Laura Clawson of Daily Kos reports some of the latest news regarding “education reform.” Charter schools in New York City are not meeting the needs of special education students. 17 charters have closed in Columbus, Ohio. Meanwhile, Michelle Rhee, a lobbyist for the charter industry and former school superintendent in Washington D.C. bends the facts to claim that schools in Louisiana are outperforming schools in Connecticut. Beyond Clawson’s reporting, anyone who reads the Chicago Sun-Time will see that many charter schools in Chicago are connected to insiders who are making money as contractors, landlords, and administrators.
At its root, “education reform” is all about busting teachers unions. Many politicians of both parties love charters for this reason. What they don’t consider is that young people will not pursue teaching as a career if it doesn’t offer decent pay, benefits, and security. Executives claim they need high pay to attract and retain the best and brightest. Why don’t we apply the same logic to teachers?
Laura Clawson of Daily Kos is one of my favorite writers because she finds the stories others miss. Usually she focuses on labor. Today she looks at a new type of charter school that caters to predominantly white students whose families are not in poverty. While these schools are still technically public schools, they charge fees that shut out lower income students. As Clawson notes, such school will cherry pick higher performing students and drive down performance at traditional public schools.
I would like to know if this type of charter school pays it teachers better or offers better benefits. Non-union charters traditionally pay at a lower level than public schools, and teachers have no union protection. I would guess that a school looking to have elite students would have to invest in good teachers. My solution to this question is easy: Shut down the charters and put resources back into traditional public schools. Put education and children ahead of profits.
Writing in Common Dreams, Jim Horn, a Professor of Education at Cambridge College, examines Diane Ravitch in the light of her new book, Reign of Error: the Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. Horn notes that this book has been widely reviewed and focuses on the author instead, calling her a whistleblower and truth teller. Ravitch, once a champion of education “reform,” has turned against corporate-based philosophies of education “reform.” Horn calls Ravitch, “the single individual who most influenced the eventual outcome if parents and teachers and students continue to heed the call for the restoration and renewal of public schools free of high stakes tests for all children who choose a high quality and free education.”
Horn’s critique underscores Ravitch’s importance not just to education, but to democracy and workers’ rights. A free society needs school systems that will be responsive to citizens, not the corporate elite. It also needs schools that promote more meritocracy, not selective schools or charter schools that cherry pick those students deemed to be “winners.” If we are to live up to the promise of America, we need schools that will be of the people, by the people, and for the people. Diane Ravitch has shown that, for all its flaws, the best vehicle to promote fair education is the public school.
With little public notice, Chicago Public Schools has put out a call to open new charter schools. Recently the system closed 50 schools, which meant the loss of many teacher jobs. The system also cut school budgets, which led to more job loss.
Most charter schools are non-union (None are represented by CTU). While some of these schools do a good job educating students, they offer teachers little job security or respect. The highest paid people in the charter system tend to be chief administrators who often make as much or more than the head of CPS.
My worry is that – over time – the quality of teaching will go down. It’s a difficult job in the best situation. If pay is cut and benefits are minimal, who will want to make the sacrifice needed to be a teacher? Why will the smartest people chose teaching if other professions offer more reward?
[On Sundays, this blog looks at issues beyond careers and jobs in “Sabbath.”]
Fighting for Justice and Public Schools
The primary role of public schools has been to give every child a chance to improve his or her life. Americans claim to value meritocracy and opportunity. However, when we look at the state of public schools in big cities, it seems like they really want a fixed game where a few students are trained for Ivy League schools and the rest are prepared to work at low wage jobs.
Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities called out this problem more than 20 years ago. More recently, Diane Ravitch challenged current education “reform” in The Death and Life of the Great American School System. I value both of these books for opening my eyes to a system that helped me. I graduated from Cleveland South High School in 1979. Most of my teachers were excellent, and their lessons have stayed with me over many years. Today, the common attitude is that big city schools are “failing.” People with little to no background in education have proposed solutions that often do more harm than good.
Barbara Miner’s book Lessons from the Heartland: A Turbulent Half-Century of Public Education in an Iconic American City looks at her home town of Milwaukee and how it has grappled with urban education. Miner is not a disinterested scholar. She grew up in the city and sent her child to its public schools. She has lived through battles over desegregation, charter schools, and vouchers.
Miner writes in a casual manner, yet she guides the reader in understanding complex problems that are too often simplified in today’s debates over public education. From the 1950s into the 1970s debates over public education focused on fair access related to racial segregation. Since the 1980s, the language has changed. The key word has become choice. Miner outlines economic and political factors that drove this change. Cities like Milwaukee lost their industrial base at the same time that white families left the city for the suburbs, where no one complains about paying for quality schools.
As city schools faced greater challenges, many of which were related to poverty, reformers offered answers like charter schools and vouchers, reforms that promised to let families choose better education options for their children. These mechanisms have done little to improve the quality of urban education. Instead, they transferred public wealth to private hands. The story of the voucher program is especially instructive of this “reform” model. Starting as a way to give poor families the option of sending their children to private schools, the voucher program has been expanded to provide public funds that let families of greater means send their children to religious schools that offer no accountability for performance.
