The Real Education Reformers: Why Chicago Mothers and Teachers Are Doing More than “Waiting for Superman”

Last October a group of primarily Latina mothers sat in at this Chicago public school to get the school district to build a library and community center instead of selling part of the school property to a neighboring private school. Creative Commons/Jerry Mead-Lucero.

Want to meet the leaders of the growing movement in defense of public education? You might be surprised where to look. While the corporate media focuses on Washington, D.C., and President Obama’s Race to the Top policies, or on Hollywood and its controversial documentary Waiting for Superman, you can find America’s true grassroots education reformers in the post-industrial heartland of Chicago, Illinois. And as with any great movement, mothers are at the forefront.

In October 2010, a group of primarily Latina mothers from Whittier Elementary School on the near west side of Chicago staged a sit-in at the school to stop the Chicago Public School system from tearing down the school’s field house to become a soccer field for a neighboring private school. After forty-three days of protest that garnered national media attention, the school system agreed to the activists’ demands, pledging to build a much-needed library and community center on the site instead. The mothers thus won more than just a place for their kids to learn their ABCs: they won both increased funding and the right for their school to be a site for community engagement and action.

Just six months earlier, Chicago’s progressive education movement scored another victory. In May 2010, the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), an insurgent slate of activist teachers, won a hard-fought election to take leadership of the powerful Chicago Teachers Union. The teachers union, like others across the country, had come under criticism for its bureaucratic, paternalistic relationship with parents and even its own members. CORE won the election on a theme of social justice unionism and democratic education, and in its first year in leadership it has taken a more aggressive stance on issues like smaller class sizes, equitable funding, deemphasizing standardized tests, and reducing union officials’ salaries to bring them in line with what an actual teacher makes.
These two stories might seem like isolated victories, but given their time and location, their impact has ripple effects across the country. Why? Simply put, because for the last decade, Chicago has been the center of the corporate-led attack on public education. In 2004, Chicago Mayor-for-Life Richard M. Daley and former Chicago Public Schools Chief Arne Duncan created the Renaissance 2010 plan with a stated goal to create one hundred new high-performing public schools in the city. The results? In the seven years since Renaissance 2010 went into effect, Chicago families have seen some new, successful schools built, but they have suffered far more due to devastating school closures and reorganizations that occurred with little or no community input. Critics have noted that the neighborhoods where the new high-performing schools are built are the most rapidly gentrifying areas of the city, leading many to wonder whether this type of school reform is only for white, higher-income families. A recent DePaul University study on the effects of Renaissance 2010 was so dismal that it forced the researchers to title their report, “Students as Collateral Damage?”

After forty-three days of protest, they won. Creative Commons/Jerry Mead-Lucero.

What makes all of this matter to the rest of us is that, unlike Las Vegas, what happens in Chicago doesn’t stay in Chicago. Duncan is now Secretary of Education under that other Chicago expat, President Obama. Together, Duncan and Obama have pushed the failed policies of Renaissance 2010 on a national scale, under the auspices of their “Race to the Top” initiative. Continuing the No Child Left Behind legacy of the Bush administration, Race to the Top forces states to compete for funding chiefly on the criteria of who can ensure as much standardized testing possible. Taken together, these policies encourage states and schools to remove creativity and dialogue from the classroom, instead focusing on rote memorization and the competitive ethos that corporate America desires in its future workers. Rewarding rich communities for their built-in advantages, punishing poor schools for their failures -- Race to the Top isn’t education policy, it’s another regressive tax on America’s working families.

Lending Hollywood luster to the corporatization of public schools is the recent documentary Waiting for Superman. The film, which follows a group of working-class, mostly black and Latino students and parents as they try to find success amid their failing schools, pulls all the right heartstrings. But its policy prescriptions show why all school reform is not positive reform. According to the movie, the problem with America’s schools is the lack of good teachers. While never defining what actually constitutes a “good teacher,” the film makes clear that the problem is the mass number of “bad teachers” and the evil teachers unions that supposedly protect them. With teachers unions cast as the villain, Superman offers the hero role to former Washington, D.C., superintendent Michelle Rhee.

