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Battling for the Future of Public Schools

The Teacher vs. The Billionaire

by SARAH BLASKEY AND PHIL GASPER

It’s not often that a public school teacher gets the chance to debate a billionaire “reformer” about the future of education. But events in Chicago have been anything other than ordinary since the historic strike by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) last month.

On the day after the strike ended, twelve-year veteran social studies high-school instructor Jesse Sharkey, elected two years ago as the CTU’s vice-president, went head to head with billionaire, venture capitalist Bruce Rauner, named by Chicago Magazine last March as one of the 100 most powerful people in the city. Despite being a potential GOP candidate for Illinois Governor in the next election, Rauner is a close ally of Democratic Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and one of Emanuel’s advisers on education.

Although the strike was over by the time Sharkey and Rauner confronted each other on a local PBS station, neither had any doubts that the Chicago walkout was just one battle in what Rauner himself called “a war with huge stakes” for the future of education.  Thus, the debate that ensued serves as a useful framework for understanding the struggles over education policy that are sure to continue in coming years.

These days almost any discussion about education begins on one small piece of common ground: the undeniable fact that the public education system is providing an inadequate education for working class, poor, and minority children across the country. From there, however, the viewpoints of public school teachers and billionaires rapidly diverge.

In this case, Rauner and his friends in the billionaire “reform community” believe in a business model for education, where charter schools run by private companies and competition for resources would replace fully-funded and accessible public education. Sharkey and his fellow teachers in the CTU, on the other hand, say the first thing to do is “save the public schools.”

“Competing networks of private operators, charters—I don’t’ know what that world looks like or how it works, but I know that there is an abiding public interest in having high quality neighborhood schools with some degree of public oversight,” said Sharkey in the PBS discussion. The biggest problem for public education is that inner-city schools have been starved of the resources that teachers need to do a decent job.

In stark contrast, Rauner claims that the problem is the union, and his attack on the teachers’ strike followed a familiar set of conservative talking points. In Rauner’s world, “union bosses” stand opposed to the interests of ordinary teachers, parents and taxpayers. On the day that union delegates were voting to end the strike, Rauner spoke at a seminar in Chicago sponsored by the George W. Bush Institute. “The critical issue is to separate the union from the teachers. They’re not the same thing,” he told the audience of business figures and local notables. “You’ve got to break apart the union bosses away [sic] from the really talented teachers.”

But Rauner’s accusations fall flat on their face as soon as they are compared with the facts. First, the current CTU leadership was elected as part of a reform campaign in 2010 to make the union more democratic and accountable, and to return power to its members. Like Sharkey, the rest of the union leadership are longstanding and accomplished classroom teachers. Union president Karen Lewis taught high-school chemistry for over 20 years and is National Board certified. In other words the union is actually led by “really talented teachers.”

Second, under its new leadership, the CTU has become one of the most democratic unions in the country. In June, an unprecedented 90 percent of CTU members voted in favor of striking. When the strike began in September, thousands of teachers joined picket lines and mass demonstrations of up to 35,000 people every day.

Third, the decision to return to work was also made in the most democratic way possible. The CTU’s 800-member House of Delegates, with representatives from every school site, delayed a vote to end the strike for 48 hours to allow time to discuss the proposed deal with the wider union membership. The decision was not imposed on teachers by a small-group of full time officials making decisions by themselves.

Rauner’s attempt to portray teachers as “in a conflict of interest with parents and taxpayers” doesn’t fit reality either. To the surprise of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his supporters, a majority of Chicago residents backed the strike, and the support was even higher amongst parents of public school children. A poll of 1,344 Chicago households revealed that 66 percent of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) parents supported the teachers.  Of the 31 percent who opposed the strike, the majority “were either white or had kids in private school.”

According to Rauner, supportive parents were “confused” by a massive PR campaign led by the Union. But the truth was that the CTU was fighting not just for its members wages and benefits, but for more resources for Chicago’s beleaguered public schools, including more art, music and physical education teachers, smaller class sizes, air-conditioning, and access to books. As a result, there was an outpouring of  support for the teachers, with large numbers of parents and community members joining the picket lines and demonstrations.

By contrast, parents know that the “reforms” advocated by Rauner and Emanuel involve closing over 100 neighborhood schools and subjecting their children to more and more standardized tests, rather than providing them with a real education.

Rauner frequently accuses the union of wielding excessive political power, even though the Emanuel administration has been unrelentingly hostile to the CTU since it came to office last year. In fact, as Sharkey pointed out, it is Rauner himself who has nearly unlimited access to both the school board and the mayor—the kind of access most parents and teachers can only dream about.

“I think it’s a real problem when what should be a fundamentally democratic institution in our society, public schools, are really being influenced and shaped by people who are at the table by virtue of the fact that they have a lot of money,” Sharkey argued.

Rauner also never misses a chance to raise the classic right-wing argument that teachers unions protect bad or incompetent teachers. Rauner’s only evidence for this claim, though, is anecdotal—he wrote in an op-ed for the Chicago Tribune that he has witnessed poor teaching in classrooms he has briefly visited. But judgments based on 20-minute, one-off visits carry very little weight. As every serious educator knows, accurate teacher evaluations minimally require multiple class visits carried out in a variety of different situations, conducted by several different observers.

In response to Rauner’s assertions, Sharkey pointed out, “the highest performing school districts in the United States have fully unionized teaching forces.” One study found that nine of the ten states with the highest student achievement scores are those with the largest numbers of unionized teachers.

