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Chicago Teachers Strike Could Portend Referendum on Obama Admin’s Approach to Education Reform

Ohanian Comment: More than 29,000 teachers go on strike in Chicago, and why should anyone else in the country care? George Schmidt at Substance has been reminding us for years that Chicago is at the epicenter of neoliberal education policy. Now Pauline Lipman reiterates this important point. This Chicago teachers strike puts the Obama/Duncan education policy in the national and international spotlight. In Pauline's words, "Chicago is now an epicenter of the pushback against" this policy.

Help the Chicago teachers and you are joining in the push-back against oppressive ed policy across the county. This is no time to stay silent.

The showdown in Chicago -- the nationâs third-largest school district -- pits teachers against Mayor Rahm Emanuel, President Obamaâs former chief of staff. Emanuel remains a close ally to Obama, while many of the policies at issue in Chicago are being pushed on a national scale by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, former Chicago Public Schools chief. Weâre joined by Pauline Lipman, professor of education and policy studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago, director of the Collaborative for Equity and Justice in Education and member of Teachers for Social Justice.

Pauline Lipman, professor of education and policy studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago. She is also the director of the Collaborative for Equity and Justice in Education at the university and is on the coordinating committee for Teachers for Social Justice.

AMY GOODMAN: Weâre continuing on the teachersâ strike in Chicago, the largestâwell, the first strike in a quarter of a century in the third-largest school district in this country. The mayor is Rahm Emanuel, the former chief of staff of President Obama.

Pauline Lipman is with us, professor of education and policy studies at University of Illinois, Chicago, also director of the collaborative for Equity and Justice in Education and on the coordinating committee for Teachers for Social Justice.

So, the teachers have just gone out on strike. Professor Lipman, put this in a national context, what this means, what the Chicago strike means for the nation.

PAULINE LIPMAN: Yes, good morning.

As I said in the clip that you showed earlier, Chicago was the birthplace of this neoliberal corporate reform agenda of high-stakes testing, paying teachers based on test scores, closing failing neighborhoodâdisinvesting in neighborhood schools and then closing them and turning them over to charter schoolsâthe policies that both Phil and Rhoda just described. And it was really a model which was picked up by cities around the country and then made a national agenda when Arne Duncan, who had been the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, became Obamaâs secretary of education.

Chicago is now an epicenter of the pushback against it, as I also said before. And very much at the center of that is a new Chicago Teachers Union, with a new leadership that is really challenging this whole agenda with a different vision of education, a vision of education that involves a rich curriculum for all students, that puts equity at the center. Theyâve named what these policies have resulted in in Chicago "education apartheid," especially for African-American and also Latino students. So, this is a battle that is being watched by people around the country. And a really strong victory for the Chicago Teachers Union, backed up by parents and community members, will send a signal that we can actually turn around this agenda. So I think it has tremendous significance. And I get the news feeds from the Chicago Teachers Union, the reports of this strike, and itâs being covered not only nationally, but internationally.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Lipman, talk about the current leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union. Talk about Karen Lewis.

PAULINE LIPMAN: Yeah, so, one thing is that, you know, in the corporate media in Chicago, we keep reading about union bosses. Well, the leadership of the teachersâ union are teachers, theyâre not union bosses, first of all. Karen Lewis is a National Board certified teacher. She teaches and has beenâhad been teaching chemistry at Martin Luther King High School on the South Side of Chicago. She is well known in theâby students, former students, other teachers, beloved as a teacher.

Sheâs part of the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators, which is a new caucus that really came on the scene just about four or five years ago. But because the previous leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union was really not challenging this whole agenda, CORE acted like the leadership of the union. They fought the school closings that were happening every single year in Chicago. They fought for teachers who were laid off. And rank-and-file teachers, who simply had enough of these policies after just absorbing the punishment for 15 years, overwhelmingly elected Karen and the other leadership team from the CORE caucus.

And I do have to say also that Karen has just been incredibly courageous. Sheâs been vilified often in the media, and she has stood very firm and in a principled way fighting for the schools that Chicago students deserve.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about what this means for the nation, the whole Race to the Top that President Obama has adoptedâ


AMY GOODMAN: âArne Duncan coming from Chicago. Explain all of these ties.

