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School Wars -- 'A New Hope.' but 'The Empire Strikes Back'

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In my last post, I accused the business and banking wing of the charter school movement of being vultures eager to gorge themselves on the carcass of a public school system they are trying to destroy. I do not begrudge parents who desperately seek educational alternatives for their children. I did the same when my children were young. But it is important to distinguish between an oasis and a model. A charter school may offer an educational oasis for a working-class family or extra educational perks for the children of professionals, but there is no evidence that they address the underlying educational problems facing urban America -- large numbers of children from working-class and poor families with disordered lives living in concentrated urban areas. As far as I can tell, nobody has a miracle plan for educating these children. In my next post, I promise to directly address concerns raised by individuals who have replied to my ideas.

What disturbs me most about the charter vultures and their political allies is that they refuse to address economic inequality in American society and try to sell quack solutions and patent medicines as miracle cures. They want to do to the schools what they did to the banking system and the military. Once the urban public school system is privatized, they will make billions; a few families may benefit from special programs, but most inner city children will attend Kaplan test-prep academies, Walmart bargain basement schools, or be processed through McSchool one-size fits all programs. Nowhere in their proposals is a call for jobs, housing, and urban renewal to rebuild the lives of people whose lives were decimated by their failed economic policies.

This week, there is new hope coming out of Chicago in the school wars that threaten public education in the United States and the ability of teachers to teach. Karen Lewis, a member of a group called CORE, was elected president of the Chicago Teachers Union, and CORE took over the leadership of the 30,000-member CTU by a landslide. CORE stands for the Caucus of Rank and File Educators. Former CTU President Marilyn Stewart has pledged to support Lewis in her efforts to transform a Chicago school system that was mismanaged by Arne Duncan before President Obama appointed him to dismantle the national public school system. Stewart asked "all members of this union -- those who voted for me as well as those who didn't -- to stand behind Karen and her team and support them as they take over the fight in your behalf."

The Caucus of Rank and File Educators has been organizing in Chicago for a number of years based on a program that can be a model for teacher union locals around the country. CORE wants to limit standardized testing and ban the use of test results to "punish, label or denigrate schools, students or teachers." It wants to repeal mayoral control of schools in Chicago and restore the right of teachers to collectively bargain over class sizes -- which will effectively lower class sizes and benefit children. It wants a moratorium on school closings and reorganizations that are disruptive for children, parents, and teachers, and have shown little long-term benefit for anyone other than politicians. It also will lobby to pressure the Illinois state legislature to fund all schools equitably and at a high level.

To ensure that elected union officers and staff represent teachers rather than an entrenched union bureaucracy, CORE will peg the salaries of officers and staff salaries to the average teacher salary prorated over 12 months. It also will actively pursue partnerships with parent and community groups. If a similar group takes hold of the teachers' union in New York City and of the national American Federation of Teachers, it may finally be possible for organized resistance to Mayor Moneybags and Chancellor Clueless Klein and the Obama/Duncan school destruction team.

While there is a new hope coming out of Chicago, the empire is preparing to strike back this fall. Bill "Darth" Gates, the Microsoft billionaire reborn in the guise of a school reformer (how many more billions would he make selling and managing publicly-funded, privately-run charters) is launching a movie docu-drama this September slamming urban public schools and promoting the charter miracle. Its simplistic message is that everything wrong with the United States today is caused by public schools.

The movie trailer for Waiting for Superman by the director of An Inconvenient Truth is available at a website designed to use the movie as the lead in an anti-public education campaign. They want people to "pledge" to see the movie and enlist in the "school reform" campaign by turning over email addresses and twitter and Facebook account information that will be shared with "Paramount Pictures, Participant Media and TakePart, and Walden Media."

Talking heads in the docu-drama trailer include a lot of cute minority kids and concerned parents (including one who appears to be a Denzel Washington look-a-like), but the real stars are Michelle Rhee, Geoffrey Canada, and Bill "Darth" Gates himself, who arranged the marketing of the film at the Sundance Festival. Michelle Rhee is the miracle-working chancellor of the Washington, D.C., school system. Rhee, a graduate of Ivy League universities with no professional training in education, "taught" for three years as part of Teach for America. At that point, she was a self-proclaimed expert and decided to reorganize education in the United States. In three years as chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public schools, she has developed a reputation as an autocratic administrator, but has somehow failed to lead the district and its children into the promised land. Nevertheless, her reputation as a reformer remains unscathed. Geoffrey Canada bills himself as a social activist and school reformer. He is CEO of the Harlem Children's Zone. Canada does have a master's degree in education from Harvard, but jumped into reform, administration, and media celebrity status without ever have taught or apparently even working directly with children. His talent is attracting foundation dollars and he is on the Board of Directors of the New York City Charter School Center, along with the city's school chancellor, Joel "Clueless" Klein.

Canada and Rhee are not evil, although I am not sure about "Darth" Gates. The problem is, despite their high profile celebrity status, they really know little about teaching and learning and know nothing about creating an effective school system that can educate all of our children. America's children desperately need models, not oases.