I read a couple of posts recently which really highlight the critical role teachers have in improving public education for the students and communities that need it most. I have some experience with this – being a teacher in the Chicago Public Schools for a decade, being certified through an alternative certification program and having had some interesting interactions with some AstroTurf teacher groups at the Gates Foundation Teacher Convening a couple of years ago.
First a post about how philanthropies are funding AstroTurf organizations of teachers that push the neoliberal corporate style ed reform policies that are really destroying public education from the Public Education Justice Alliance of Minnesota
The neoliberals, corporate foundations, billionaires, and others looking to privatize our public schools work hard to sell their actions as that of local grassroots organizations whose only concerns are for the children, especially poor, urban, and minority children. These astroturf groups have worked their way into every state, including Minnesota. We have the well-financed MinnCAN and Students First among others, but in their efforts the corporate reformers keep running into the public school teachers and their unions who actually do care about ALL children.
These corporate “reformers” have long realized that if they are going to privatize the public schools, they must eliminate the the voice of the teachers, and the unions that protect their right to speak in defense of their students. The “reformers” have had a great deal of success, convincing both Republican and Democratic politicians to pass legislation that weakens teacher unions and public education. The push-back, however, has been growing steadily. Led by rank-and-file members who have demanded more action from their own union leadership or have taken over the leadership as C.O.R.E. did in Chicago, teachers are calling out the corporate reformers for what they are – privatizers and union-busters.
The corporate reformers are feeling the heat, but they will not go away quietly. A new strategy has evolved in recent years with the help of the “happy-face” of the corporate reformers – Teach for America (TFA).
The new strategy is to convince the public that teachers really do want the corporate reforms, but that it is actually their own unions that are keeping them silent. It is a devious approach that can pit new teachers against veteran teachers. These newer groups receiving money from Gates, the Waltons, and other corporate foundations are started and led, by mostly TFA alumni, and recruit heavily among TFA corp members and other younger teachers.
Many of the attendees at the Gates Teacher Convening I attended were with E4E and they railed against tenure and teacher pensions as destroying public education – basically spouting right wing think-tank talking points. Many of them only had a couple of years of experience teaching in charter schools but were well educated in public schools in wealthy suburban districts that have union teachers. Many of them seemed to swallow the corporate reform model very uncritically. When I went out for dinner with a couple of them and talked about the great pre-tenure teachers at my school that were fired because they spoke out too much on behalf of students they seemed to actually start to understand that some of the ideas they’d been fed might have some flaws in them. Many of these young idealistic teachers really do want to fight for social justice, but they’ve been co-opted into the corporate reform machine.
The other post that’s stuck in my head recently is about how teachers have actually been a force for social justice in public schools… and not just recently. The Chicago Teacher Revolt — of 1933 describes how teacher unions started – in part – with a social justice mission which is being revived today around the country.
On the eve before the Great Depression, what the NEA called “America’s great crisis”, Chicago’s teachers found themselves in a contradictory and uncomfortable position. Although their pay and working conditions were better than the blue collar workers in the city, their work in the classroom was becoming increasingly difficult. There had been a dramatic increase in Chicago public school students all through the 1920s which left the schools scrambling for funding.
The schools were largely financed through property taxes, and powerful corporations, along with real estate interests, had been dodging taxes for decades. The system was plagued with corruption and mismanagement and by the late 1920s was bogged down in lawsuits, court actions and a business-led tax strike. To make matters worse, the appointed school board had become a cesspool of financial corruption, especially under the gangster-tainted reign of Mayor William Thompson, an ally of Al Capone. By 1929, the year of the Wall Street stock market crash, Chicago was essentially broke.
The schools in the immigrant inner city neighborhoods often lacked libraries, playgrounds or even adequate toilet facilities. The children, many of whom had only an uncertain grasp of English, were herded into overcrowded grim looking classrooms that one educational analyst described as resembling “enlarged prison cells”. Schools in Chicago’s growing African American neighborhoods were plagued by overcrowding and poor facilities. African American teachers faced relentless racial discrimination.
Does this sound familiar? An appointed school board that supports business interests over students’? African American and immigrant children suffering from disinvestment? A “financial crisis” caused by financial manipulation and malpractice of elected officials? Teachers fighting to improve their working conditions because those are also students’ learning conditions? If you’re interested in more details about the history of corporate control of schools I strongly encourage you to read Dorothy Shipps’ book: School Reform, Corporate Style Chicago 1880-2000. Yup… this has been going on since the birth of public schools.
Unions started in order to act as a check on the monopoly power of the business elite that were running the city and the school district. Teacher unions are now one of the only forces that can continue to fight against the destruction of our public schools. Unions have not always held true to their social justice roots, but it’s time for us to nurture and grow that most crucial aspect of teacher unionism. We don’t need Gates and Walton funded AstroTurf groups. We need real public school teachers to continue to stand up and fight for their rights as teachers and to support our students and their parents as they fight for fair funding, democratic control and a truly equitable and excellent public school for every child in every community.