In the last few weeks, Fred Klonsky has been the Paul Revere of the school blogging world, writing post after post on his education blog warning readers that, in as many words, "The reformers are coming! The reformers are coming!"
In particular, Klonsky is talking about the zealots, backed by multimillionaires, who are crusading against teachers' unions as they claim to fight for the "reform" of public education.
It was Klonsky, as much as anyone, who was responsible for shining a light on the now-infamous I'm-the-king-of-the-universe talk Jonah Edelman gave last month at a think-tank gathering in Aspen, Colorado.
That's the one where Edelman, CEO of the education group Stand for Children, explained how he and his cohorts had effectively bamboozled house speaker Michael Madigan—and just about everyone else in Illinois—into passing Senate Bill 7. Among other things, the bill waters down seniority and tenure for public school teachers.
On July 7 he posted a link to footage of Edelman's talk. Within a few days, he had more than 25,000 hits. That's a lot of hits for a little-known education blog—appropriately named Fred Klonsky's blog—that doesn't feature nude pictures of drunken celebrities. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
On July 10, Edelman felt compelled to eat crow and issue an apology on Klonsky's blog, assuring readers that he and Stand for Children really do "share a common commitment with teachers and teacher's unions."
Apparently they just have a funny way of showing it.
True to form, Klonsky—an elementary school art teacher and union activist in suburban Park Ridge—has been having a field day ever since. "I don't know why Edelman apologized," Klonsky says. "He was only telling the truth."
With his wry, sardonic manner, Klonsky represents the voice from the classroom that's generally overlooked in mainstream coverage of public education.
Yes, I know—many of us have been subjected to boring or ineffectual teachers who might be better off doing something—anything—else.
But as Klonsky points out, the pendulum has swung too far in the antiteacher direction. He argues that groups like Stand for Children have dedicated themselves to the erroneous proposition that much of the evil in public education stems from bad teachers—as opposed to poverty, dysfunctional families, crime, vast economic disparities, misguided reformers, and autocratic administrators. By this logic, if we can get rid of tenure and seniority so that it's easier to fire bad teachers—assuming we figure out who they are—then all children will perform as well as the highest achievers.
To remedy the wrongs, Stand for Children has raised more than $3 million over the last year from 23 donors, including various Pritzkers and Crowns as well as Sam Zell (as if he didn't have enough to do as he deals with the bankrupt Tribune). In other words, we have some of the world's richest people teaming up to make life miserable for middle-class teachers. And who said class warfare is dead?
As Edelman almost gleefully explained in his talk, he used that money to shower donations on legislators who might otherwise go to the evil side—i.e., the teachers' unions.
The end result was the aforementioned SB 7, which, among other things, requires school districts to develop performance benchmarks, most likely based on test scores, to determine which teachers are good and which ones are bad. The bad ones will then be the first to go if a district has to make budget cuts.
Seeing that it was going to pass with or without them, the leaders of the teachers' unions jumped aboard, part of their larger strategy of trying to go with the flow rather than end up drowned. Klonsky, by the way, is even harder on union officials than he is on Edelman, accusing them of caving to the "reformers" on everything from pensions to tenure.
In April, the senate passed the bill by a margin of 54 to nothing. In May, the House passed it 112 to 1 (state rep Monique Davis was the holdout—you go, girl!). And in June, Governor Pat Quinn signed it into law.
Just about everyone from the Tribune editorial board to President Obama has been orgiastically jubilant ever since. In July, some of the law's backers—including state senator Kimberly Lightford, its chief legislative sponsor—schlepped to an education symposium in Washington, D.C., to trumpet it as a model other states might follow.
Word of advice to other states: it's generally not a good idea to emulate anything coming out of Illinois politics, the land of Blagojevich and various other convicted elected officials.
Look, I hate to be the party pooper, but I agree with Klonsky—there's been far too much hype over SB 7, which will have very little substantive inpact on public education, at least in Chicago.
Thanks to Mayor Daley and former Chicago Public Schools CEO Ron Huberman, the district effectively did away with teacher seniority and tenure last year with something called redefinition. That's bureaucratic jargon for arbitrarily changing teachers' job titles so they can be unceremoniously dumped no matter how long they've been teaching. In fact, more than 1,300 teachers were redefined out of their jobs last year in Chicago. It was as if the bosses of an accounting firm told a bunch of accountants that their jobs had been redefined to include juggling. Anyone who couldn't juggle three balls in the air would be replaced by someone who could—preferably someone younger and cheaper.
So effectively the biggest impact of SB 7 is that it eradicated a right that CPS had already eradicated—a point Edelman probably didn't mention to any of Stand's donors, if he knew it himself.
If I'm Sam Zell, I want my money back.
"You're right that SB 7 won't have a big impact on Chicago," says Klonsky. "But it will have an impact on districts outside Chicago, especially some of the poor districts downstate and in the south suburbs."
Fair enough. And Klonsky notes that it will even have an impact on high-achieving districts like New Trier high school in Wilmette, Mayor Rahm Emanuel's alma mater.
"When I used to go to dinner parties and people asked me what I did, I'd say I'm an elementary school art teacher and they'd say, 'Oh, that's nice,'" Klonsky says. "Now they say, 'What's the deal with unions?' and 'Why can't we get rid of bad teachers?'"
Klonsky says that such conversations always turn to the subject of teacher tenure. "And I say, 'Oh really? They have tenure at New Trier and those kids are doing the best in the state. So if we're going to blame tenure for kids doing poorly in some schools, why don't we credit tenure for kids doing well at New Trier?'"
For that matter, teacher seniority and tenure have had no discernible impact at students at North Side College Prep, Walter Payton, Whitney Young, or any of the other high-scoring CPS schools.
So maybe, just maybe, there are other more significant factors at play to explain why students at New Trier—did I mention that it was the mayor's alma mater?—perform so much better than students at, say, Marshall high school on the west side.
Speaking of which, last year CPS unilaterally fired a whole bunch of tenured teachers at Marshall because the students weren't doing well enough. And nobody needed SB 7 to do it.
Joravsky discusses his reporting weekly with journalist Dave Glowacz at mrradio.org/benj. Subscribe to their podcast at the iTunes Store.