Do They Really Want to Hear the Voice of Parents?

 “I wish we had more demand. I wish we had a lot more parents … demanding a world-class education—not just on the policy side, but on the advocacy side.”       Arne Duncan, Education Week

I have to wonder sometimes if I’m on the same planet as my elected officials. How many parents did I see out on the picket lines with Chicago Public Schools teachers last September demanding quality conditions for quality schools? Who was at those rallies at city hall when Rahm shoved through the longer school day with no supports or programs for the additional time? And the candlelight vigils around closed schools?private publiv

Meanwhile, WBEZ reported that while CPS plans to close upwards of 100 schools they have applications to open 14 new contract and charter schools. Further, in a grant to the Gates Foundation, they say they plan on opening 60 charter schools in the next five years.

The article gives us a nice bit of math:

Right now, 14 percent of CPS’s 681 schools are privately run charter and contract schools.If the district closes 100 schools, and then opens 60 new charters in the next five years, the percentage of privately run schools could jump up to 27 percent. In a grant application to the Gates Foundation, CPS leaders said they planned to open 100 new schools in the next five years, 60 of them charters.

At the same time I am in conversations with a parent who moved into a district where the rumors are flying that the school will close.  She’s concerned that the school next to her is a Level 2 school and if her child begins in the district she’s in and it closes she’ll be shuttled to a new school next year.

And Arne Duncan has the nerve to suggest parents don’t care?

We Want Harold (again)

These past few weeks as I’ve watched government operate at the local level, I can’t help but think that Harold Washington would be rolling in his grave. As we’ve been  commemorating Harold’s all-too-short realm of openness and fairness, so-called “open hearings” these days appear to be open to officials and legislators while the voices of the community go unheard.

On November 20, the City Council Committee on Education and Child Development held hearings on potential school closings. As reported by Substance, while several alderman asked probing questions (such as what happens if a school is closed and parents have missed the selective enrollment deadline), the dozens of parents and community groups  in attendance were not allowed to speak. Similarly, at a raucous Springfield hearing that granted CPS an extension on the Dec. 1 deadline to announce school closings, the hundreds who showed up were also not given a chance to testify.

In the meantime, Raise Your Hand released their survey of recently compiled data from ISBE 2011 report cards shows that 76% of CPS schools had a grade that exceeded CPS’ recommended class size limits in 2011.  CPS claims the district has 500,000 classroom seats for only 400,000 students.

New CEO Chief Barbara Byrd Bennett promised a five-year moratorium on school closings if the General Assembly extended their school utilization deadline, a move Parents United For Responsible Education (PURE) likened to saying, “I promise to stop beating you after I get in this last round of punches.” Both the SunTimes’ and the Tribune’s editorials questioned the Boards ability to keep that promise.

The Commission on School Utilization’s first community meeting will be Monday, December 3 from 7-9 PM at Salem Baptist Church – 752 E. 114th Street.

Mr. President, Can We Talk about Education?

Dear President Obama,

I am still so very glad to wake up every morning to find you are still president. I worked hard to help make that happen, especially because the Affordable Care Act made a difference to me as it did for millions of people. But I’d like to talk to you about something else that is very important to me: education.

Education is not your strong point. Now, I understand you’re pretty busy with Iran and the fiscal cliff and all of this nonsense with Generals Petraeus and Allen, but that’s why you appoint people who you trust to implement what is best for the country. So I need to clue you in on something that millions of public school teachers, parents, and scholars already know: Arne Duncan is not your guy.

I can tell you this personally as my son briefly went to the same Chicago Public School as the Duncan children. With my own ears I heard him scold our PTA for not raising enough money to hire aides for his child’s classroom. “This is how public schools are going to pay for things,” he insisted. “Other schools are doing it and that’s the way it’s going to be.”

At the time I thought, “This is the philosophy of the guardian of public education in Chicago? If parents want aides in the classroom they must pay for it?”