While Miner writes about a city she knows well, she frequently puts Milwaukee’s story in a national context. She examines key Supreme Court decisions, including Milliken v. Bradley that have gutted Brown v. Board. She also looks at the roles of American billionaires and their foundations in reshaping the debate over education so it focuses on the stereotype of bad teachers, rather than factors like poverty and racism.
I strongly recommend Lessons from the Heartland: A Turbulent Half-Century of Public Education in an Iconic American City to anyone who cares about American public education. Miner provides great local examples that supplement claims of reform critics like Diane Ravitch. What both of these writers demonstrate is that some of the loudest voices claiming to want to make public education better are actually planting the seeds of its destruction. If we believe in a country where every child has a chance, if want America to be a true meritocracy, we need to listen to people like Diane Ravitch and Barbara Miner who value public education.
On this said day, when the mayor of Chicago has closed nearly 50 schools, Daily Kos links to a great profile of education reformer Michelle Rhee. The former head of Washington D.C. schools, Rhee makes strong decisions that seemed based on belief rather than fact, especially the belief that teachers’ unions are the biggest problem facing public schools. Instead, she favors an unproven market model that depends on charter schools. There is no clear evidence that charter schools perform better than traditional public schools. In other cases, as Diane Ravitch documents in The Death and Life of the Great American School System, reforms have clearly failed, only to have billionaires pour more money into some new model as well as funding union-bashing PR. Is this reform really about children or busting unions?
[On Sundays, this blog explores diverse issues in Sabbath.”]
School Closings in Chicago – Reform or A Trojan Horse?
Today’s Chicago Sun-Times features a great analysis on school closings in Chicago. A chart that accompanies the article shows that students from over 1/3 of the will be moved to schools that are ranked no better or even worse than the ones they are leaving. The chart also indicates that several of the schools have met performance goals. Is this how education is “reformed”?
Mayor Rahm Emanuel is featured in a separate article in the paper. Unlike those officials who say the schools are being closed because they are “underutilized,” the mayor only talks about giving students more opportunity: “We look at it and viewed it as what we can do to have every child have a high-quality education regardless of their neighborhood, regardless of their circumstances, regardless of where they live.”
If the mayor is sincere in these words, he should be very troubled by the information put forth by the Sun-Times. While some students will be moving to much better schools, many more are moving to schools with similar performance ratings. There is also a question of cost. According to the mayor’s most vocal critic Karen Lewis, head of the Chicago Teacher’s Union, it will cost the system $1 billion dollars to close the schools, which is the same amount the system claims is its current deficit. Lewis and her colleagues contend that this round of school closing is a Trojan horse that the mayor and his allies are using to open even more non-union charter schools.
No one wants children in poor performing schools. No one wants to waste money heating and maintaining schools that are half empty. However, it’s hard to trust politicians in any city when we see how charter schools can be new tools for the connected to wash each other’s hands. Over the past few months, the Sun-Times has published several articles about conflicts of interest at Uno, Chicago’s largest charter school organization. Uno’s head was a key player in Mayor Emanuel’s campaign. Will Uno benefit from the school closings? That would be an interesting question to have answered.
Here’s another question: Why can’t Chicago fund its schools? I grew up in Cleveland and saw that great city’s decline first hand. Over the last two years, I’ve been to Detroit twice and have experienced to a small degree that city’s challenges. Those cities have an excuse to close schools. They embody the rust belt and millions of lost jobs that have left northern industrial cities. Chicago doesn’t have that excuse.
I attended a production at Chicago Shakespeare Theater yesterday. Before going to the play, a friend and I rode Navy Pier’s Ferris wheel, which offers a magnificent view of the skyline, a panorama of skyscrapers that are filled with business that are making money. I could also see large condo developments in the south Loop, all of which were built in the last 10-15 years. How can schools be poor in a city that is so rich? Why can’t we have schools with small class sizes if our city has so much wealth circulating in it? We need to ask the mayor and his staff some of these questions. All children do deserve equal opportunity. Whacking at schools with an axe doesn’t seem to be the best answer, just the most simple answer.
[On Sundays, this blog explores topics beyond the work world in “Sabbath.”]
Detroit and Democracy
I wanted to do more to prepare more to write this post, but I’ve had work responsibilities this week and weekend that would not let me dive into research and numbers. Even so, I feel a need to express my less than informed opinion on a vital topic – the impending takeover of Detroit.
It’s not the big media story I thought it would be. It’s taken as a given that Detroit is “bankrupt” and “something has to be done.” I’ve even heard that claim in progressive media. Is Detroit in trouble? Of course, it is. So are many other large American cities that have lost their industrial base. No one seems to be asking if there are alternatives to taking power from the hands of elected officials and putting it in the hands of an unelected Emergency Manager. Governor Rick Snyder presents this solution that he has introduced in other cities as the only way to save the state’s biggest city.
