big topic of discussion at a March 25 meet-up hosted by the CORE reform group. Jay Rehak, elected along with Lois Ashford as the CORE candidates for the teachers' pension fund, summarized the grim news--and slammed the incumbent CTU president, Marilyn Stewart, for failing to mobilize the union to stop this legislative attack.

The law, by allowing CPS to avoid its obligations, threatens the pension fund. "They've just knocked a big support beam out of the bridge...at some point, it's going to collapse," Rehak said.

But the 50 or so teachers at the gathering--held at a bar on the last day of work before spring break--weren't surprised at Stewart's failure or the stab in the back from labor's supposed friends. Since it was formed in 2008, CORE has stepped up to the challenges that Stewart's ruling United Progressive Caucus has tried to avoid.

In January 2009, the caucus mobilized 2,000 people to fight school closings, and forced the school board to reverse the decision to shut down six schools. The effort gave rise to the Grassroots Education Movement, a network that links teachers, parents and community activists. CORE also filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint on behalf of teachers who've lost their jobs through school closures and charter school expansion. "Some 2,000 of them are African American women," said CORE co-chair Jackson Potter.

Now, CORE is a serious contender to capture control of the CTU. This isn't the first time that reformers have stepped up to this challenge, however. In 2001, the ProActive Chicago Teachers (PACT) slate led by Deborah Lynch ousted the UPC old guard for the first time in 30 years. But after negotiating a concessionary contract in 2003, Lynch was ousted the following year by Stewart's UPC.

Stewart brought back the bad old days of the old guard by inflating salaries and bending to Duncan's attacks. But by talking tough before contract talks in 2007, Stewart won re-election. But her regime soon imploded: She negotiated a concessionary five-year contract that was approved, but hardly celebrated, by the membership. Next, she engineered the expulsion of her former top strategist, Vice President Ted Dallas.

The fight revealed just how out of touch the union leadership had become. "They had filet mignon dinners and margarita pitchers at the union's expense--all that is documented," Potter said.

Can CORE succeed where PACT failed? Karen Lewis, the caucus' candidate for president, says yes, thanks to a different strategy. PACT, Lewis said, "took everyone with them to the union headquarters. There was no one left in the schools to do the kind of reform organization that needed to be done."

Potter made a similar point. "Our message isn't that we're going to fight for you, but with you," he said.

Victory won't be easy. Lynch's PACT is also running, as are two slates for the union old guard. And running the union will be harder still. The forces pushing school reform aren't about to surrender in Chicago, their model for urban education across the country.

And it isn't clear what kind of support--if any--a CORE-led union would get from its parent union, the American Federation of Teachers, whose president, Randi Weingarten, is desperately searching for ways to collaborate with Obama and Duncan no matter how egregious their attacks. (Indeed, in the big-city school districts, only the reform leadership of the United Teachers Los Angeles has put up any serious resistance to the school reform onslaught).

But among rank-and-file teachers in Chicago, the reaction to the relentless attacks may be shifting from shock to anger, said Kristine Mayle, candidate for CTU financial secretary. She was teaching at a school in the mostly Latino Pilsen neighborhood when it was shut down and turned over to a charter operator. "When they did that, they created a monster out of me," she laughed.

But now that outrage is spreading among coworkers who haven't been involved in the union before. "People are ready to do something, I think," she said. "I've heard a lot of radical ideas that I haven't heard before."

If that mood keeps spreading as the CTU election approaches in May, the union old guard, Mayor Daley and Arne Duncan will have something to worry about.

E-mail alerts

Further Reading

Latest Stories

From the archives