Even if Obama Wins, There’s Homework: The Teachers Remind Us That Only the Public Education of the People Can Preserve Liberty

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne asks if November’s election will decide anything? He frames his question in terms of a continued Congressional stalemate if Obama regains the presidency. However, Republican legislative obstructionism and Romney’s disastrous candidacy is losing the party support among independent voters and some sections of the corporate and financial elites. It seems that now even Wall Street bankers are abandoning Romney.

What the billionaires who support Obama share with him is a sense that change must be initiated and controlled from above, rhetorically to alleviate the plight of the working poor but without disturbing the relations of power that made them poor in the first place. As Paul Street points out: “The problem has not been that ‘the economy’ has been broken by the supposed ‘invisible hand of the market’ or other forces allegedly beyond human control. The real difficulty is that the ‘human-made’ U.S. economic system has been working precisely as designed to distribute wealth and power upward.”

If the relations of power are unchanged, does this mean that the election results are unimportant? No. An Obama electoral victory, even with no change in the House or Senate, will confirm the social fact of a multiracial America, where women have a major voice. It will also call into question the effectiveness of the Republican strategy of splitting the working class on racist grounds.  And most crucially, it will give more time for ordinary Americans to organize resistance against the transfer of wealth from the middle class to the rich independently of the two-party political straitjacket.

Education is one of the battlegrounds where the power of community in solidarity has reasserted the principles of popular sovereignty—government of the people by the people—and significantly checked the power and seemingly unstoppable influence of the American plutocracy.  Corporate billionaires like Bill Gates, the Walton family, and Wall Street hedge fund managers have decided that schools should be remodeled on corporate lines and that teachers’ unions are obstructing their plans. Steve Jobs reportedly told Obama that the American education system was “crippled” by teachers’ unions that had to be broken.The objectives of this oligarchy are facilitated by Obama’s Race to the Top program which, like Bush’s No Child Left Behind, is a top-down, technocratic solution to the problems of education, to be imposed on state education systems over the voices of the teachers and parents who deal with the problems daily.

The key elements of the program, summarized by NYU professor Diane Ravitch, were drawn from the strategy of the Chicago school board:  “Teachers will be evaluated in relation to their students’ test scores. Schools that continue to get low test scores will be closed or turned into charter schools or handed over to private management. In low-performing schools, principals will be fired, and all or half of the staff will be fired. States are encouraged to create many more privately managed charter schools.”

The consequences of school closings in practice were pointed out by Chicago teachers’ leader Karen Lewis. “[When they closed a school] children were not going to other schools, especially in high school.  They were choosing not to go to school…. [The school board] had never thought about the ramifications of what a school closing means. So if I close a school here, now this means that my children have to walk through gang territory…. There was just no understanding of community.”

The seven appointed members of Chicago’s Board of Education have little knowledge of the school system.  The Occupied Chicago Tribune reported: “As anyone who has ever witnessed a board hearing knows, members like Hyatt heiress Penny Pritzker and former Northwestern President Henry Bienen, when they bother to show up at all, nod indifferently to public testimony, toy with their smart phones, and reliably vote in the interests of their boss. This past winter, after the board voted unanimously to close or turnaround 17 schools, frustrated parents burst into tears, and community members chanted ‘Rubber Stamp’ until CPS security escorted them out of the room.”

The board is responsible only to mayor Rahm Emanuel, not to the public. But the solidarity of Chicago teachers and their supporters in the communities succeeded in establishing limits on its plans for privatization. The strike also challenged ideological supporters of the system, who created a narrative that the conflict between teachers and the board was disrupting the welfare of the students. In the guise of impartiality, they implicitly blame teachers for putting their own interests above that of the children.

Writing in The Nation, Obama apologist Melissa Harris-Perry relates the story of Rolisa, whose younger children attend a small public school on the South Side. “Her kids are pretty happy there. Or at least they were, until the standoff between the Chicago Teachers Union and Mayor Rahm Emanuel transformed them into students of Rolisa’s makeshift kitchen table school. …This generation of children may become hard-working, courageous adults who nonetheless are relegated to life sentences of poverty and underachievement. They are stuck because they were born in a time of war—not just the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, not just the heavily armed wars in their own streets, but the wars between the leaders and teachers who are supposed to have their best interests at heart but who seem willing to allow this generation to be lost.”

Evoking the images of war, in which innocents suffer more than armies, she misreads the strike as a selfish act by teachers willing to make victims of children, when in reality it was a struggle of the whole community against high-handed school closings in working-class areas and for better conditions for pupils to learn in the classroom.

Michelle Rhee, the former head of D.C.’s schools and now advocate for charter schools through her misnamed StudentsFirst organization, adopts the same argument in order to attack teachers’ unions. The Washington Post published an opinion piece in which she writes: “Chicago’s children lost roughly  18 million collective hours of learning time; moms and dads across the city lost wages, and possibly risked jobs, so they could care for their kids; and some children went without the hot meals they reliably get at school. It was frustrating to hear Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis say toward the end of the dispute that the strike would continue to see whether there is ‘anything else they can get.’ But at least that was clear evidence that, for union leaders, this strike was never about what was best for kids….”

Rhee claims the support of corporate Democrats when she characterizes the teachers’ union as a self-serving group not interested in improving children’s education. But what was it that teachers wanted more of? A broader, well-rounded curriculum – and, above all, to be given the support they needed as professionals in the field and not be dictated to by someone in an air-conditioned office working off a spreadsheet, while their students wilted in the Chicago heat. The union mobilized teachers, custodians, parents, and pupils themselves in defense of their right to a proper education, which in fact continued an ongoing struggle by communities against school closings and so-called “turnarounds,” in which teachers and principals are completely replaced.

The Occupied Chicago Tribune reports on some of these earlier battles: two years ago parents occupied an elementary school building that officials decided would be demolished in order to build a soccer field for a neighboring private school. The sit-in lasted for more than a month before it was agreed to keep the building open as a community space. And when, this year, the school board designated Piccolo Elementary for turnaround, “parents and students decided to draw from the lessons of the Occupy movement. Surrounded by police, Occupy Chicago demonstrators complete with tents, and other allies, about a dozen parents and supporters stayed in the building overnight and won a meeting with Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard. But in the end, the board voted to close the school anyway.”

The relations of power are not fixed and immutable, but are fought out daily on the organizational level and the ideological. The Chicago teachers have achieved a victory that has encouraged low-waged workers throughout the city – from car wash workers who are organizing against wage abuses, to the musicians of the Chicago Symphony. The teachers’ strike gave the best lesson of all: solidarity in struggle will push back the billionaires and trillionaires who want to overturn democracy in America.

If Obama wins the election, let’s use the time gained to spread this lesson around. And there are many willing to learn.


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Filed under 2012 Election, chicago teachers, financiers, Hedge Fund managers, Michelle Rhee, Neoliberalism, Obama, occupy wall street, poverty, public schools, strikes

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