Making Students and Teachers Pay for the Political Crisis in Education

The head of Chicago’s public schools, Arne Duncan, has announced plans to privatize at least 60 “failing” schools. According to recent press reports, the privatization scheme would allow these schools to operate outside the teachers’ union contract.

Duncan’s proposal is called Renaissance 2010. It would close 60 schools, and reopen 100 new, smaller ones in the old buildings. Some two-thirds of these would be non-union charter schools or “contracted-out” schools under private management.

Renaissance 2010 comes from a close collaboration between the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) administration, the University of Chicago and the Chicago Commercial Club, an influential business group representing the city’s biggest companies and law firms. The Commercial Club is involved in raising $50 million of seed money to help launch the project.

In a statement to the press, the Club claimed that the Duncan plan “presents the opportunity to transform a major urban school system, improving educational opportunities and bringing hope to some of our most distressed communities.”

But in a private memo to Duncan that was leaked to the New York Times, R Eden Martin, president of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club, wrote, “The school unions will not like the creation of a significant number of new schools that operate outside the union agreement–but operating outside the agreement is a key element of this strategy.” In other words, the same Chicago firms that avoid paying taxes, drive down wages and bust their own unions want to “bring hope to distressed communities” by attacking public school teachers as well!

It doesn’t seem to matter that CPS schools have shown marked improvement over the past 10 years–test scores in math and reading have risen from 30 percent of national norms to over 50 percent. Nor does it matter that the means of improving the schools–primarily privatization and charter schools–are proven failures wherever they have been tried.

Renaissance 2010 aims to create a significant pool of non-union teachers who will work longer hours; take counseling, coaching and other responsibilities for no extra pay; and undercut the unionized teaching force. In other words, the plan intends to “improve the schools” at the expense of teachers. If allowed to proceed, the plan will render meaningless contract protections on hours of work and non-teaching responsibilities.

However, at this crucial moment, our union has been all but paralyzed by a bitter internal war over the disputed June 11 leadership election. An investigation committee of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT)–the CTU’s parent union–ruled August 5 that Marilyn Stewart of the United Progressive Caucus (UPC) was the rightful president. Up until that point, both caucuses claimed leadership of the union.

In the June 11 vote, incumbent President Debbie Lynch of the reform-oriented Proactive Chicago Teachers (PACT) caucus lost to the old-guard candidate Stewart by only 566 votes–less than one per school. With two days to go before the handover of power, the CTU’s Canvassing Committee announced that it had found substantial evidence of fraud at a number of schools, including missing ballots and forged signatures on voting lists. The committee invalidated the election results.

The following morning, with TV cameras rolling, Lynch had the locks changed on the CTU office and announced her intention to rerun the election. Since then, the two caucuses have battled in the press, on Internet list serves and in the courts. PACT maintains that mismatched signatures, complaints of intimidation at polling places and other irregularities occurred primarily at schools with UPC delegates, and were part of an attempt to steal the election.

With no compromise in sight, the AFT sent a team of investigators–comprised of the AFT presidents of New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore–who held hearings in late July. The team’s 19-page report concluded, “It was clear at the end of the 11 hours of testimony that very little, if any, evidence was submitted to substantiate any claim of election fraud, yet the charge itself is destructive to the union. To make such unfounded charges for no good reason is improper because it undermines the members’ trust in the local.”

In an unsigned e-mail to the entire CTU membership, Lynch repeated the charges of election fraud and rejected the AFT’s conclusions. “We cannot understand why the AFT thinks it has the right to interfere and overturn the lawfully made decisions of [the CTU],” the e-mail said. So the bitter split in the union could continue–and even intensify–as the school year begins. That leaves nobody in the union’s two dominant caucuses to fight against the union-busting Renaissance 2010. Lynch’s response to the initiative–a press statement and a hastily organized picket at a board meeting–were steps in the right direction, but far too small a reaction.

Lynch was also hampered by the fact that she spent the last three years proudly “cooperating” with Arne Duncan. It is too early to tell if the UPC will respond to Daley’s plan, but to this point, it has been virtually silent. It will be up to rank-and-file teachers to mobilize against Renaissance 2010 during the school year, regardless of which caucus they supported in the election fiasco.

Charter schools leave kids behind

IF CREATING more charter schools is a centerpiece of the Bush administration’s plan for our schools, then we can expect many more children to be “left behind.” That’s the only conclusion to draw from a New York Times report that found charter schools lagging behind other public schools.

Charter schools were a much-hyped model for public education after George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” Act became law in 2001–with its goal of imposing the rules of the free market on schools, so they either improve or perish. Charter schools are public schools that receive public funds, but are managed under different rules, often by private companies operating outside the authority of local school boards, and therefore able to make up their own guidelines for hiring and teaching.

Out of the country’s 88,000 public schools, only 3,000 are charter schools–but this number is expected to increase as the No Child Left Behind Act’s strict testing restrictions leave thousands more schools vulnerable to closure or privatization. That, the Times discovered, will only add to the education crisis.

According to Department of Education data analyzed by researchers for the American Federation of Teachers and then provided to the newspaper, fourth graders attending charter schools performed about half a year behind students in other public schools in both reading and math. Researchers compared results for low-income children who attended both urban charter schools and regular public schools, breaking down the statistics by race and ethnicity.

In almost every case, students at charter schools did worse. More than 80 charter schools across the country were forced to close in 2003, largely because of questionable financial dealings and poor performance. In fact, just weeks before school was set to begin this year, some 10,000 California children were left without a school to attend when the California Charter Academy, the state’s largest charter school operator, announced that it was closing at least 60 campuses.

Amid all the bad news, Bush’s Department of Education announced its own unique solution. End the privatization scheme? Demand more accountability from charter school operators?

No, the Department of Education announced that it was cutting back on the information it collects about charter schools. The White House seems to be operating on the assumption that “what you don’t know won’t hurt you.”

But Bush isn’t the only one to blame for this fiasco. Democrats also bear responsibility for No Child Left Behind becoming the law of the land. For all his complaints about Bush’s education policies, John Kerry voted for the law, and recently, he began mouthing Bush’s rhetoric about parents and teachers “taking responsibility.” Someone needs to take responsibility alright–and return the money that’s being pilfered from public education.

JESSE SHARKEY is a Chicago public school teacher and delegate to the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). He writes for Socialist Worker.