Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Teachers vs. privatization, two tier education

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Chicago teachers walking picket lines on Monday, in a strike that has closed schools across the city, are taking on not just their combative mayor but a powerful education reform movement that is transforming public schools across the United States.

The new vision, championed by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who used to run Chicago's schools, calls for a laser focus on standardized tests meant to gauge student skills in reading, writing and math. Teachers who fail to raise student scores may be fired. Schools that fail to boost scores may be shut down.

And the monopoly that the public sector once held on public schools will be broken with a proliferation of charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run - and typically non-union.

To reformers, both Democrats and Republicans, these changes offer the best hope for improving dismal urban schools. Many teachers, however, see the new policies as a brazen attempt to shift public resources into private hands, to break the power of teachers unions, and to reduce the teaching profession to test preparation.

In Chicago, last-minute contract talks broke down not over pay, but over the reform agenda, both sides said Sunday. The union would not agree to Emanuel's proposal that teacher evaluations be based in large measure on student test scores.

Nor would the union accept his push to give principals more autonomy over hiring, weakening the seniority system that has long protected veteran teachers. Already, the demographics of the teaching profession in Chicago have notably shifted, as the private managers who run charter schools tend to favor rookie teachers who are younger and far less likely to be minorities, studies have shown.

Today, just 19 percent of the teaching force in Chicago is African American, down from 45 percent in 1995, the union says; organizers fear that shift means fewer teachers have deep roots in and passion for the communities where they work.

About 42 percent of the city's 400,000 public school students are black and 87 percent are low-income, according to district figures.

"This is fight for the soul of public education," said Brandon Johnson, an organizer with the Chicago Teachers Union.

The union stand comes in a city that's long been at the forefront of education reform.

The first wave of reforms called for empowering citizens by creating hundreds of locally elected school councils across the city. That lasted just a few years, until the state stepped in to centralize control over Chicago schools in the hands of the mayor, who was to appoint a chief executive officer to run the district more like a business.

The first CEO, Paul Vallas, ushered in high-stakes testing: Thousands of students a year were held back a grade or denied entry into high school because they couldn't pass standardized tests.

Vallas' successor, Arne Duncan, took high-stakes testing a step further. Duncan closed scores of schools with poor test results. He remade others by firing the staff and hiring private turnaround specialists to run the schools. Duncan also encouraged the spread of charter schools.

Chicago's reform policies have hurt public education overall.

They complain that regular neighborhood schools suffer with crumbling facilities and overcrowded classrooms while privately run charters and turnaround schools get pricey renovations, new equipment and additional staff.

And they argue that closing schools has destabilized poor neighborhoods and even sparked violence, as rival gangs end up crammed together into the schools that remain.

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