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Grassroots voices on Chicago schools

Fifteen years of mayoral control has failed to improve Chicago Public Schools, yet leading mayoral candidates are promising more of the same – or worse.

In January the Chicago Tribune reported that achievement levels are no better in elementary schools opened under Mayor Daley’s Renaissance 2010 than in neighborhood public schools– and worse than average at his new high schools. (District-wide, according to Catalyst, “not much progress.”)

This despite millions of dollars pumped into new schools by Chicago’s business community – and “flexibility” which allows them to evade accountability and push out students they don’t want.  Catalyst and WBEZ reported last week that the rate of expulsions in Chicago’s charter schools is more than three times higher than other schools – and the vast majority of expulsions in charter schools are for misconduct that wouldn’t merit such punishment in general schools.

The business model that Renaissance 2010 followed has delivered widening achievement gaps, increased violence and fiscal insolvency, as Mike Klonsky writes. But it’s the essence of  Rahm Emanuel’s big, bold initiative – basically renaming the Renaissance Schools Fund (which, admittedly, is due for a name change) – which, PURE argues, would intensify the marginalization of schools serving the most challenging students.

So would the voucher schemes advanced by Gery Chico and James Meeks; in Meeks’s case, vouchers would benefit the private religious school he heads, which doesn’t accept students scoring beneath the 50th percentile on achievement tests.

But Renaissance 2010 also engendered an impressive grassroots movement to resist school closings and privatization plans that would create a two-tier school system.  That movement won several signal victories in recent months, including state legislation to bring transparency and accountability to CPS facilities planning, which has heavily favored Renaissance 2010 over neighborhood schools, and a victory for the Raise Your Hands Coalition and CTU when Mayor Daley freed up TIF surpluses, $90 million of which will go to schools.

Two more significant movement victories – the election of militant new CTU leadership committed to ground-level coalition organizing to bring teachers, parents, students and community groups together to defend schools, and the dramatic 43-day sit-in by parents at Whittier Elementary demanding a library for their kids – will be represented at the 10th annual curriculum fair of Teachers For Social Justice tomorrow.

CTU president Karen Lewis and Whittier leaders Araceli Gonzales and Daniela Mancilla will keynote the opening session of the fair, 10 a.m. (Saturday, November 20) at Orozco Community Academy, 1940 W. 18th.  In addition, spoken word artist Kevin Coval of Young Chicago Authors will perform with the Louder Than a Bomb All-Stars.

Six hundred teachers, students, parents, and community activists are expected at the fair, which will feature a series of workshops along with curriculum exhibits from Chicago teachers and presentations by teachers and students.

The business model of school reform may be stalled, but there’s no shortage of energy and creativity at the grassroots, and it will be on full display tomorrow.

New leadership for Chicago teachers

As new and old reports at Catalyst and Gapers Block indicate, CORE’s victory in Friday’s teachers union election reflected the group’s activist orientation and commitment to grassroots organizing, in schools and with communities.

“We energized the grassroots,” said one CORE member.

CORE came on the scene two years ago and immediately provided a citywide organizational structure for a movement against Renaissance 2010 that had yet to gain much traction.

Before CORE, small community and education groups committed to the  original school reform agenda of parent empowerment and improving neighborhood schools – along with parents at separate schools scrambling desperately to oppose closings in a very short window of time – had been limited to school-by-school struggles.

CORE was crucial in forming the Grassroots Education Movement, which gave the movement against Renaissance 2010 a citywide scope and strategic vision.

Arne Duncan left for Washington and Ron Huberman took over at CPS last year as CORE and GEM’s first drive against closings crested, and in response to protests and the exposure of faulty CPS data, Huberman decided to take six schools off the closing list.  It was the first time anything like that had ever happened.

This year, another anti-closings campaign — which won the support of several aldermen — forced Huberman to admit “the process is flawed” and to take six of fourteen school closings and turnarounds off the table.

On its website CORE attributes these victories to an approach which “built partnerships with our natural allies and empowered members to stand up for their profession, their jobs and their schools.”  Activism, organizing, coalition-building.

In remarks Saturday morning at King College Prep, CTU president-elect Karen Lewis made it clear that defending against the attacks on teachers and on public education which underlie much of the current “reform” agenda is high on her agenda.

“Today marks the beginning of the end of scapegoating educators,” she said.

She railed against “corporate heads and politicians” who “have never sat one minute on this side of the teacher’s desk” and “do not have a clue about teaching and learning.”  But “they’re the ones calling the shots, and we’re supposed to accept it as ‘reform.'”

Asked if she had a message for Mayor Daley and schools chief Ron Huberman, she said, “I want them to appreciate what educators do.”

(CORE has posted Lewis’s remarks, and WBEZ has audio.)

First, though, comes discussions over Huberman’s proposals to lay off teachers and raise class size, and Lewis called on CPS to disclose “all the financial details” of how it spends its money — including vendor and consulting contracts– including how charter schools spend the taxpayer money they get, “because to date, we have not seen charter schools’ financials” – and including an estimated $250 million a year in TIF money that would otherwise be going to schools.