Let’s take a minute and ask some questions:
1. Is the situation as bad as the governor claims? Why is Michigan the only state in the nation where such action is taking place on such a scale? Is the governor really concerned about helping cities, or is he working off an ALEC playbook strategy to transfer public wealth into private hands? Is there any evidence that Emergency Managers in other cities have made a long term improvement in local conditions – long term, not a simple give away to the connected class?
2. Where is the wealth? Throughout America, central cities are surrounded by suburbs that conduct business in and take their identity from the urban hub. Could some system be devised where those who benefit from the hub pay their share for its upkeep? Why not tax suburbs that have a surplus? Why not introduce county wide or regional taxes that would help revive great American cities?
Here in Chicago we’ve had similar claims of impending ruin. One of Mayor Daley’s chief aides used the term “Doomsday” in talking about the state of the city’s school system and public transit system. Both systems were cut in the face of such claims. Mayor Daley also transferred public assets of parking meters and a public toll road to private interests. The city’s finances are not better. In fact, by the end of the contract, the city will lose money on the parking meter contract. Now Mayor Emanuel want to close over 100 schools because of a pending billion dollar deficit. Is this a real problem or a way to move students from public to “charter” schools?
Whenever a politician claims a situation is an emergency, we need to ask for better evidence and transparency, not solutions that make the original problem worse and benefit only those who are the most wealthy. We need to ask harder questions about our leaders and their solutions, especially those that deal with privatization. The fate of Detroit and other cities in Michigan need to seen as a sign of things to come. Will the U.S. live up to its promise of being a democracy that offers opportunity to all of its people, including the poor? Or will the country further devolve into an oligarchy of the wealthy, by the wealthy, and for the wealthy?
Postscript: On this weekend’s Smiley and West radio program, Cornel West said: “You can’t love money and love poor people.” He was criticizing political leaders, both Republicans and Democrats. I can only respond with one word: Amen.
More: Laura Clawson of Daily Kos weighs in on the consequences of a Detroit take over and what has happened in other Michigan cities that have lost their democratic rule.
The Daily Kos’s Laura Clawson reports on “education reformer” Michelle Rhee’s latest contribution to the America’s children. Rhee’s group StudentsFirst ranks states by their education policies, not results. The states ranked highly by the group include those which are most hostile to teachers unions. As a proponent of so-called reform, Rhee puts students last and politics first. StudentsFirst’s top ranked state is Louisiana, which ranked 49/51 on 8th grade reading scores and 47/51 on 8th grade math scores. Clearly this rating is not based in fact – or reality.
[“Sabbath” is the blog’s Sunday feature that looks beyond career to broader issues that affect our lives.]
Good People and a Bad Fight
I took a great walking tour of the Six Corners neighborhood today. It was hosted by Forgotten Chicago, a group of young people who are passionate about the city, its history, and neighborhoods. That’s what I wanted to write about today until I got home and learned the Chicago teachers strike was not settled, until I read comments on Facebook that first made me mad and then frustrated.
One of my friends blasted the union. Another said no charter school teacher is qualified. Both of these positions are wrong. Yes, the union might be faulted for some things, but the Mayor’s team must be put into the equation (something Chicago’s corporate media usually fails to do). On the other hand, some charter school teachers are as qualified as anyone in CPS. The problem is that the charter system pays teacher less and provides them no protection. If teachers aren’t treated as professionals and paid a good wage, what qualified person will want all of challenges that go with the job? How can we have good schools if we don’t have qualified teachers?
Both of the people I cite above are parents, good people frustrated with a situation that is very complicated. I can’t imagine what it’s like for parents to scramble to find day care for their children. Add to that problem the cost, and there is cause for some parents to be very anti-union. It’s important to remember that the Chicago Teachers Union is not acting in a vacuum. The mayor and his school board have not shown a true sense of urgency in solving this problem. They blame the teacher and call the strike a “choice.” However, their actions are also driven by choices. As Ben Joravsky of the Reader outlines in his latest column, the mayor and others in the system have not treated the teachers with respect.
I went to public schools in Cleveland for six years. Most of my teachers were highly dedicated and taught us lessons that went beyond testable facts: how to think, how to act morally, and how to respect other people and ourselves. Good public schools are essential to real democracy because they are the place where young people from all backgrounds learn to live together and gain the skills that will enable them to compete in the world, which is the essence of democracy.
No one wants bad schools or incapable teachers. That’s not what this bad fight in Chicago or national education “reform” is about. Some people – powerful people – want to bust unions and replace public schools with charter schools and vouchers. They claim the system is broken and only they can fix it – like the Wizard of Oz. I’ll put my faith in dedicated educators like the public school teachers of Chicago. They are fighting for their professional rights. More importantly, they are fighting to preserve the kind of education we need to maintain our values of equal opportunity and democracy.
P.S. David Sirota poses 4 questions that should be considered in evaluating the strike.
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