[Guest Post] The Chicago Teachers Union: A New Hope for Public Education

CTU Labor Day Rally. Credit: CTU Facebook Page

After months of deadlocked negotiations with the Chicago Public Schools Board of Education, the 26,000 members of the Chicago Teachers Union began their first strike in 25 years today, shutting down over 600 schools that serve over 400,000 students.  The 600 delegates of the CTU voted unanimously in favor of the measure at a meeting August 31, two months after 98 percent of members who cast a ballot authorized the union to call a strike.

Education activists across this country have greeted the CTU’s fight with much enthusiasm, for they see it as a fight for everything they believe in. Many think this strike has the potential to turn the tide against those who wish to privatize our schools and slash budgets across the country. Moreover, as perhaps the largest, best-organized strike since the 1997 UPS strike, it could re-ignite the American labor movement after decades of decline.

In this post I’ll attempt to put the struggle within the context of the nation-wide neoliberal attack on public education, go over the details specific to the fight in Chicago, and explain why you should be siding with the teachers and with universal, high-quality, fully-funded public education.

The Charter Menace

A charter school is a publicly-funded school that is not subject to the same rules and regulations as a regular public school, often run by non-governmental groups. As of December 2011, 2 million students attended the 5,600 charter schools in the US. This number has been increasing by 7 percent annually since 2006 [PDF]. Charter schools have been touted as the saviors of American education, perhaps most famously in the documentary Waiting for “Superman” by Davis Guggenheim. They have become something of a cause célèbre among America’s billionaires, like Bill Gates and various Wall Street philanthropists. They enjoy bipartisan support, taking an important role in Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act and an even more important one in Obama’s Race To The Top.

But as I’ve learned these past few years, when the two parties in Washington agree on some issue, we have very good reason to be worried. Charter schools are no exception. A widely-cited study from Stanford University shows that though 17 percent of charter schools deliver the promised improvements, 37 percent actually perform worse than traditional public schools [PDF]. The ‘flexibility’ and ‘autonomy’ of charters may sound like good things in the abstract, but they’re of no use if they can’t produce better results. So why on Earth would so many influential people throw their weight behind a project that for the most part either changes nothing or actually makes education worse for American children?

Defenders of charter schools, like a certain ruling class rag, often point to the charters that do deliver spectacular results, and say that we just need to replicate that in all the other charters. But a closer look makes that picture seem implausible. One of the charters that’s often (rightfully) praised for its results is SEED, a boarding school in DC. What they don’t usually mention is that SEED spends $35,000 per student, while traditional public schools spend about a third of that on average. Another advantage of charters that’s often left unspoken is that, unlike neighborhood schools, charter schools are allowed to get rid of under-performing students as they please. Geoffrey Canada’s charter schools in Harlem, another oft-praised project, made extreme use of this privilege when they kicked out an entire class of middle school students for not being up to par. So it’s no surprise that they are able to perform better than traditional public schools: they can just get rid of anyone who could drag their scores down.

Finally, teachers from charter schools are generally not unionized. This may sound like a good thing to many in the current political climate, in which politicians on both sides of the aisle enjoy blaming teachers and their unions for the problems of public education. But the data do not lie: according to a well-regarded study from Arizona State University [PDF summary], schools with unionized teachers tend to produce better results. This should be common sense. Unions can bargain for better pay, better working conditions, and increased job security, all of which can attract better teachers, who can in turn provide a better education to students.

Of course, there are many other sources of threats to American public education, but I would clog the intertubes if I tried to write about all of them. A notable example is “Parent Trigger” laws, which would allow parents to take over an under-performing school and do with it as they please, including turning it into a charter schools. Such laws sound nice, even democratic in the abstract. But if we remove the sheep’s clothing that disguises them, we are left with just another plan to privatize public education. Like charter schools, parent trigger laws also have the support of the nation’s billionaires, as well as their own awful piece of Hollywood propaganda (which was apparently showed at the start of the DNC).

Not to mention more long-standing issues that have always plagued education in the United States. For example, since education is mostly funded by property taxes, poorer neighborhoods have always had lower-quality education, thus perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

Given the ample evidence for the failure of charter schools, I find no satisfactory answer for why anyone who genuinely wants to improve American education would support them. We must accept that American elites have no intention of improving public schools—after all, they can afford to send their kids to fancy private schools. The insistence on charters is not born out of compassion, but out of the realization that politicians cannot admit they want to gut public education and still tell their constituents they believe in the ideals of a liberal democracy. As Prof. Sanford Schram of Bryn Mawr has said, charter schools and other neoliberal reforms of the welfare state are merely Plan B for the world’s capitalists: a pragmatic response to the political impossibility of getting rid of welfare completely.

Let us now turn to how all of this is playing out in the city that gave birth to neoliberal ideology.

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It Happened Here (Or, How to Hate a City)

It’s been three years and nothing’s changed.

I still cry every time I leave home, whether I’ve been there for a weekend or a summer. I’m still the awkward girl with no sense of decorum who cries on the Megabus. I still feel worse and worse as I get closer and closer to my hateful destination. Every lonely Indiana mile hurts as I pass it by.