Although she has since lost her job due to D.C. voters’ anger at her abrasive reforms, Rhee was lauded in the media for her strong stand against teacher union contracts and in support of charter schools and other methods to ensure more “choice and accountability.” Like Rhee, Superman makes little mention of funding or budget cuts, of racial and class divisions, of standardized tests and outdated pedagogy. No sir, if the students aren’t passing the test -- blame the students, blame the parents, and especially blame the teachers. Supported by Bill Gates’ influential foundation and a bipartisan cross-section of the political and cultural elite, Waiting for Superman is a sleek, private-sector attack on a key base for true education reform.

So if not the teacher unions, who is to blame for the state of our schools? After all, the situation isn’t pretty. Over 25 percent of U.S. students fail to graduate high school each year. In Chicago, that rate rises to over 40 percent, including a staggering 52 percent for African Americans. We have an educational crisis here, but what the Waiting for Superman folks do not want us to understand is that our educational crisis is by and large a product of our larger social crises. If we truly want to leave no children behind, we can start by ensuring a good job at a living wage for their parents, healthy and affordable food in their neighborhoods, and the decriminalization of their very communities and cultures.

California saved corporations and wealthier homeowners plenty by reducing property taxes in 1978. But as a result California’s education system has gone from one of the best to one of the worst in the country. It’s not about the country’s lack of money, it’s about priorities. Above, a school in Redwood City, California, holds a Day of Action in March 2010. Creative Commons/(nz)dave.

From an economic perspective, the ongoing cuts to public services since the Reagan era have hit public schools the hardest. Before 1978, when Proposition 13 passed in California, dramatically lowering the property tax rate for corporations and the wealthy, the state ranked first in the country in education spending -- and most educational outcomes. Three decades and billions of budget cuts later, the Golden State ranks forty-ninth out of fifty in K-12 spending, and has one of the worst education systems in the country. All the while, our country has poured billions into our bloated prison system -- and trillions into our imperialist projects in Iraq and Afghanistan. The problem is not just the budget cuts, it is the misplaced priorities that our budgets reflect.

Our schools reflect our communities, and in 2011, those communities are as segregated as ever. It is no secret that schools in poor, black, and Latino neighborhoods receive far fewer resources than their white and middle/high-income peers, across the nation. Chicago Public Schools (over 85 percent black and Latino) spent $11,300 per student in 2010, while suburban New Trier High School (over 85 percent white) spent $17,500 per student. These are more than just numbers -- they mean class sizes of fifteen students versus forty students; well-compensated teachers versus “two years and then I’m moving on”; field trips and art classes versus the only employer recruiting at the school being the Army. Students and parents understand the inequality all too well, which is why in 2008, over one thousand families with children in the Chicago Public School system staged a week-long boycott and bused out to New Trier in a symbolic attempt to enroll in the suburban school system. Education is still the civil rights issue of our nation, and Chicago is at the center of rebuilding the movement.

Many liberals are attracted to Race to the Top and similar policies because they seem to be the only reform out there. But change doesn’t always mean change for the better. John Boehner is certainly a change as House Speaker from Nancy Pelosi, but Barbara Lee would be too. Yes, there are self-serving and sometimes corrupt teachers unions -- but our goal should be to democratize the unions, not demolish them. Teachers unions exist to protect workers’ rights, and progressive unionists such as the Caucus of Rank and File Educators are expanding that paradigm to include fighting for a more democratic curriculum and school structure. Following in the footsteps of the mothers of Whittier Elementary, other key constituencies -- parents, community members, and yes, even the students -- can demand more community control over the primary institution in their life. More than just reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, schools can be laboratories for true, participatory democracy.

In my own work as a spoken word educator, I have worked in hundreds of public schools across the country. I have seen the incredible divisions and problems that plague our schools, but I have also witnessed the joy and amazement that both students and teachers attain in the process of collective learning. Our schools try to turn students into standardized robots -- but at its core, education is a process of becoming more fully human. It is an invitation to listen, to learn how best to heal the world and ourselves. Walking in the footsteps of radical educators like Paulo Freire and Ella Baker, I have seen how powerful students become when they realize how much knowledge they already possess. My job as an educator is to facilitate their understanding and growth of that knowledge -- for them to struggle with me, with each other, and ultimately with the world so that we can find better answers to the questions that plague us all.

Resources set boundaries, but a true national education policy would be about more than just equitable funding. It would be a policy of love. I love my students. If we love our youth, we need to provide them with a better home during the school day. Our country’s public schools are a shame. Let’s instead make them our pride. To do so, let’s learn from the example of proud struggle in that windy city, sweet home Chicago.


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