Rebecca Mead understands what too many of my friends do not. In an excellent blog post for the New Yorker, Mead warns that the neo-liberal education “reform” movement is not primarily about improving educational opportunities for poor, urban minority students. It’s about breaking teachers unions.
Chicago is currently ground zero for the so-called reformers, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel is their latest champion, picking up the same cudgel that Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee wielded in New York and Washington, D.C. Emanuel has provoked a strike by 29,000 school teachers, refusing to settle unless the teachers’ union gives in to high stakes testing.
Rhee once admitted that she would be happy to see the entire D.C. school system turned over to private charter schools, and my guess is that Emanuel feels the same way about Chicago. Chicago’s public school teachers, who devote their lives to the education of the city’s poor, mostly minority children, know the direction Emanuel and his school CEO are heading; they’ve seen Arne Duncan and his successor close schools, charterize schools, increase class sizes, and divert money from the school budget. And so they’re resisting.
From what I’ve read, many of the parents understand what’s at stake in Chicago, and they’re no happier about it than the teachers. Between the “suits” downtown and the teachers in the classrooms with their children, parents have no trouble figuring out who really cares about the kids. They know that high stakes testing is a fraudulent way to evaluate teacher quality and an obstacle to education.
I still meet otherwise sensible people who have been bamboozled by Rhee—the former chancellor of D.C. Public Schools—who still believe that she was shaking things up in D.C. and effecting positive change. They think her only problem was her abrasive style. In fact, her “reforms” were a failure in educational terms, though she did manage to charterize more schools and help lock a school voucher plan into place. At the end of 2011, free/reduced-price lunch schoolchildren in the District were performing 32-33 points worse on 8th grade reading and math than they did in 2003. The gap between them and the full-price lunch students grew by 17-18 points. Her only “success” was moving thousands of students into charter schools and millions of dollars into private hands.
Rhee and her supporters want to bring the free market to public education. They want to privatize the nation’s public school systems and destroy one of the most important social forces that bonds us across racial and class lines—a key reason better-off residents of cities like Washington or Chicago care about the system charged with educating the large numbers of desperately poor children who make up the majority.
Rhee and reformers like her know they have to break the unions before they can tap into the billions of dollars of public education money. In Chicago, the battle is on.
If you believe unions are the cause of whatever educational ill you think is afflicting the nation, this piece by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post might help change your mind. The 10 states that have no binding collective bargaining for teachers (or virtually none), where not even Rush Limbaugh could accuse teacher unions of imposing their will, have significantly poorer educational achievement than the rest of the states, on average. By contrast, nine of the 10 states with the highest scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress are states with high coverage of union contracts.