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Teach For America alumni organize ‘resistance’

In a major step for a growing “countermovement,” Teach For America alumni and teachers are meeting at a conference here this weekend to organize “resistance to TFA’s efforts to promote corporate education reform.”

Meanwhile  CPS, which is laying off hundreds of teachers, is stepping up its financial support for the controversial organization, which provides graduates of top colleges with cursory educational training and places them in classrooms in low-income urban and rural areas.

An assembly on Organizing Resistance to Teach For America takes place Sunday, July 14, 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., at Uplift Community High School, 900 W. Wilson.  It’s part of the national Free Minds, Free People conference, aimed at “promot[ing] education as a tool for liberation.”

Among the organizers is a group of New Orleans TFAers who formed a Teachers Roundtable to foster community discussions after they realized their training hadn’t prepared them for issues of racial justice and community displacement, according to the American Prospect.

The Sunday event aims to focus the efforts of an emerging group of TFA alumni and others who are critical of the organization’s role backing privatization and the charter school movement, said Kerry Kretchmar, an assistant professor of education at Carroll University in Wisconsin.  Kretchmar was a TFA teacher-intern in New York City from 2004 to 2006.

Contributing to inequality

While TFA “uses the language of the civil rights movement” and talks about ending educational inequities, the group “perpetuates systemic inequalities”  including the lack of certified teachers in low-income urban schools, Kretchmar said.  And while it started out a quarter century ago filling teacher shortages in poor districts, today its “corps members” are replacing veteran teachers.

TFA spokesperson Becky O’Neill said in an e-mail that research “shows that corps members’ impact on student achievement exceeds that of other teachers in the same high-needs schools, even when compared with veteran and fully certified teachers.”  According to Kretchmar, peer-reviewed research doesn’t back up that claim.  (More on the question here.)

It’s a sensitive subject in Chicago, where hundreds of teachers were displaced when Mayor Emanuel closed 50 schools recently, and hundreds more are expected to lose their jobs with cuts to school budgets now under consideration.

Meanwhile, Substance reports, CPS has increased its contract for TFA to refer teacher-interns to the district from $600,000 to $1.59 million, raising the number of first-year TFAers to 325, up from 200 two years ago.

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Alternatives to school cuts

Just a month ago — when they were intent on closing 50 schools — the watchword at CPS was “quality education.”

“What we must do is ensure that the resources that some kids get, all kids get,” said Barbara Byrd-Bennett in an internet ad funded by the right-wing Walton Family Foundation.  “And these resources include libraries and access to technology and science labs and art classrooms….

“And with our consolidations we’re able to guarantee that our children will get what they need and what they deserve.”

That was then.

Raise Your Hand has released a very partial list of budget cuts faced by schools under the district’s new per-pupil funding system, and it’s impressive:

Goethe, Jamieson, Kozmisky, Sutherland, each will lose between $250,000 and $300,000.  Audobon, Belden, Gale, Grimes Fleming, and Ray, between $400,000 and $500,000.  Bell, Darwin Mitchell, Murphy, Suder, Sullivan High, betweeen $700,000 and $800,000.  Gage Park High, Lincoln Park High, Mather Elementary, Roosevelt High, $1 million or thereabouts.  Foreman High, $1.7 million.

CTU reports that Taft High School faces a $3 million cut.

According to Wendy Katten of RYH, every school they’ve contacted faces budget cuts.  So far they have figures from about 10 percent of CPS schools, and the cuts total about $45 million, she said.  (CTU budget analyst Kurt Hilgendorf said the union has requested district-wide figures on cuts but CPS has declined to supply them.)

“It’s horrific,” she said.  “There are terrible losses.”

It also clearly contravene’s Byrd-Bennett’s promise about what school consolidations would accomplish.

Losing library access

Two high schools,Von Steuben and Lincoln Park,  are reported to be considering laying off librarians — at Von Steuben it would mean no open-access library; at Lincoln Park, the library would remain open part of the school day but not after school — but many more principals are being forced to choose between staffing their libraries and having enough teachers.

At many schools it will mean  eliminating art or music.  At Katten’s son’s school, it looks like art will be eliminated and physical education will be staffed by a part-time teacher — which means gym just twice a week, far below the state requirement.

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After the school closing vote

With the school board voting to close 50 neighborhood schools — to nobody’s surprise — the movement that sprang up in opposition moves to a new phase.

One indication: while the board was meeting, eight activists were arrested in Springfield blocking the entrance of legislative chambers, demanding the General Assembly pass a moratorium blocking the closings.