There’s no redeeming Chicago in my eyes. For the rest of my life, I’ll remember it as the first place where I ever consciously wanted to die. It was the first place I have ever felt truly alone–the first place where I understood, after my luggage has been carried up the stairs and the door has slammed shut, that nobody will come and save me now.

All the negative superlatives of my life so far have happened here. Coldest, loneliest, saddest, angriest. Most betrayed, most apathetic, most afraid.

Some days I feel like hate is the only response I can give to this city. I like to imagine that it will somehow be hurt by the blunt force of my hate, which burns on and on even after my wounds have all healed. But of course, cities don’t ache. People do.

It wasn’t always this way. When I was in high school, before I could imagine any sort of life outside of the Midwest, Chicago shone in my eyes like a lighthouse by the lake. It was an oasis among the decaying farms and factories and cookie-cutter suburbs that I drove through to get here. I dreamed of coming here for good.

Now I remember that and I’m filled with guilt for hating it without even being able to fault it. On one hand, this could all have happened anywhere else. Any city, any college, any lifetime. But it happened here. To me. And “it” includes too many interacting and inseparable events and incidents and feelings to plausibly explain to anybody but myself. But it happened here, to me.

There were the little daily indignities that piled up, and the larger heartbreaks and nasty surprises, too. And there were the “real” traumas, the ones that would make it into the story I would come to tell about my life.

There were times that made me smile, too. There have been moments when I have loved Chicago–for instance, when taking the purple line downtown above ground and watching the entire city skyline unfurl in front of me as the train rounded a corner. But a pretty skyline (and a few good friends, and a few fun trips) will never erase those superlatives.

This city has beat me down, and I’m just now starting to stand up again. I wish that I could keep living here without a heavy heart. But I can’t. So now, full of guilt, a hopeful voice in the back of my head counts down the months until graduation, until I can leave.

When I walk down the streets, I see yellow cabs and delis in my mind instead. I pretend that Evanston is Queens, that Lakeview is Greenwich Village, that Michigan Avenue is really Fifth. They are poor substitutions. But I remember the way the setting sun shines down the numbered avenues and I feel better.

It could’ve happened anywhere else, but it didn’t. It happened here.

Coming Home

[TMI Warning]

This weekend I went home to Ohio, where my family lives. I hadn’t been home since winter vacation (I spent spring break in New York) so the time seemed ripe for a visit.

The drive was spectacular in that unspectacular way. I took the Megabus, sat on the upper level, and spent whatever time I didn’t spend sleeping looking out the window at the Midwestern landscape. I watched as it changed from the industrial utilitarianism of Chicago and northwestern Indiana to the vast fields, punctuated by lonely farmhouses and islands of fluffy deciduous trees, that I grew up with.

When I got to Ohio, I was stunned by how green it was. Green trees, fields, and shrubs stretched in every direction. I was reminded of how I felt three years ago, when I came home from a summer in Israel–I felt like I’d never seen so much of one color in my life.

Coming home has a certain routine. I greet my family, especially my little brother and sister, whose screams of “Mashaaaaa!” (my Russian name) are always followed very closely by screams of “iPaaaaaaaad!” (my iPad is possibly their favorite thing about me). Then I go through the house and take an inventory of everything that has changed since I was last there. My sister has a new car seat, a much bigger one. There are new drawings and school projects and children’s books lying around. My dad has been cleaning out the little closet under the stairs.

My room, though, is just as I left it, more of a museum than a space where someone actually lives. Every time I’m home, I make changes to it, because that’s the only way I can continue to believe that someone actually inhabits it. Usually I box up some relics of my old life and put them in the closet. This time was no exception.

Yet it’s impossible to avoid the reminders of the fact that I don’t belong here anymore. The first thing my dad said upon seeing me was that my outfit (leggings, boots, and a long, non-revealing top–de rigueur in Chicago) was an “outrage.” He repeated this point several times, saying that just because I could wear something in Chicago doesn’t mean I can wear it in Ohio. Then he said I look like a slut.

This was far from the first time I’ve felt this way here. Come to think of it, I’ve always felt painfully out of place in this little suburb. I was one of very few foreign-born students in my high school, and one of even fewer Jews. I didn’t know anyone else who had ever visited Israel, let alone lived there. I looked different, dressed different, talked and acted different.

I was the subject of much speculation and well-meaning humor. I’ve been called such epithets as “commu-Jew,” “Russian spy,” and “weird Jewish Russian flute player.” I’ve been asked all sorts of naive questions; ranging from the innocent, such as, “Have you ever tried wearing your hair straight?” (Yes, I have. It’s ugly. I am Jewish and my hair is meant to be curly) and “Which church do you go to?” (Um, actually, I don’t go to any church); to the simply ridiculous, such as, “Do they have cars in Israel?” (Yes, Israel has come a long way since biblical times).

(Or, as an addendum–do I like bagels? Do I like vodka? Do I party a lot? How much can I drink? How much can my parents drink? Do my parents belong to the Russian mafia? Are they spies? Political refugees? Do they keep nukes in the basement? Will my dad beat up any guy I bring home? And while we’re at it, why didn’t the Jews accept Jesus Christ as the Messiah?)

