Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Two sides in Chicago teachers' strike can seem worlds apart

Posted By on 09.11.12 at 03:22 PM

Bruce Rauner
  • Bruce Rauner
Reading the long eve-of-the-teachers'-strike story that began on page one of the Sunday Tribune, I came across a passage that made me wince—which, I suspect, was its intent.

"Also on the mayor's side," reported the Tribune (John Byrne, Kristen Mack, and Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah shared the byline), "are self-proclaimed education reform groups, which have spent tens of thousands of dollars on radio ads to undercut the union's position. Such ads might reasonably be expected to ramp up in frequency and volume in the event of a strike."

The story went on:

Democrats for Education Reform, an organization started by Wall Street hedge fund managers that opened offices in Chicago this year, staged a protest near union headquarters Friday demanding that the union called off the strike.

Emanuel's approach to education fits with the agenda of his wealthiest political supporters, including Penny Pritzker, a member of the Board of Education, and venture capitalist Bruce Rauner, whose wife, Diana, an early education expert, served on Emanuel's transition team.

Lowly news writers don't get to rant and rave. They do get to slip an occasional shiv into their subjects, if they do it so smoothly they can plausibly deny that they just sliced someone open.

But to call any reform group "self-proclaimed" is to gore it. And in these times, it is sufficient merely to observe that the mayor has an "agenda" shaped by a Pritzker and a "venture capitalist" and championed by "Wall Street hedge fund managers" to critique that agenda and convey why Chicago's public school teachers are offended by it. They live in one world; the mayor and these friends live in another.

I know a little about both. For three years I was on the board of trustees of Francis Parker School, a bit of a fish out of water in what was probably the most focused, ambitious, and entrepreneurial company I've ever kept. (I remember telling another trustee at a retreat that I worked for the Reader. He walked away. He'd assumed I owned it.) A capital campaign was being launched, a seven-figure seed grant from the Pritzkers was being negotiated, and any trustee who didn't have the money or the chops to add another six- or seven-figure lump of sugar to the kitty didn't have much to do. The trustees were deeply committed to their children's education; and they were at Parker because they believed that for their children, the public schools would not do.

I suppose Bruce and Diana Rauner's own deep commitment is measured in part by the time Diana Rauner finds to serve on the Latin School's board of trustees.

Likewise refusing to shortchange his own children, Mayor Emanuel sends them to the University of Chicago lab schools. What puzzles me is that he lives in my neighborhood, and just about two blocks from our neighborhood school, Ravenswood Elementary, yet the only time he's ever been seen there is when he votes. You would think either simple curiosity or political common sense would bring him around to peek inside a classroom or two and chat up the principal. It's not likely that during this visit he would catch a disease.

Or perhaps he'd settle for an earful from my wife, who recently spent two years as a neighborhood representative on Ravenswood Elementary's local school council. And while he's at it, we could tell him about LaSalle Language Academy, which graduated two of our daughters. What's interesting about actually experiencing public education (as opposed to reading the latest studies) is that everything critics say is wrong with it turns out to be true, but the context for thinking about all these problems changes. In public education as understood by someone who treats it as a leper colony, there are endless ranks of mediocre teachers, but no great ones—at least no great ones who aren't ground down and defeated by the system. But it turns out there are plenty of great teachers and many of them are indomitable. They are the most impressive critics of Chicago's public schools that you will find, but they don't want the system blown up with them inside it. They simply want to be left alone to teach.

I was visiting the first-grade classroom of one of these teachers a few years ago, and she pointed to various boxes and files lying on the floor in a heap near her desk. Every year, she explained, the central office came up with a new theory about collecting never-before-collected data that would reveal everything and transform education. So all year long she'd dutifully fill out all the forms that had to be filled out, knowing full well that by the end of the year the central office would have lost interest. But who knows? Maybe one day someone would actually ask to see some of this stuff. So she kept it on hand. And it had nothing at all to do with her actual teaching.

Why was she so candidly telling me what drove her nuts? Well, that's how people talk when they get to know and respect each other. It works for mayors too.

A year ago, Bruce Rauner's friend Jonah Edelman, executive director of the national education reform group Stand for Children, spoke at the Aspen Institute and explained the tactical maneuvers behind the passage of school-reform legislation in Springfield. Later Edelman apologized for the antilabor tone of his remarks, but there was really nothing to apologize for. He and his allies had seen an opportunity, seized the moment, and won a great victory that he was now describing. He hadn't crushed the Chicago Teachers Union—he'd simply stripped it of some of its power to obstruct.

Bu Edelman made the mistake of patronizing the CTU—as a video camera caught every word. "We gave them the space to win [too]," he said. "We've been happy to dole out plenty of credit." Worse, he overstated the size of the victory. Not only did his side get pension reform and a longer school day, said Edelman, but the CTU accepted a 75 percent vote of its membership as the threshold for authorizing a strike.

"The unions cannot strike in Chicago," said Edelman. "They will never be able to muster the 75 percent threshold."

At that point, the current strike probably became inevitable. Insulted, the city's public school teachers gave the CTU 90 percent.

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