She called on Daley to put his political weight behind an effort to end the state’s overreliance on property tax funding for schools and the drastic inequities that result from it.  And she rejected the notion “that access to high quality education for all children is a luxury that we simply can’t afford.”

Good schools for all kids: Yes we can?

It can happen here.  Indeed, it has happened here.

After federal spending on education and anti-poverty efforts ramped up in the 1960s, there came a point where urban schools were spending as much per pupil as suburban schools.  Racial disparities in achievement rates were cut in half, and were on track to disappear.   For a brief and unique moment in the mid-70s, black and Latino kids were attending college at rates comparable to whites.

Then came Reagan, who cut the education budget in half, and “conservatives introduced a new theory of reform focused on outcomes rather than inputs.”  That’s the theory behind what passes for school reform today.

This is from Linda Darling-Hammond’s contribution to the Nation’s special issue on A New Vision for School Reform.  She contrasts the United States with nations across Europe and Asia that she says are succeeding in providing high quality education to all their students.

The U.S. is “among the nations where socioeconomic background most affects student outcomes,” because we have greater income inequality “and because the United States spends much more educating affluent children than poor children.”  And in many states, segregation and inequality of funding is increasing.

The Obama-Duncan program doesn’t address (and probably exacerbates) funding inequalities, and what it does address won’t help.

Their framework “envisions competition and sanctions as the primary drivers of reform rather than capacity-building and strategic investments,” Darling-Hammond writes. “No nation has become high-achieving by sanctioning schools based on test-score targets and closing those that serve the neediest students without providing adequate resources and quality teaching.”

Elsewhere in the issue, Diane Ravitch writes about “Why I Changed My Mind” on No Child Left Behind and on the sloganeering around “choice” and “accountability” in education.

After the 2008 campaign, she writes, “I expected that Obama would throw out NCLB and start over.”  Instead, “his admininistration has embraced some of the worst features of the George W. Bush era.”

“None of the policies that involve testing and accountability – vouchers and charters, merit pay and closing schools – will give us the quantum improvement that we want for public education.  They may even make things worse.

“We need a long-term plan that strengthens public education and rebuilds the education profession,” including better-educated teachers, principals who are master teachers, rich curriculums, and attention to the conditions in which children live.

Susan Eaton compares magnet schools (with their mission of racial integration), with charters, which tend to “exacerbate segregation” and associated inequities.  (Black students in charters are twice as likely as their counterparts in traditional schools to attend segregated schools.)  That charters don’t upset the racial stratification of public education “may be exactly what makes them, at first glance, appear politically neater than magnet schools.”

David Kirp looks at community schools, which at their best can provide the kinds of things we know help kids learn: longer instructional time, more adults in the classroom, cultural and recreational programming, more parental involvement, and support services to remove obstacles to learning.  But so far Obama’s education department has been “better on rhetoric than dollars for community schools.”

Guest editor Pedro Noguera points out that no progress is likely until policy makers figure out “why NCLB failed to do more to improve schools in high-poverty communities” and “[reject] simplistic approaches.”

Senator Meeks attacks LSCs

LSC members, community organizations and clergy will speak against a bill proposed by State Senator James Meeks to weaken local school councils at a press conference Friday morning at 10 a.m. on the second floor of City Hall.

Meeks’ bill would turn the elected bodies into advisory committees, eliminating their power to select principals and approve budgets.   Meeks is also proposing legislation giving vouchers for private or parochial school to students in low-scoring schools.

The Sun Times calls it a “power grab” and cites Jitu Brown of KOCO describing it as an issue of democracy, and Don Moore of Designs For Change pointing out that CPS already has power to take over principal selection, and it hasn’t done so well at it.

Several attempts to neuter LSCs have been beaten back since they were  established by the Illinois School Reform Act of 1988.  But Meeks has power and some credibility as chair of the State Senate’s education committeee and a longtime champion of school funding reform.

In the past year, however, he’s taken to bashing teachers and undercutting public education.

Last October he attacked the teachers union in a speech at Operation PUSH (where he’s a vice president).  According to Substance, Meeks said, “The biggest gang problem in Chicago is the Chicago Teachers Union.”

CTU President Marilyn Stewart called Meeks’ remarks “irresponsible and inflammatory rhetoric” and said they were “inexcusable.”

Meanwhile, Operation PUSH leader Jonathan Jackson has spoken in support of CTU’s call for a moratorium on school closings and “turnarounds,” and Ald. Sandi Jackson (7th Ward) has come out against the proposal to replace teachers and staff in a  “turnaround” at Bradwell Elementary.

When Meeks unveiled the first version of his voucher bill last year, PURE noted a possible conflict of interest:  a voucher program would directly benefit Salem Christian Academy.  Meeks is the school’s founder and CEO.

Meeks is also backing the first charter school proposal in the south suburbs, which is being opposed by school board members and the teachers union there.  The Rich Township High School District board is scheduled to vote on the proposal next week.

