The Chicago teachers’ strike added an interesting dynamic to the presidential race. Though the strike is apparently now on the brink of settlement, the issues it has raised will not go away any time soon.
So far one of the biggest losers in the strike was Obama. After all, the strike was essentially a face-off between two important parts of the president’s base—teacher unions and neoliberal social reformers (in Chicago led by his former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel). Many of the reforms that the teachers were fighting against—the expansion of charter schools, the use of test scores to evaluate teachers, and the closure of “failing schools”—are reforms that were started by then–Chicago Schools CEO Arne Duncan, now Obama’s Secretary of Education. In fact, the policies being contested by teachers in Chicago have largely been incorporated into federal policy under Obama’s Race to The Top (RTT) initiative.
Obama frequently touts RTT in campaign speeches, at rallies and press conferences, along with what he regards as his administration’s other signal accomplishments in education policy: the adoption of national Common Core standards by forty-six states, the provisional enactment of the DREAM Act, and more. Clearly, the president has raised education as a campaign issue because he knows it matters. Consistently, the polls have shown that the public is deeply concerned about the state of public education. The severe cut backs in funding brought on by the recession have taken a heavy toll on schools throughout the country. In battleground states like Ohio, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Florida, thousands of teachers and other personnel have been laid off, class sizes have risen and critical programs—kindergarten, music, art, afterschool programs etc. have been slashed or even eliminated. (For his part, Mitt Romney has said very little about education—apart from vague references to expanding choice, vouchers and access to charter schools—effectively conceding that he doesn’t have any ideas of his own.)
Though union activists and others (myself included) have been critical of many of the president’s education policies, he does deserve credit for allowing states to use stimulus funds to offset some of the effects of austerity, saving over 400,000 jobs in education. Even if the relief provided by the feds has been temporary, the damage would have been far worse without federal support. And he deserves unequivocal praise for his efforts to make college affordable and accessible through revisions to Pell Grants and to lower interest rates on student loans.
However, his big weaknesses all along have been his stance toward teachers and his unwillingness to acknowledge that the biggest challenge confronting public schools across the country is actually poverty. What has happened in Chicago’s schools exemplifies these weaknesses.
The district has been undergoing reforms consistent with Obama’s accountability agenda—expanding charter schools, closing failing schools and recruiting uncertified teachers from Teach for America—for several years now. But only 44.6 percent of Chicago Public School  students meet or exceed the Illinois Learning Standards. Chicago’s schools have some of the highest dropout rates in the nation  and In 2011-12 of the 598 schools in the system, 443 did not achieve Average Yearly Progress for two consecutive years  [This link will download an Excel file].
Clearly, something is not working in Chicago. Its schools have been failing for a long time. While Mayor Emanuel may be a bully and a threat to public education—and his remedies the wrong ones—the call for change can’t be denied.
The teachers have been bold in their denunciation of the inappropriate ways in which high-stakes testing has been used to rank students, schools and now teachers. But they have been less clear about what should be done to promote change and improvement. While the union has raised the critical issue of student poverty by calling for more social workers and school-based clinics, it has not been willing to acknowledge that more learning time and a clear and fair basis for judging teacher effectiveness are legitimate issues that must be addressed.
President Obama, the teacher unions and all of the other reformers out there would do well to focus more attention on the three huge, interrelated issues that pose the biggest threat to public education and American society generally. These are complex issues that will not be resolved by any contract settlement the warring parties reach in Chicago—but they cannot be avoided if we are to fix what truly ails our public schools.
The big three are:
Youth poverty—Since 2008, poverty rates for children have soared. Nationally, 1 out of 4 children comes from a family with incomes that fall below the poverty line, and 1 out of 5 children lives in a state of food emergency, meaning they frequently go without adequate nutrition. The impact of poverty on schools and on child development is most severe in cities and in states such as Michigan, California and Arizona. Increasingly, public schools are all that remains of the safety net for poor children, and with funding for education being cut back in almost all states, the safety net is falling apart.
Changing demographics—Already in nine states, the majority of school age children are from minority backgrounds. The number of states with majority minority populations will steadily increase in the years ahead even if the influx of immigrants continues to slow due to higher birth rates among Latinos. As the ethnic composition of schools continues to change it is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain public support for school funding. Voters don’t seem to understand that today’s school children will be responsible for supporting an aging, largely white population during their retirement years. Economists project that it takes at least three workers to support one retiree who is financially dependent on social security. Since 2010 we have fallen below that critical threshold. Will a less educated, poorer, multiracial workforce be able or be willing to take care of an aging white population?
Growing segregation—According to the Civil Rights Project based at UCLA, two of every five African-American and Latino students attend intensely segregated schools. Latinos and blacks, the two largest minority groups, attend schools more segregated today than during the civil rights movement forty years ago. Segregation is most severe in Western states, including California—not in the South, as many people believe, and increasingly, most non-white schools are segregated by poverty as well as race. Given that dropout rates and failure tends to be highest in the schools where poor children are concentrated, how will the next generation of young people be prepared to solve the problems they will inherit?
The Chicago teachers deserve credit for challenging the neoliberal reforms and the drive toward privatization that have been promoted by Rahm Emanuel, Arne Duncan, and to some extent, President Obama. However, shutting down a school system where the overwhelming majority are poor, black and Latino without offering a vision for comprehensive change is not sufficient. Parents are now calling for a seat at the negotiating table. Perhaps that may be what it takes to create schools that are truly accountable to those they serve.