Participating were members of Action Now, Albany Park Neighborhood Council, Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, and the Chicago Teachers Union.

“We’re going to keep up the momentum to stop school closings,” said Aileen Kelleher of Action Now.  “There will definitely be more large-scale actions.”

“There’s a legislative strategy and a street strategy,” said Jitu Brown of KOCO.  “We are organizing in our communities to stand up for our children, to stand against disinvestment — which is what this is.”

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In Bronzeville: school closings, violence, Wal-Mart, and TIFs

Two actions protested the closing of Overton Elementary in Bronzeville today — a morning rally highlighting safety issues (and much more), and an afternoon action, which raised larger issues of resources by drawing the connection to a Walmart being built nearby with TIF funds.

About a hundred parents marched from Overton, at 49th and Indiana, to Mollison, at 44th and King  — past four gangs and four drug locations, according to Francis Newman, a parent from Williams Prep, which is also on the school closing list.

The walk also took them past the spot where Columbia College student Kevin Ambrose was shot and killed last week, she noted.

“We’re demanding these schools be kept open and that they get the resources they need,” Newman said.  She said she recently visited Disney Magnet school, which has numerous computers, smart boards, and iPads for children.  “In our school, we can’t get a computer that works,” she said.

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Fuzzy math: the CPS budget crisis

As citywide opposition to Mayor Emanuel’s massive school closing program comes into sharper focus every day, the rationale for the plan gets fuzzier and fuzzier.

Take the question of money.

When CPS chief Barbara Byrd Bennett accepted her utilization commission’s call for taking high school closings off the table, the potential savings from school closings was significantly reduced, says Dwayne Truss, organizer of the Save Our Neighborhood Schools coalition on the West Side.

That’s because high schools are a lot bigger and costlier to operate than elementary schools.  Closing elementary schools saves you less.

Publicly, CPS has projected annual savings of $500,000 to $800,000 for each school closed.  Privately, their estimates are lower – as low as $140,000 per school.  And they estimate that upfront closing costs, including severance pay, security, and moving costs, could be as high as $4.5 million per school, potentially wiping out any savings for many years.

With only elementary school closings, we’d be smart to expect the savings to come in on the lower end — if at all.

Truss points to an additional cost that he insists must be taken into account – the loss of hundreds, maybe thousands of good jobs for African American teachers, principals, lunchroom workers and engineers.

Under a city administration hellbent on eliminating public service jobs that form the backbone of the black middle class – where black unemployment rates are more than double the rate for whites — and in a district facing civil rights compliants for targeting black teachers, he sees layoffs resulting from school closings as another drag on the economic vitality of the neighborhoods.

 

The sky is falling!

Then there’s the billion-dollar deficit, which we’re told time and again means we have to close schools.

Last week CTU blew the whistle on CPS’s budget manipulations, showing that instead of a deficit requiring the district to drain its reserve fund and deny teachers compensation for the longer day, the final audited budget showed a surplus of $344 million.

“Perhaps it’s time to have an honest budget discussion, before any schools are closed,” union president Karen Lewis said.

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More questions: charters, partners, and planning

(This is the second of two posts – part one looks at questions for the Commission on School Utilization including enrollment numbers and savings from closing schools.)

 

Mayor Emanuel, CPS chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett and utilization commission chair Frank Clark have taken the position that “right-sizing” the district has nothing to do with the district’s expansion of charter schools.

One has to do with declining enrollment and snowballing deficits, the other with choice and quality, according to this view.

The argument would work better if CPS’s enrollment and utilization numbers held up; if school closings actually saved significant amounts of money; and if charters consistently offered quality rather than undermining most parents’ first choice – a quality neighborhood school.

Even then, though, it’s hard to separate the proliferation of charters from enrollment declines at neighborhood schools.

[Based on revelations in Tuesday's Tribune, the separation of school closings and charter expansions is purely strategic; when officials say they are unrelated, they are lying.]

 

A hundred new schools

In the past decade, as CPS lost 30,000 students, it’s opened more than 100 new schools with space for nearly 50,000 additional students, according to a new report from CTU.

While CPS closed scores of schools during that period, the number of schools in the district went from 580 to over 680.

“To the extent excess capacity exists, the main driver is the district’s aggressive charter proliferation campaign,” according to the report.  “The current ‘utilization crisis’ has been manufactured largely to justify the replacement of neighborhood schools by privatized charters.”

