by Don Washington on 2012/10/01
There are more lessons than one can count or catalogue from the Chicago Teacher’s Union’s (CTU) successful initial defense of student learning and their working conditions against Mayor Emanuel’s most recent attempt to do more damage to both. The one that has stuck with me is that the Mayor and his campaign investors pose an existential threat to the concept of a government designed to meet the needs of people, instead of creating the conditions for corporations to profit. They do not want to reform or improve “government” they want to transform it into a mirror of the private sector with all the uncertainty, inequality and profit-taking opportunities that entails.
The fundamental question can be expressed in a disturbing binary. Is education is an “investment” in a stable workforce of consumers and workers or a commitment to the maintenance of a critical thinking citizenry capable of community engagement and civic participation? The Tutorial has spent a lot of time writing about how the Emanuel Administration is not interested in public education and has gone out of its way to destroy it. But the arc of injustice that defines the Emanuel Administration in specific is nothing more than a sinister echo of the larger neoliberal agenda that is cosigning the social contracts people fought and died for since the 18th century.
This may sound like the stuff of hyperbole but there has always been a tension between the America that stresses every citizen must understand their unalienable rights and civic responsibility to exercise and protect them and the one that thinks what’s good for General Motors, U.S. Steel or Goldman Sachs for that matter is good for the country. It is the point of difference between the belief that we should have an informed populace that holds and wields political power in a contentious manner or one more interested in being disciplined and obedient to what a class of professionals their pay masters says is good for society. The schools are just one flashpoint. We can expect this sort of thing to keep happening as the aristocracy continues to repeal the Enlightenment, starting with the 20th century.
The point is that one cannot miss the common thread of indifference, irresponsiveness and inequality that has come to characterize those who run the government and those who need the government. We live in Chicago and at a time when we have spiking crime rates our government’s response is to close police stations and not fill vacant patrol officer positions. At a time when community violence, unemployment, foreclosure and acute economic distress are the common denominators of economic inequality and are placing severe psychic stress on entire communities our government closes low-income and free mental health clinics. In the midst of a foreclosure crisis that is devouring entire neighborhoods instead of declaring eminent domain and demanding an accurate accounting of foreclosed properties by banks and financial institutions our government is relying on those institutions to suddenly become good corporate citizens. Why would we think that our public schools would be any different?
Charter schools are just another part of the cynical slide into amoral and possibly immoral concept of governance by balance sheet. Charter schools are not designed to address the fiscal reality that the Chicago Public School system cannot hire the adequate minimum number of teachers, social workers, school nurses or other professionals for every school in the system; clean, cool, heat and maintain every building in the system or provide enough textbooks, materials or equipment for every student, in every classroom in the system. They are designed to destabilize public education by redefining the social contract on which its based and as an added benefit to those that have; transfer public funds into private hands.
For as long as there has been an educational system in America it has been fought over. Education, like everything else that defines America, has been a desperate struggle for inclusion, equality, resources and definition. It was true when Thomas Jefferson, who could not imagine educating women or slaves; proposed a two-track education system to separate the laboring classes from the learned classes. For him education was by "raking a few geniuses from the rubbish." The powerful have never been too fond of public education unless they had absolute control of it.
The first “school reform” was to make it accessible to more than the elite and at its very best public schooling was meant to reinforce the bonds of democracy by giving all of its citizens a common civic catechism of how to participate in a democratic system. Right from the start the very wealthy and very conservative had real issues with the entire concept. At every step in the evolution of public schools the powerful are calling public schools too costly, ineffective and badly run by non-professional rabble. There are often naked appeals to racism as ways to prevent public schooling from spreading and constant refrains that public schooling will raise taxes to little social return. If what I’m referencing reminds you that Mayor Emanuel is cutting school budgets and not seeking resources for them because he believes that they are badly run and too costly. If you are mindful of the fact that the most under resourced schools are for the poorest, blackest and brownest school children then you know that the more things change the more they stay the same. If you get that the Mayor has made it plain that he is not only not raising taxes he’s not going to lift a finger to find any more resources for our schools then you see that nothing has changed about how the elite feel about educating the rest of us. He and his campaign investors are nothing more than another link in the chain strangling the life out of the notion of an informed populace running a democratic republic.
At times when the pendulum of public opinion swung so hard to the left that the advantages of public schooling were so “obvious” to everyone that those who were against it could not fight it. When this happens, historically the wealthy and powerful have worked to contain it. The Lancasterian Model that stressed an obedient and disciplined workforce over the Dewey ideal of an enlightened and civic-minded populace. The direct funding of competing schools within the public school system or the support of schools that undercut the formation of unions or the dispersion of “anti-American” ideas for example by people like Edmund Dwight were very common. For example, the creation of vocational schools had nothing to do with preparing children who were not cut out for academia with careers. No, our corporate friends were trying to find a way to eliminate the control of vocational training from union shops.
These are anti-democratic ideas and if they failed, because the mass of people often turn to politics to address their issues, the powerful begin to close that avenue off. Attacks on local school control like the consolidation or elimination of elected school boards were common place. The rationale for doing so almost boring predictable. These offices are costly, extraneous and inefficient. The idea was simple, either school boards would be appointed by some kind of executive, either elected or appointed or the capacity of local people to compete in an election would be diluted by forcing them to run in larger electoral districts that they could not afford to run in. These measures meant that board membership concentrated in the hands of business elites and other professionals. When Mayor Emanuel suggests that there be less Aldermen he is making that exact argument for exactly the same reasons.
All of this should sound familiar because the corporate school reformers are doing exactly this right now. They are rewriting the social contract and what they are doing is writing you, me and anyone like us, right out of it.