PAULINE LIPMAN: Right, right. So, as you said, Arne Duncan was the CEO of Chicago Public Schools. And under his watch in 2004, Chicago launched a policy called Renaissance 2010, which was actually designed by the Commercial Club of Chicago in 2003. The Commercial Club is an organization of the biggest CEOs and bankers in the city, essentially. And Arne Duncan pushed through this agenda of closing neighborhood schools, turning them over to private operators or expanding charter schools and having charter schools come in, and increasingly putting more pressure on teachers to respond to the high-stakes tests that Phil was talking about earlier.

And so, that agenda, which has been really devastating in Chicago and had already been very clearly very devastating in 2008, after four years, was the agenda that Duncan took to Washington when he became secretary of education, and it's embedded in Race to the Top. So, Race to the Top has a set of provisions that really basically means states are competing for $4.3 billion in federal funds. And in order to get those funds, they must do certain things. And those things are the kinds of things that have been done and have failed and have been devastating in Chicago. They must close failing schools or turn them around, expand charter schools, pass legislation that allows charter schools to be expanded. They must have some kind of evaluation system of teachers thatâs tied to testing students. And these policies now are the national agenda.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama famously said in 2007âhe said, to unions, "I will walk on that picket line with you as president of the United States."


AMY GOODMAN: Have you heard from President Obama?

PAULINE LIPMAN: As far--I haven't heard from him. But as far as I know, the Chicago Teachers Union has not heard from him, either. You know, Rahm Emanuel was his chief of staff, and he's now the mayor of Chicago. And as maybe our listeners do or don't know, the mayor appoints the school board in Chicago. And the school board is made up of, again, corporate CEOs, financiers, a hotel magnate, real-estate developers. And part of the agenda of forcing the teachers' backs up against the wall, I think, is an attempt to actually weaken the Chicago Teachers Union, because the Chicago Teachers Union is not--the new leadership has not only reinvigorated the union in this city, it's reinvigorating the trade--teachersâ union movement nationally.

It's really energized--electrified, really--teachers nationally, because this is not a traditional union, and it's not a traditional labor struggle. It's a union that has a different vision of education and is fighting for that. It's a union that's a social movement union, or trying to be a social movement union, in which it's very democratic. Their bargaining team is made up--includes 40 rank-and-file members of the CTU. And it has energized the rank and file. So I was at the strike headquarters yesterday, and there were just hundreds of teachers showing up to pick up picket signs, talking about the issues. It's not just Karen Lewis and her leadership that are leading this union; it's the rank and file that are leading that union. And that is--

AMY GOODMAN: Thereâs going to be a large rally today at 3:00?

PAULINE LIPMAN: There is. There is. There's going to be a rally from 3:30 to 6:00 at the CPS headquarters, and I'm sure there will be thousands of people. It will not just be teachers. It will certainly be parents and students and community members, as well, because there is--have been really strong ties built between the teachers' union and community organizations, because they fought together with communities against school closings and for the schools our children deserve. And so, we're expecting a really large rally, that--I'm expecting a really large rally, and I think parents and teachers are, as well, to really send a message to Rahm Emanuel that Chicago Public Schools--and he's really behind it--that they really need to give in to the demands of the teachers and have better working conditions for teachers and better learning conditions for students.

AMY GOODMAN: How long do you expect this to go on, the strike to go on, Professor Lipman?

PAULINE LIPMAN: You know, that's a really good question, and I certainly don't have a crystal ball. I think a very strong showing on the part of the public backing up the teachers, who are very solid--as you know, 98 percent of the teachers in the union voted to authorize the strike. So, a very strong, solid showing, I think, should send a message to city hall that they need to settle this. But, you know, Rahm Emanuel is very unpredictable, so we don't know.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for being with us, Pauline Lipman, professor of education and policy studies at--

PAULIN LIPMAN: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: --the University of Illinois, Chicago, also director of the Collaborative for Equity and Justice in Education at the university, and she's on the coordinating committee for Teachers for Social Justice. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report.

— Interview with Pauline Lipman
Democracy Now





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