LSCs celebrate 20 years

A number of community activists who have served continuously on Local School Councils since they were established in 1989 will be honored at a celebration of the 20th anniversary of school reform and LSCs tomorrow evening.

Designs for Change is sponsoring the celebration at Washington Irving Elementary School, 749 S. Oakley, from 6 to 10 p.m. on Friday, December 11.   Irving was the school where then-Governor James Thompson signed the original school reform legislation in 1989.

Also honored will be former State Senator Arthur Berman, sponsor of the original legislation.

While lots of attention goes to a relatively small number of “new schools” created without LSCs by Mayor Daley’s Renaissance 2010 program – an evasion of state law which some school advocates have challenged — 85 percent of CPS students attend schools governed by LSCs, said Don Moore of Designs for Change.   There are about 6,000 LSC members at over 500 schools, he said.

DFC research has shown that effective LSCs have contributed significantly to achievement gains in low-income schools.

CPS is planning its own 20th anniversary celebration (and a kickoff for next year’s LSC elections) tonight at 5 p.m. at Andrew Jackson Language Academy, 1340 W. Harrison.

School daze

No one’s really explained what’s behind the sudden attack on CPS’s claims of progress by the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club, which is one of the major backers of Renaissance 2010.  (In fact the Commercial Club sponsors  the Renaissance Schools Fund, which funnels millions of private dollars into charter and contract schools.)

The Sun-Times does point out that the new report’s claims that charter schools outperform neighborhood schools are based on “flawed CPS research.”  Independent studies have found charter schools in fact perform no better.

What is clear is that the original argument on behalf of charters — that they would force all schools to improve by offering competition — is no longer operative.  (That rhetoric was rooted in the same gung-ho ideology that crashed with the financial system last fall.)

Now it’s all about “choice.”  The old warnings of privatization and a two-tier school system still pertain, however.

This week’s study comes on top of last week’s report on teacher turnover, which found that half of all teachers in high-poverty, predominantly black areas leave within three years. “I just see no way they can improve if they can’t maintain a stable work force,” the report’s author told the Sun Times.

No one’s explained what this might mean for “turnarounds,” the educational flavor-of-the-moment as dictated by Bill Gates.  How does it help to come in and fire the entire staff — and replace them with new teachers who are more likely to move on?

Charters — good, bad, ugly

“Chicago’s charters look pretty good” in a new study from Stanford, according to Catalyst.  Nationally, the study finds “a two-to-one margin of bad charters to good charters,” in the words of its lead author.

As PURE points out, Chicago’s charters are “pretty good” in math, not reading — and not for students who happen to be African American or Hispanic, or in need of special education, or learning English.  And as long as the charter school doesn’t decide a student isn’t an “asset” and transfer him or her out.  

That doesn’t happen in traditional schools.  It happens a lot in charters — often just before tests, as one teacher writes. 

Education astroturfing?

Is tomorrow’s Citywide Education Summit an example of “astroturfing,” as per PURE?  (Or as Mike Klonsky puts it, “Power philanthropy still rules the roost of top-down school reform.”)  Several well-regarded community organizations are participating in the effort, which is funded by the Joyce and Gates Foundations, which are major proponents of charter schools and “turnarounds.”

Many if not all of the community groups participating are recipients of Gates Foundation money, including through Communities for Public Education Reform (pdf).  One of them, Target Area Development Corporation, launched an education campaign called Parents and Residents Invested in School and Education in 2007, planning to work in the Far South Side area where they’re based. But Gates provided funding, and directed them to the West Side, to build support for the “turnaround” at Orr High being undertaken by another Gates fundee, Academy for Urban School Leadership, as Catalyst reported last year.

Now PRISE seems to have morphed into the Citywide Education Organizing Campaign.  (Is this the Gates Foundation’s response to the Grassroots Education Movement, which mobilized parents against school closings last month?) They’re releasing the results of a survey of parents tomorrow.

Interestingly, several years ago Gates funded a parent survey by PURE (pdf), which found a high level of interest in involvement among parents of both traditional and non-traditional schools.  It also found a correlation between higher student achievement and greater opportunities for parents to volunteer and to participate in decision-making in their kids’ schools. 

That report recommended more suport for home learning activity, for school volunteer programs, and for parent involvement in school governance.

Tomorrow’s report is less likely to stress the last point — given the lack of response from Orr/AUSL to attempts by parents there to get an elected LSC, according to  Cecile Carroll of Blocks Together.

With reports of declining enrollment at Sherman Elementary (20 percent) and Harper High (30 percent), both AUSL “turnarounds,” Carroll says parents are concerned about “push-outs” at Orr.

Don’t imagine that will show up in tomorrow’s report, either.

Check GatesKeepers, a blog featuring “civil society voices on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.”   Via GatesKeepers, here’s a Seattle Times piece on the foundation (and Seattle knows Gates), gently suggesting a need for greater accountability.

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