The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Education Deformed, Not Reformed

Nov 25, 2013

The following remarks come from a presentation at a Spark public meeting in Detroit this past October.

The current phase of so-called “education reform” has deep roots in Chicago. The opening shot was a state law passed in 1995 by the Illinois legislature, handing control over the school district to then Mayor Daley. Democrat Daley conspired with Republicans in the state legislature to get the law, which allowed Daley to appoint the school board. It’s been filled with millionaire businesspeople ever since.

The law also allowed him to consolidate different school taxes into one pot of money – allowing him to put his hands on the money dedicated to teacher pensions. And the law cut back on seniority for teachers. Teachers, even veterans, laid off from a school no longer had any right to a job – they were put in the same boat as new applicants. In fact, they were often in a worse position. They knew their rights, and their wages were higher – making them less attractive when principals were hiring. This has meant the teaching force has gotten younger, less experienced, and more white in a city where 90% of the students are black or Hispanic.

The 1995 law also allowed the heads of the district to close schools in the poor neighborhoods. Combined with a 1997 law on charters, this provision was used in order to force children from neighborhood schools into charters – or to close schools attended by poor children in areas that real estate interests planned to gentrify.

This Illinois policy went national in Bush’s No Child Left Behind law in 2001.

Finally, the law allowed Daley to appoint a schools chief with no education background. Daley said he was going to a “business model” for education, so the title for this job became CEO. I’m going to mention the name of the Daley’s CEO, because he became a key figure in education reform nationally: Paul Vallas. Vallas had been Daley’s budget director. He had, and still has, absolutely no background in education. Vallas proceeded to attack struggling schools. He began contracting out many services within schools – computer systems, printing, custodial services and lunchroom management, among others, were given over to private operators for private profit, reducing the money actually spent on services for children. And he laid off teachers, reducing still further the attention children received.

He placed a huge emphasis on test scores, to the exclusion of education. Controversially, students’ promotion from 3rd, 6th and 8th grade was made contingent on test scores. That meant that tens of thousands of students, mostly from poor backgrounds were kept back – without any extra resources put into the schools to help them catch up. It was a way to discard a portion of the children. One of Vallas’ tests inspired a test boycott by a dozen teachers at one high school – a boycott that caused the Board to drop that test.

Vallas’ reign of terror ended when an opposition within the union came to power in an anti-Vallas vote. Parents and community members had also been angry with him. Daley was forced to let him go in 2001.

Taking the “Reform” Show on the Road

Vallas became the traveling salesman of “education reform” – plowing a path of destruction through the school district and students of Philadelphia. There he carried out the same reforms – contracting out services, cutting budgets, and handing forty schools over to charters. This year, Philadelphia closed 24 schools – more than 10% of the system. Students in Philadelphia schools started this year with no counselors, no nurses, no clerks, no support staff, no sports. Thousands of teachers were laid off. One sixth-grade girl died of an asthma attack last month – in a school with no nurse.

After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Vallas took over the school system there. “Reformers” saw the destruction wrought on the city as the “opportunity of a lifetime.” Vallas promptly replaced half of the system’s schools with charters, and displaced a huge number of unionized black teachers, in favor of younger white, inexperienced and untrained teachers from “Teach for America.” The move was part of the plan to make sure working people displaced from places like the lower 9th Ward would not return, leaving the whole city free for the wealthy.

Vallas then went to Haiti, to offer his “expert advice” there on how to give public schools over to private operators.

Vallas was appointed to a job running the schools in Bridgeport, Connecticut, but he encountered resistance. Parents were elected to a majority of the school board and insisted that he be fired. And they challenged his position in court – school superintendents in Connecticut are required to have education and administrator credentials.

Vallas didn’t wait to see if he kept the job. He signed on to run as Illinois Governor Pat Quinn’s running mate in next year’s election.

Back in Chicago

Arne Duncan followed Vallas. Duncan also was not an educator. He had played basketball professionally – in Australia – then moved on to Ariel Capital Management, one of Chicago’s biggest hedge funds, and one that looked for ways to make money off the schools.

In 2004, the Civic Committee of the Chicago Commercial Club, made up of CEO’s and some of the city’s wealthiest people, worked out a plan with Duncan and Chicago Public Schools to close, consolidate, or “turn-around” 100 mostly neighborhood schools between 2004 and 2010. They called their plan “Renaissance 2010.”

Real estate interests had been pushing for several decades to “gentrify” previously poor and working class areas of the city. School closings served this drive.