Throughout Renaissance 2010, “there was no facilities plan” and facilities decisions were “ad hoc and haphazard,” according to CTU’s report.  Adding to the confusion was the practice of approving charter schools without specifying their location, and some charters’ practice of repeatedly relocating their schools.

“CPS has opened charters haphazardly, without considering how they affect nearby schools,” according to a Sun Times editorial.

As Catalyst points out, new charter schools have been concentrated in the community areas with the largest number of schools listed as “underutilized” by CPS.  North Lawndale, with the most schools now rated as underutilized, has gotten more charter schools than any other community.

In general, those schools aren’t outperforming neighborhood schools, according to Valerie Leonard of the Lawndale Alliance.

 

A new round of failure

While school closings and new charter schools have been concentrated in low-income African American communities, these students are actually better served by neighborhood schools, according to CTU, citing reading score gains 10 percent higher in traditional schools than in charters in such areas.

Meanwhile students in closing schools have suffered mobility-related academic setbacks, faced transportation and security issues, and landed in worse-performing schools – while achievement rates in receiving schools have been adversely impacted.

It looks like the very students whom CPS has failed for a generation – whose schools have been systematically neglected and underresourced – are once again being failed.

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Questions for the commission: enrollment, finances

There’s an awful lot of confusion around the CPS’s new commission on school utilization.

There’s confusion over administration claims of an enrollment crisis, as WBEZ has detailed – and, as at least one CPS official has acknowledged, there are strikingly different ways of estimating the number of “empty seats.”  There’s confusion on the part of parents and educators testifying before the commission with no idea whether their schools are threatened, as the Tribune notes.

There’s confusion on whether CPS’s five-year moratorium on school closings only covers school closings due to underutilization; whether a shelved-for-now plan to have charters take over neighborhood schools will be revived; how much money closing schools really saves; and, especially, just why CPS continues to roll out new charters while citing enrollment declines and budget deficits to insist on closing neighborhood schools.

There’s also widespread confusion over just how independent this “independent commission” is.

Even among the people naming and chairing the commission, there’s confusion.  CPS chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett says the purpose is to come up with a list of schools to close; commission chair Frank Clark has repeatedly promised only a “broad set of recommendations” for how to address the issue.

In one recent Tribune article, Byrd-Bennett said she’s expecting a list of schools to close from the commission, and CPS spokesperson Becky Carroll said it’s “up to them [the commissioners] – we don’t know at this point” what they’ll recommend.

Behind the commission’s charge is a lot of talk, especially from Byrd-Bennett, about restoring trust.  But merely delivering a list of school closings –  without taking seriously widespread concerns about the assumptions behind CPS’s policy of closing schools — will just engender more cynicism.

Is the commission going to acknowledge and address serious questions about CPS’s facilities policies, or is it just providing political cover for a foregone conclusion?

 

A rapidly shrinking crisis

“The accuracy of how CPS calculates school utilization” is one of the “key issues the commission must consider,” according to a Sun Times editorial last month.

Indeed.  In  mid-October, Mayor Emanuel was saying there are 200,000 “empty seats” in CPS – 600,000 seats for 400,000 students; by the end of October, the crisis had eased by half, with only 100,000 empty seats out of 500,000 total.

Maybe there was a rush sale of classroom chairs?

Then new census numbers were rolled out, with CPS touting Chicago’s loss of 145,000 school-age children over the past decade.  But CTU pointed out that CPS’s actual enrollment had declined by just 31,500 in that period – during which CPS added 50,000 new seats, mainly in charter schools.

Read the rest of this entry »

About that injunction

By angering teachers with a motion for an injunction declaring the teachers’ strike illegal, Mayor Emanuel may have made passage of the proposed teachers’ contract even more difficult, said Rod Estvan, education policy analyst with Access Living.

If so, it would be just the latest in a series of mayoral moves that have backfired.

Teachers on the picket line are talking to parents about how you’d want to read a contract for a new home before you signed it – and about how the City Council failed to read the contract that privatized Chicago’s parking meters.

They also recall their experience with SB 7, the bill designed to make school strikes in Chicago impossible.  According to a union attorney at the time, language that “satobtages union bargaining rights” was slipped into the bill at the last minute, after negotiations had been concluded.

And of course they recall the 4 percent raise rescinded based on an obscure contract provision last year – while CPS voluntarily stepped up payments to city agencies by tens of millions of dollars.

“CPS’s spur-of-the-moment decision to seek injunctive relief … appears to be a vindictive act instigated by the mayor,” reads a statement from the union.  “This attempt to thwart our democratic process is consistent with Mayor Emanuel’s bullying behavior toward public school educators.”

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