Teachers in Chicago are sorry to see that the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), Arne Duncan, is getting a promotion. Barack Obama has selected Duncan to be his Education Secretary.
In the past couple years, Duncan has been turning public schools over to private operators–mainly in the form of charter and contract schools–at a rate of about 20 per year. Duncan has also resuscitated some of the worst “school reform” ideas of the 1990s, like firing all the teachers in low-performing schools (called “turnarounds”). At the same time, he’s eliminated many Local School Councils and made crucial decisions without public input.
Charter schools and test-score driven school “choice” have been the watchwords of Duncan’s rule in Chicago. Expect more of the same in Washington, D.C.
To me, the thing that made Duncan’s role clear came after three months of organizing at Senn High School, the community school where I teach, against the Chicago Board of Education’s proposal to install a Naval Academy.
After an inspiring campaign that involved literally hundreds of people in the biggest education organizing effort in the area in decades, we forced Duncan to come up to our neighborhood to listen to our case for keeping the military out of our school. More than 300 of us–parents, teachers, and community supporters–held a big meeting in a local church and, at the end of the meeting, we asked Duncan to postpone the decision to put the military school at Senn.
Duncan’s answer was a classic. He said: “I come from a Quaker family, and I’ve always been against war. But I’m going to put the Naval Academy in there, because it will give people in the community more choices.”
The exchange showed that when push came to shove, Duncan was always a loyal henchman of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s political machine–albeit with a style that made it seem like he was listening. He’s just the kind of person who will look at you with a straight face and tell you that, as a person with a pacifist background, he supports a military school.
Never mind that the community was fighting as hard as it could against this backroom deal between Daley and the Department of Defense–according to Duncan, the Naval Academy would give the community “more choices.” Indeed, CPS has more military high schools than any other school district in the U.S.
Despite all this, Duncan is being portrayed in the national media as a school administrator who had a “good” relationship with the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU).
The truth is quite different. Duncan pursued anti-labor policies by pushing nonunion charter and contract schools. He also imposed test-oriented, competitive schemes that force schools to close if they can’t raise test scores above a certain level.
Yet he failed to implement the kinds of changes that really would improve student performance–such as smaller class sizes and expanded facilities to end overcrowding. Instead, special education teachers were laid off and budgets squeezed.
Moreover, Duncan has done nothing to address racial segregation in our schools–which is so bad that a 2003 Harvard University study found that CPS is “only a few percentage points from an experience of total apartheid for Black students.” Rather than try to remedy this shameful situation, Duncan requested the removal of the federal judicial consent decree that mandates the meager efforts CPS has undertaken to improve the racial balance of our schools.
CTU members in the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) will use their December 17 press conference to set the record straight.
Duncan is getting ready to take his methods to the national level. Teachers, students, parents and communities everywhere will have to be prepared for a new round of attacks on public education under the banner of “reform.”
JESSE SHARKEY is a teacher in Chicago and writer for the Socialist Worker.