Chicago’s Near West Side is close to the city’s downtown Loop district. This part of the city previously included a number of public housing projects, inhabited primarily by poor black Chicagoans. But so-called “developers” moved in. Over the course of the last 15 years, much of that public housing has been removed; the residents were displaced. Under Renaissance 2010, many of the neighborhood elementary schools were closed. And this drove more people out who used to live in the area. Charter schools, which do not take the poorest students, replaced some of the closed schools. Other closing schools were converted to ones with special programs, like Science Technology magnets, programs that attract middle class families, and exclude more working class.

It’s no accident that the head of the school board during much of the change, Michael Scott, was a real estate developer with lots of property in that same area.

About 100 schools were closed during that time period – the great majority of them in working class black neighborhoods already beset with unemployment and poverty.

This process will probably accelerate – Rahm Emanuel, Chicago’s mayor, closed 50 schools just last year, and 20 the year before, most of them in black neighborhoods. The idea seems to be to clear out large parts of the city where working people live so that so-called “developers” can buy up the land for cheap.

This gentrification program has already taken its toll: the black population of Chicago fell by almost 180,000 between 2000 and 2010 according to the Census; that’s about 16%.

Driving Children Out of the Public Schools

In this attack on neighborhood schools, Duncan and Emanuel used the 1997 Illinois law on charters. It allowed non-profit organizations to get charters to run schools privately with public money. In the beginning some charters may have been run by community organizations or groups of teachers. But today the field is dominated by large concerns that are “non-profit” only on paper.

UNO Schools, for example, runs one of the largest charter chains. A reporter recently revealed that the heads of the supposedly “non-profit” UNO gave out multimillion dollar contracts to construction firms run by relatives – relatives who made political contributions to the politicians who gave UNO the charter to run schools. UNO also used school money to buy up a lot of land, speculating on real estate. And UNO executives all make six-figure salaries. Because of this kind of operation, UNO spends only 50% of its money in the classroom – that is, on students. For comparison, the Chicago Public Schools puts 70% into the classroom.

The district is starving the neighborhood schools to drive students to the charters. Kelly High School, for example, lost over four million dollars from its budget this year, and had to lay off 20 teachers and counselors, pushing students to leave. No accident that Kelly has three UNO charter schools within a few blocks.

Many schools, particularly struggling neighborhood schools, saw their budgets cut by 10 to 20% this year. In all, more than 3,000 teachers and staff lost their jobs. Librarians, counselors, and the arts teachers were the first to be laid off, further diminishing resources for children.

Many so-called “failing” schools have had their entire staff fired, teachers, lunchroom workers, custodians, administrators, coaches. Everyone had to reapply for their job – and no more than half, usually less, were hired back. And management of the school has often been given over to a private operator. It’s meant total chaos. Getting rid of the adults the students knew massively disrupted the students’ learning community.

Derrion Albert was one such student; his south-side high school had been closed and given over to a military high school. He had to attend a new high school further away. Then that school was “turned around” – so the school disruptions stacked one on top of the other. One month into the year, Albert was caught and killed walking through a big fight right in front of his latest school.

A National Scheme to Hijack the Public Schools

As Secretary of Education, Duncan’s Chicago “reforms” have gone national. Instead of ending Bush’s ridiculous “No Child Left Behind” law, Duncan expanded it with “Race to the Top.” Continuing this “market orientation,” Race to the Top was framed as a contest for a few billion dollars – a contest between state boards of education. It was nothing but a pretext to force states to increase testing, introduce charter schools, and tie teacher evaluations to student test scores – which is nothing but a way to reduce teacher salaries.

The children will learn to take tests and follow orders, but not to think or to enjoy art, music and culture, not to learn what history and science and literature have to offer. Rahm Emanuel told the teachers union president that “25% of the students in this city are never going to be anything, never going to amount to anything, and I’m never going to throw money at them.” That sums up pretty succinctly the bourgeoisie’s current policy toward the schools – with some rich-man’s contempt thrown in.

Duncan and Vallas are not alone in these attacks; they are part of a national drive to break up and privatize public education. They are officers in an army of administrators without education backgrounds. Their boot-camp is the Broad Academy, where they get their training and then take their “reform” show on the road. Here are some “Broadies” who may be familiar. Barbara Byrd Bennett closed schools in Cleveland and Detroit, before presiding over the latest round of closings in Chicago. John Covington closed half of Kansas City’s public schools, before moving to Detroit. And Robert Bobb worked to close schools in Washington, D.C. before coming to Detroit. This is a conscious, national policy to take apart our public schools, coordinated both by big business and government at the federal, state and city level. They want the money spent on children to go to profit and let the children of the working class be damned.