So last May, when Chicago schools’ chief Jean Claude Brizard stunned a panel of educators by announcing he was in favor of using federal funds (i.e., vouchers) for private education, I was not surprised. His predecessor – now the person leading education policy in this country – had already determined that the future of public schools is privatization. In Chicago, Arne Duncan’s “Renaissance 2010” accelerated the privatization of the public school system by blaming teachers for low performing schools and expanding the number of charter schools.

Now he’s taken that campaign nationwide.  “Race to the Top” told schools they had to compete for federal funds. His “reform” policies opened the door to Astroturf organizations like Stand for Children and Democrats for Education Reform. As Bill Ayers and Diane Ravitch have already pointed out, the “reforms” pushed by these organizations fly in the face of research on key issues like standardized testing and the impact of poverty on learning. They are chasing out good teachers and looking for private organizations to run schools.

Mr. President, you said you would protect our senior citizens and not privatize social security; why won’t you protect our children? I thought the idea of a public school system was that it makes sense to have an educated population, and that education is something that should be a basic right and not a privilege.

I spent most Saturdays in October in a swing state trying to get you re-elected. I spent three three days before the election in Wisconsin getting out the vote. Do you know why? Yes, to re-elect you, but also I because I believe in the democratic process. It warmed my heart to see mothers making their children vote, to see a young woman spend an hour explaining to her younger sister why it was important to go vote.

That is what democracy looks like: me, pounding the pavements for weeks and those young people going out to vote. It’s not about heavily-funded Astroturf organizations with their own political agendas. The problem is, Mr. Duncan is listening to hedge fund managers like Bruce Rauner and crowing union-busters like Jonah Edelman while shutting the rest of us out.

You have promised to listen to us, the people who worked hard for you, this time. Take a look at your own children to see how large their classroom is and how many tests they take and how many children in their class go to school hungry. Do what you’re good at: read, listen, ask around, think – and I mean really think – about the meaning and future of public education.

Then have a chat with Arne Duncan about the purpose and meaning of public education. As president, you set the tone and policy. It’s time you educate yourself on education.

Red State/Blue State

I’ve spent the last three days in Kenosha, Wisconsin for the final push in this long 2012 election year. We thought we’d be in Ohio but in the last few days, everyone from Illinois has been sent to Wisconsin.

Near Downtown Kenosha, WI

But we’re also working for Rob Zerban, who is challenging Paul Ryan, so as we go door-to-door we tell people, “You get to vote against Paul Ryan twice!” Wouldn’t it be nice if it came to pass that Ryan actually did lose twice?

In some of the neighborhoods we’ve been in,  I feel like “wow … they need to be voting for Obama.” But then as we’re talking to them and hear how they’re traveling 90 miles for work (and these are the lucky ones) or see the number of houses in foreclosures or abandoned buildings you do understand the absence of hope.  While I can talk about how Obama opened the door on his presidency to the messy pile of excrement left by de-regulation and bad wars from previous administrations, one can understand why election day is not necessarily on the frontal lobe in much of Kenosha.

History is mostly fabulous because of firsts, and in 2008 it was an almost unbelievable first but we dared to believe. I’m not bothered by the lack of “enthusiasm” that some papers are focusing on … I am just concerned with results. And the next four years so we CAN see some change.

Communities Prepare for School Closing Announcements

Four weeks ago I attended a candlelight vigil outside of Price Elementary School (49th and Drexel) as students and teachers  prepared to board a bus to Washington DC. They joined groups in four other cities who filed separate complaints with the Department of Education’s Office of civil rights, asking them to review the school closing policies.

It was an extremely moving experience, and one of the groups from Philadelphia caught some of the action on video (see below). In the meantime, we await Rahm’s pronouncement concerning the 80 to 120 schools that may be targeted for closing.  The issue of school closings is getting more attention around the country; last week Diane Ravitz visited Chicago and criticized Emanuel, calling the school closings destabilizing. (Listen to her full talk here.)

Thirty-two alderman signed a resolution calling for hearings on the proposed school closings. If hearings are to be held, they would be called by Ald. LaTasha Thomas (17th Ward) who chairs the Education Committee and who did not sign the resolution. No meeting has been scheduled; I emailed her last week and did not receive a response.

