It has long been a central claim of those who call themselves school reformers that they are civil-rights crusaders challenging the status quo—as embodied by intransigent unions and bloated education bureaucracies—on behalf of people of color. The reform playbook has frequently included measures such as “parent trigger” bills that promise to empower parents in low-income minority communities over teachers and administrators at failing schools. Understandably, many parents grappling with inferior schools were initially intrigued by the promise of market reform. Decades of frustration gave way to the hope that “radical reform” might finally produce something better for their children.
But evidence of the reformers’ broken promises has quickly accumulated. In the past five years, more and more parents of color have come to realize that school closings do not yield school improvement; that over-testing steals instructional time; and that charter schools do not generally outperform local schools even though they under-enroll students in need of special-education services, extremely poor youth and English-language learners. Shuttering neighborhood schools and dispersing their students, meanwhile, severs the links between communities and local schools, and redistributes real estate, contracts and public funds away from poor communities and into private pockets.
Parents and community activists have also come to see that teachers unions are not the obstacle to poor children’s progress depicted in the reform movement’s caricatures. The unions, for their part, have evolved, recognizing that their strained alliances with communities were a source of weakness that antiunion reformers have deftly exploited—and that these links must be repaired if a grassroots movement for educational justice is to have a chance at defeating neoliberal reform.
Ever since the union clashed with local parents and activists in the Ocean Hill–Brownsville neighborhood of New York City in 1968, the struggle for equitable, community-based public education has been contested over the fault lines of race and class. And policy tensions between parents and unions persist. Clearly, teachers unions are dedicated to preserving and extending job security and teacher due process through the tenure system. Pro-labor parents groups and largely poor communities of color, on the other hand, are often torn between the need to assure a quality education to each and every child and an insistence on an equitable decision-making process for underperforming teachers. Zakiyah Ansari, a parent activist and advocacy director for the Alliance for Quality Education (AQE) in New York City and an organizer for the national Journey for Justice, says: “Labor can be threatened when we claim an independent identity as parents…. We do have differences, but they are getting smaller.”
That relations are improving is thanks in part to the way teachers unions have broadened their vision. The Chicago Teachers Union and its leader, Karen Lewis, have modeled a new breed of union leadership by responding to privatization aggressively and reimagining public education collaboratively. When the CTU struck in September 2012, its agenda focused not just on teacher benefits and wages, but on quality education—“the schools our children deserve,” including a decrease in high-stakes testing, smaller class sizes and paid prep time. As a result, the strike won significant support from parents and community allies. Lewis notes, “Across the city, more and more people trust CTU. We stand up for the little guy. CTU was not about narrow self-interest during the strike, and now we are fighting for what will make a difference for our community and the child.”