I also found myself struggling to explain my developing identity to those around me. Whenever I tried to tell my friends about my life in Israel, I was generally met with blank stares, because many of the people I knew had never even traveled outside of the United States, and some had never even left Ohio or the Midwest. When discussing my travel plans, I usually encountered dumbfounded confusion as to why I would ever want to go to “that place,” since American media tends to portray Israel as a war-torn wasteland. One friend’s mom, a well-meaning woman who treated me like family, asked me to consider not going to Israel anymore because, and I quote, “We want you to be safe with us.”

Everything I’ve mentioned above, I generally took in stride, often even with a laugh. But sometimes the ignorance drifted subtly (or not-so-subtly) into prejudice. A boy in my third-grade class called me a “stupid Jew” (an experience now shared, sadly, by my nine-year-old brother). When a high school friend jokingly insulted me and I got a bit defensive, he smugly suggested that perhaps my defensiveness has to do with my Israeli nationality. Somewhat more disturbingly, a close friend in high school began to tell me once that her mom considers me egotistical–here I wondered, How? She’s hardly even talked to me–but then my friend inserted the explanatory qualifier–because I’m Jewish.

Oh, okay then. Makes perfect sense now.

Whether harmless and funny or crude and prejudiced, the way people interpreted and responded to me when I lived in Ohio could only have told me one thing–you don’t belong here.

Chicago is a different story. People mostly couldn’t care less which country my passport comes from or which type of religious congregation I attend (or, in fact, whether or not I attend one at all, which by the way, I don’t). When I tell friends about my time in Israel, they say “That’s really cool” and tell me about studying in Argentina or traveling through China. Although prejudice of various sorts still exists, even here, I don’t know which is rarer–someone deciding that I’m “egotistical” because of my ethnicity, or feeling like enough of a smart-ass to tell me that their mother thinks so. For the first time in my life, I’ve met people my own age who share  bits and pieces of my culture, and my identity has become even stronger because of it.

And yet…and yet. How I love coming back to Ohio. I miss the greenness and simplicity of it, the friendliness of the people, the lack of noise and traffic. Sometimes I even miss the prevalence of lawn gnomes and pickup trucks. I love escaping the pace of the city, and the police sirens screaming past my window at all hours of day and night. And the girls in heels and sunglasses looking down their noses at me, and the men who try to say things to me on the street.

In Ohio I don’t have to feel bad that my shoes are from eBay and my perfume is from T.J. Maxx–because so is everyone else’s. Even the extra pounds on my body seem to melt away when I’m home, because the “fashionable” waifishness I encounter every two steps at Northwestern is, needless to say, very rare back home.

In Ohio, in other words, I’m a big fish in a small pond.

I used to hate Ohio and especially Beavercreek, the suburb where I lived. They represented everything I hated about the United States–the stifling conservatism, the ethnocentricity, and, on a less serious note, the complete and utter lack of things to do. But over time I’ve grown to appreciate this leafy town. It is, in its own small-minded way, comforting, familiar, and serene.

I’m coming home, I’m coming home
Tell the world I’m coming home
Let the rain wash away
All the pain of yesterday
I know my kingdom awaits
And they’ve forgiven my mistakes
I’m coming home, I’m coming home
Tell the world that I’m coming

Bookman's Heaven

Note: This short piece has the rather unusual (for me, anyways) distinction of having achieved a grade of 100% in my journalism class, which I’m very proud of and happy about, so I hope you enjoy it too. :D

If history were a place, it would be Bookman’s Alley.

A fixture of Evanston, Illinois for the past 31 years, this bookstore is the sort of place a bibliophile can enter in the morning and emerge from in the late afternoon, squinting at the sun, wondering where the hours went.

Walking into Bookman’s Alley reveals a serene white-haired man sitting at a desk cluttered with books. He talks easily and casually with regular patrons, but to a first-time visitor, he says nothing.

The store seems tiny and cramped, and the hardwood floor—creaking quietly with each step—is covered with afghan rugs of varying colors and sizes. Piano jazz flows from somewhere near the ceiling. Artwork covers every inch of wall that a bookshelf hasn’t already appropriated, and prints and posters for sale call for attention from baskets on the floor. Full of mismatched chairs for reading and relaxing, the store smells like dusty paper and rugs that haven’t been aired out in decades.

The bowl of pastel-colored gumdrops near the door is an anachronism. Their rough texture and syrupy taste are a jolt from the present.

Reach the end of the front room and you will find a miracle. The room opens up into another, then another. The rooms overflow with dusty tomes, sometimes autographed, sometimes available nowhere else but this bookstore, hidden in an alley. Each bookshelf has a label, such as “Nautical,” “China,” “Magic,“ “Literary Biography,” or, curiously, “Nostalgia.”

Some books peer out from glass cabinets, and some—such as the $1,400 first edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned—are too precious to be seen and are denoted by a handwritten card instead. Antiques, though not for sale, accompany the books—Civil War uniforms, model ships, a falconer’s costume, and even a 19th-century printing press.

This is a place where history lives and breathes.