On November 2 a rally calling for a moratorium on school closures and charter expansion sponsored by Chicago Teacher’s Union Local 1 will take place at City Hall (LaSalle between Washington & Randolph) at 4:00 p.m.

For more Information please contact or call 312-329-6227

A Tale of Two Strikes

In the 1980s I covered three Chicago teacher strikes as an education reporter for a community newspaper. Today, twenty-five years after the last strike I reported on, I am watching as a parent.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what is different about this strike, and I’m not sure that watching it from this parental angle is what makes it different.  Two things have changed: In the nineties most of the issues were around salaries and benefits. And in those days parents were largely on the sidelines and the children were in the middle .

Today, both the teachers and the Chicago Board of Education say that it’s no longer about the money. It’s about class size, standardized testing, charter schools, and teacher evaluation.  It’s about a steady stream of policies – from charter schools to more tests to abruptly shutting schools without parent involvement. Parents understand  gang boundaries; the suits downtown do not.

Parents get it. Most have experienced that hollowed out feeling on the first day of school when leaving a wide-eyed six year old in a classroom with 35 other six year-olds and one adult. We learn about “high stakes testing” when  we see the ten year old worry  over a test that will determine whether or not he or she gets into a selective enrollment middle school, which would ensure a similar enrollment in high school, which would have a direct impact on where he went to college. For some kids, it determines whether or not they go to college.

And they want more tests? Parents see how these tests shape their education long before they even have to take them. Preschools and kindergarteners suffer lockdowns with no recess, quiet lunches, no music, or dancing or loud talking while the Big Kids take the test. They practice filling in scantrons and watching the clock in first grade. I told my frustrated first grader to take his time with his math homework, and then learned he was just practicing timed tests. We understand “Race to the Top” better than our elected officials think we do.

When the 1987 strike ended,  some say it was parent outrage that forced the two sides to settle. But that happened three weeks into the strike. Parents have been angry about tests and class size for years, and seeing this taken to a national discussion has been somewhat cathartic.

On the third day of the walkout, parents from the University of Chicago Lab schools –  where Mayor Emanuel sends his kids –  joined  teachers on the picket line at the school where Education Secretary Arne Duncan sent his kids before he went off to DC.  They volunteered at the hastily organized camps in a nearby neighborhood club for parents who don’t want to cross the picket line. “Our teachers don’t get subjected to these evaluations and our kids don’t get tested the way they do in public schools,” a parent told me.

Apparently Emanuel’s disconnect extends beyond public schools teachers and parents.

These past few days have been difficult as parents scramble for short term solutions and pray for longer ones. I won’t predict how long the teachers will stay out, or what the outcome will be, but I hold out hope, remembering  that the long strike in 1987 resulted in school reform. That reform created Local School Councils (LSCs) where parents worked with teachers, they hired (and fired) their principals, and approved  the school budget. The long-term result is that parents are very involved and have a lot invested in the issues on the table. Mayor Emanuel doesn’t understand that the outrage of parents won’t come three weeks into the strike; it’s already there.

This appeared in the Christian Science Monitor’s “Modern Parenthood” column on September 12.

A N. Ireland Lesson for South Siders

This article appeared in the Chicago SunTimes on March 9, 2012)

Recently I traveled to Northern Ireland, where I had lived for six years during the ’90s. I was curious to see how things had changed nearly 15 years after the Good Friday Agreement, whether the walls still separated Nationalist Catholic and Loyalist Protestant districts, and whether riots were still waged over parades and marches. Ironically, it appears the Battle of the South Side parade in Chicago is bigger news than the controversial marches in Belfast.

Parades are not uniquely Irish, of course, but the tension surrounding parades in Northern Ireland have historically erupted into full-scale riots over symbols like flags and other representations of identity. At heart is the desire to celebrate one’s heritage.

