Yes, schoolchildren in Chicago are victims, but not of their teachers. They are victims of a nationwide education “reform” movement geared to undermine teachers’ unions and shift public resources into private hands; they are victims of wave after wave of ill-conceived and failing policy “innovations”; they are victims of George Bush’s No Child Left Behind law, which turned inner-city public schools into boot camps for standardized test prep; they are victims of Barack Obama’s Race to the Top program, which paid states to use student test scores—a highly unreliable tool—for teacher evaluations and to lift caps on the number of privately managed charter schools, thus draining resources from public schools. Chicago’s children are victims of “mayoral control,” which allows Rahm Emanuel to run the school system, bully parents and teachers, and appoint a Board of Education dominated by corporate executives and political donors.
The city’s current reform wave began in 2004 with Mayor Richard Daley’s Renaissance 2010—a massive program, funded in part by $90 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to transform the city’s schools by 2010. The strategy included firing and replacing entire staffs in low-income neighborhood schools, shutting down dozens of schools, and setting up charter schools. When reckoning day came, here is what the Chicago Tribune reported on January 17, 2010:
Six years after Mayor Richard Daley launched a bold initiative to close down and remake failing schools, Renaissance 2010 has done little to improve the educational performance of the city’s school system, according to a Tribune analysis of 2009 state test data.
…The moribund test scores follow other less than enthusiastic findings about Renaissance 2010—that displaced students ended up mostly in other low performing schools and that mass closings led to youth violence as rival gang members ended up in the same classrooms. Together, they suggest the initiative hasn’t lived up to its promise by this, its target year.
Given the failed reforms, the rational next step would have been to change course. Instead, Rahm Emanuel, shortly before confirming his candidacy for mayor, declared support for doubling down on Daley’s education strategy. On October 18, 2010, the Tribune summarized an interview with him:
In making his case, Emanuel said he would like to see a local, privately funded version of the federal education competition called Race to the Top, the signature Obama administration plan that rewarded states vowing to reform public schools.
“We’ve raised a ton of money for the Olympics,” Emanuel said. “Let’s raise a ton of money for school reform right here on our own Chicago version of Race to the Top. Let’s not wait for the feds.”
…Emanuel also criticized teachers unions, a significant political force in the city, for their opposition to the federal Race to the Top program, closing underperforming schools and charter school expansion.
After years of trying to work under one wrong-headed reform regime or another, Chicago’s teachers decided to push back in the hardest way they could. They went on strike for the first time in a quarter-century because they knew the following so well:
After twenty years of reform in Chicago, “Racial gaps in achievement have steadily increased, with White students making more progress than Latino students, and African American students falling behind all other groups.” (Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago, Trends in Chicago’s Schools across Three Eras of Reform: Summary of Key Findings, 2011, p. 1)
In 1995 African Americans comprised 45 percent of the teaching force in Chicago. Today, after a decade of closing neighborhood public schools and opening charters, just 19 percent of city teachers are African American. About 42 percent of their students are African American. “[T]he private managers who run charter schools tend to favor rookie teachers who are younger and far less likely to be minorities, studies have shown.” (Reuters, September 10, 2012)
Chicago spends $7,946 a year on instruction per student. This is well below the wealthiest suburban Chicago districts. (Reuters, September 9, 2012)
According to recommendations of the American School Counselors Association, there should be about 1,600 counselors working in the Chicago public schools. Instead there are only 731. Much of the workday of these counselors consists of coordinating test administration and paperwork. (The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve, p. 10)
Some 42 percent of neighborhood elementary schools are not funded for a full-time arts teacher or music teacher. (data from the Chicago Public Schools Position Roster, 2011, received by FOIA request, in The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve, Chicago Teachers Union report, 2012, p. 5)
The tax funds collected for Chicago’s “tax-increment financing” program (TIF) are supposed to be used for development in blighted communities. More than $857 million has been spent on school construction projects, but the Chicago Teachers Union has long contended that the neediest schools were getting a disproportionately small portion of the money. The union was correct. A June 2012 research brief prepared by Roosevelt University Sociologist Stephanie Farmer concludes: “…the TIF program is contributing to income and race/ethnicity place-based inequality in the city of Chicago.…White communities are overrepresented in TIF revenues allocated to school construction programs….School construction projects funded by TIF revenues favor exclusive schools (selective enrollment schools, charter schools and magnet schools, etc.) while underfunding inclusive neighborhood area attendance schools. This is directly playing a role in the move toward an inequitable, two-tiered public education system.” (Tax Increment Financing and Chicago Public Schools Construction Projects, p. 7)
According to the authors of a report on the mayor-appointed Board of Education, “Board members generally do not attend hearings related to school closings. Instead, the Board hires hearing officers to take two-minute testimonies from community members, teachers, parents, and students. At the February 2009 meeting [under Mayor Daley], Board members admitted that none of them had read the transcripts of these community hearings even though they were to vote on school closings that day.” (“Should Chicago Have an Elected Representative School Board? A Look at the Evidence,” University of Illinois at Chicago Collaborative for Equity and Justice in Education, February 2011, p. 27)
An independent fact-finder’s report released in July 2012 recommended pay raises of 15-18 percent for Chicago’s public school teachers next year. The Mayor initially offered annual 2 percent raises over the next four years. (Alternet.org, September 10, 2012)
The average primary-school teacher in the United States earns about 67 percent of the salary of the average college-educated worker in the United States. The comparable figure is 82 percent in the O.E.C.D countries. (New York Times, September 11, 2012)
Some 50,000 students attend Chicago’s ninety-six privately operated charter schools. Most of the teachers are non-union; they make about $15,000 to $30,000 less than teachers in the neighborhood public schools. (New York Times, September 12, 2012)
Given all of the above, of course, Chicago’s teachers needed to strike; of course, they deserved our strong support; and, of course, it would be a good thing if they inspired support across the country for other public school teachers to do the same.
Dissent is a quarterly, left-liberal magazine of politics and culture.