But there is also a broader point to be made. How well teachers perform is to a very large extent a function of the resources and support they receive from their school districts and fellow teachers. “I taught in three different public schools in New York City,” educator Brian Jones wrote in the New York Times recently. “Where I was able to be my best depended as much on the class sizes, the conditions, the financing, the materials available to me, the support staff for teachers, the support for students and the climate created by administration, as it did on my own efforts and abilities.”

Jones later elaborated on this idea in a blog post:

That’s what’s wrong with the whole idea of “finding the right teachers” to reward or “identifying the bad” ones. It takes our attention away from the conditions of work, and places them back on the individual, as if great teaching flowed only from individual qualities (such as effort) and not from great leadership, great conditions, and great support.

In an era of budget cuts, layoffs and privatization, it is unions like the CTU that are fighting to improve conditions for all public school teachers so that they can provide the best possible education for their students.

A final, and key component to Rauner’s education “reform” agenda is replacing underperforming public schools with charter schools, granted the right to set their own rules, and typically union-free and run by private entities using public funds. “Really what we are doing is talking about having resources shifted from one kind of school to another,” said Sharkey in the PBS debate. By Rauner’s logic, this shift would improve educational opportunities for many children through “competition.”

But as the Chicago Reader reported recently, of the 541 elementary schools in Chicago, “none of the top ten are charters. None of the top 20, 30, or 40 either.” More broadly, a 2009 Stanford study showed that only 17% of charter schools actually outperform their public school counterparts.  Additionally, a 2004 report from the Department of Education showed “fourth graders attending charter schools performing about half a year behind students in other public schools in both reading and math.”

Although Rauner publicly stated that “lousy” charter schools “should be shut,” the same Stanford report explained that underperforming charter schools are rarely closed despite low test scores due to “powerful and persuasive supporters in their communities”—like Rauner in Chicago.  Earlier this year the Chicago school board renewed the charter for an ACT Charter School, deemed “level 3” or “failing,” a school for which Rauner is a board member.

So why is Rauner so interested in promoting charter schools, if they don’t usually improve the learning environments for the kids he claims to care so much about?  As Sharkey pointed out, Rauner has a direct financial interest in the charters that open and operate in the Chicago area.

Rauner is principal of GTCR Golder Rauner, LLC private equity firm. A Substance News report based on the findings of reporter Greg Hinz explained that Rauner is “floating a plan to form a private venture capital fund to buy up empty CPS buildings and lease them to charter schools.” The article reported that Rauner was talking about “$200 million in equity, $600 million in debt and 100 CPS buildings.” Similar plans have been carried out in New York and elsewhere around the nation.

Although Rauner’s own plan has yet to go into effect, last month CPS reported that it was seeking brokers to sell off 23 “surplus properties.” Undoubtedly private equity vultures are circling above, waiting to devour their own chunk of what’s left of Chicago’s expansive school district.

All over the country business tycoons are looking for a slice of the $500 billion spent on K-12 education in this country each year– and they are getting it.  Reuters reported in August of this year that venture capital “transactions in the K-12 education sector soared to a record $389 million last year, up from $13 million in 2005.”

Much of this increase in private involvement can be traced back to George W. Bush’s 2001 “No Child Left Behind” law, later intensified by Barack Obama’s “Race to the Top” program that has states competing for limited federal funding by opening their public education systems to private interests.

In July, high-powered venture capitalists from around the country attended a limited-access Capital Roundtable where they praised Obama’s education program, saying “the federal “Race To The Top” initiative has enabled a growing level of privatization in the K-12 segment.” Its website explained that current reform proposals at both the state and federal level mean that “investors should face an easier climate down the road” for entering the education market– the second largest market in the U.S., valued at $1.3 trillion when post-secondary education is included in the figure.

In the end, the fundamental question is whether education should be looked at like a business or based on a very different model that puts children’s needs first. Chicago teachers were fighting for an education system that provides every child with the same opportunities, not one which provides exceptional resources for a minority and second-class status for the rest.

In this debate between a teacher and a billionaire, it was the teacher whose arguments stood up to scrutiny and the billionaire who relied on myths and stereotypes. But the debate, like the strike it followed, was only one more skirmish in a much bigger fight that is far from over. As Jesse Sharkey put it: “Take the word of the 20,000 teachers that were out in their neighborhoods picketing in front of their schools or walking in the streets–the fight for quality public schools is something we intend to continue to pursue in every avenue that we can.”

Sarah Blaskey is a freelance journalist based in Madison, WI. She co-authored a four-part series on stealth lobbying published by Truthout earlier this year.

Phil Gasper teaches at Madison College and writes a column for the International Socialist Review.

Exclusively in the new print issue of CounterPunch
THE ARAB SPRING AT A CROSSROADS — Esam Al-Amin surveys the new Middle East, from the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, to the aftermath of the overthrow of Qaddafi and the civil war in Syria, and outlines the economic and political challenges facing the fledgling Arab democracies; THE BI-PARTISAN PLAN TO GUT MEDICARE: Dave Lindorff digs beneath the rhetoric to expose the grim similarities in both Obama and Romney’s schemes to degrade Medicare by cutting spending, reducing eligibility and privatizing services. KAFKA IN SEATTLE: Kristian Williams details the surreal ordeal of Matthew Duran, thrown into federal prison even though prosecutors admit he committed no crime.
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