The divides here are different of course, and in Chicago we don’t quibble over whether St. Patrick was Protestant or Catholic, or whether it’s OK to parade through a Nationalist district to celebrate Protestant King Billy’s defeat over Catholics 300 years ago.

The split over the parade in Beverly, where I grew up, appears in many forms: the North Siders vs. the South Siders; the Irish vs. Everybody Else Who Has a Parade (Facebook and blog comments demand the cancellation of the Bud Billiken, Gay Pride and Mexican Independence parades, among others), and of course the divide within the community itself. Many who were relieved by the decision three years ago to end the parade because of mass public drunkenness, violence and disrespect towards the residents and property are not welcoming its return.

Some say it’s all politics; others want to support the businesses but in fact they’ve enjoyed the house parties and smaller community celebrations that have replaced the chaos of the parade.

The similarity with the Northern Irish parades is the question of how people celebrats their heritage. And despite the divides, talks and negotiations are very much a symbol of progress, like the Good Friday Agreement.

Hard to respect a vandal

For years in Northern Ireland academics pushed the idea that the divide between Catholics and Protestants could be overcome by celebrating what they shared historically, or what the two groups had in common. Catholics, however, were quick to point out that while a criminal had a shared history with the person he robbed, the victim had little desire to “celebrate” that history. I see a similar argument here from Beverly residents who care little about bonding with the person peeing on their lawn or disrespecting an elderly neighbor.

Years ago I lived in a Protestant area of Belfast during one of the worst riots in the 30-year history of the Troubles, a riot that began with a parade. The July 12 parades celebrating King Billy’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne often march through Catholic areas. This is seen by Catholics as unnecessarily triumphalist and provocative.

When the marches were canceled, my Protestant neighborhood protested by building barricades to keep police and others out, and each night were set afire. The neighbors who previously carried my coal and fixed my faucet wore paramilitary armbands and stopped talking to me. I wondered who knew I was Catholic and that my son was half Jewish. I grew more frightened when I ventured outside and my friend Alec grabbed my arm and said, “Get ye in the house and don’t come out!”

Night after night I sat by my son’s crib watching the smoke rise from the barricades, terrified. I wanted to leave, but another neighbor insisted it would look like I was fleeing and wouldn’t be allowed back. She concocted a plan where I pretended to go into town shopping. Once past the barricade, I caught a taxi to the train station and joined hundreds of others trying to get to Dublin. She had my house key and turned the lights on and off so people wouldn’t know I was gone.

We moved the following year, before the next marching season began, into a “mixed” district. Here a Protestant neighbor would knock bravely on a Catholic neighbor’s door selling poppies on Remembrance Day to raise money for British army veterans — poppies are also considered a Protestant symbol — and my Catholic neighbors would smile (perhaps through gritted teeth) and give her a dollar.

I think the word is tolerance . . . perhaps even mutual respect.

Ireland today

While in Belfast a few weeks ago, I visited my old neighborhood — the one that teemed with kids and friendly neighbors most of the time — except during that one marching season. The recession had hit hard; houses were boarded up and “For Sale” signs lined the streets. Apparently during good times people moved on to bigger houses. Peace also brought immigrants who previously had stayed away because of the conflict. They rented here for a while, but were burned out and chased out. Some say the Polish were assumed to be Catholic, but mostly the Eastern European immigrants were simply Other.

It was incredibly sad to see this lively street so empty, and it didn’t say much about their chosen way to celebrate heritage. On the bright side, another Catholic friend who grew up on a different contentious parade route said it has gone back to the way it was when she was a child. Her Protestant neighbors put up their flags, they stop talking to each other for a while, the flags come down and everyone is friends again.

South Side tolerance

Divides don’t go away easily, but negotiations, meetings and proposals generally signify progress. Those from outside Beverly may not understand the importance of celebrating this heritage, but it’s hard to find common ground with that person peeing on your lawn.

Whether you were for the parade or against it, there is no doubt this day means a lot to the South Side Irish, with or without the parade. Whether you are South Sider or an Outsider, Irish or not, for it or against it, tolerance and mutual respect can go a long way.