This week, from Aug. 7 to 9, Chicago is hosting the 40th annual gathering of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC is an organization of corporate lobbyists and mostly Republican state legislators who meet behind closed doors to write corporate-approved "model legislation" to be introduced in statehouses nationwide the following year, legislation aimed at enriching corporations at the expense of the environment, workers' rights, health care and education. I recently participated in a Moral Monday-themed action with roughly 50 others at the Palmer House Hilton. I and five others were arrested in an act of civil disobedience while blocking the entrance to the "Empire Room."
Earlier this year, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the closing of 50 public schools, the vast majority of which serve low-income children in high-poverty neighborhoods. While the unelected Chicago Board of Education slashed school budgets and forced the firing of thousands of school employees and educators, Mayor Emanuel gave out millions in tax breaks to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange -- his top campaign contributor -- a new stadium for DePaul University, and possibly even more for Wrigley Field. The city isn't broke, but rather has simply made clear that corporate profits are a higher priority than public education.
The situation in Chicago is not unlike the situation in Philadelphia, Pa., where the city council has ordered the closing of 23 public schools, also in impoverished neighborhoods. Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett slashed $1 billion from public education while simultaneously handing out $800 million in corporate tax breaks across the state, meaning a direct transfer of wealth from schools to the pockets of corporate CEOs. If one connects the dots, it's easy to trace all of this back to ALEC. Here's how ALEC's agenda is harming schools like those in the city hosting their annual conference.
Systematically Depriving the State of Revenue
Mayor Emanuel cites Chicago Public Schools' $1 billion deficit as a cause for his closing of 50 public schools. But Chicago is far from broke -- the money is simply being given away to other non-educational ventures. The ALEC agenda operates the same way.
The Center for Media and Democracy's "ALEC Exposed" wiki has published an exhaustive database of ALEC's model legislation sorted by category. ALEC's 1995 "Sound Federal Fiscal Policy Resolution" blames higher deficits on higher taxes, rather than ALEC's other model bills aimed at repealing estate taxes and capital gains taxes, which generate significant tax revenues and are overwhelmingly paid by the super-rich. By systematically starving states of revenue by cutting taxes for the rich, a revenue crisis is created with budget cuts presented as the only solution.
Redirecting Public Funds to Privately-Run Charter Schools
Chicago Public Schools estimates that Rahm Emanuel's budget cuts are affecting classrooms to the tune of $68 million this year alone. But the Raise Your Hand Coalition puts that number closer to $162 million when accounting for the money given to privately-run charter schools. Those cuts have led to over 2,000 layoffs in the CPS system, of which approximately 1,300 are teachers.
The education reform movement gets plenty of funding from Wall Street banks and hedge fund titans to advance its cause, creating elaborately-produced documentaries like Waiting for Superman. Walmart, well-known for its anti-union views, contributed millions to make the movie Won't Back Down, where Maggie Gyllenhaal portrays an everywoman character who just wants the best education for her child, and the antagonist is a bullheaded teachers' union boss selfishly pursuing her own interests rather than improving education. The charter school movement's argument contends that by letting schools operate on an independent charter, they get more autonomy in their communities and have more control over their budgeting process, and that those innovative ideas can then be applied in a public school setting.
On paper, this sounds harmless. But studies have consistently shown that public school students do better than their charter school counterparts. The Ohio Department of Education released a study last year showing that, among other results, public schools graduated 90 percent of their students, while charter schools only graduated 30 percent, even linking proficiencies with poverty levels in every instance. The real reason is cities like Chicago and Philadelphia are instead diverting public funds from public schools to charter schools at the insistence of millionaire charter school backers. This is simply one step toward privatizing more schools, thus widening the opportunity chasm between the sons and daughters of privilege and those living in poverty.
Keeping the Classes Divided
Many school systems, like those in Chicago, are funded through property taxes. This obviously leads to schools in wealthier neighborhoods having more resources than schools in poorer neighborhoods, like the ones Rahm Emanuel closed this year.
Phillip Cantor teaches Biology, Environmental Science and AP Psychology at North Grand High School. He said that while his school wasn't one of the 50 that was closed due to the budget cuts, North Grand High is still affected indirectly due to the influx of new students that were uprooted from their former schools. He added the charter school movement's agenda ignores the root causes of inequality in the education system.
"Groups like ALEC, StudentsFirst, Democrats for Education Reform -- in order for them to function and raise money and get private contributions, they have to show that schools are failing," Cantor said. "Schools in the U.S. aren't failing. Schools with lower income kids have lower test scores, but that's a failure of society... We have to catch up with all those difficulties with no resources."
Cantor believes in community-oriented solutions that turn schools into community centers that can provide resources for parents in economic distress. He says that if schools can't help distressed parents provide a stable home environment for children, then that limits students' ability to learn in the classroom.
"I have a student in my class trying to learn molecular biology as a 15-year-old, but he just spent the night sleeping on a chair in a basement apartment with 15 other people, several of whom are making tamales because that's how they pay their rent, five of whom are drinking and playing cards and gambling," Cantor said. "How can he stay awake and how can he learn about DNA when he's not ready to learn?"
Busting Teachers' Unions
Michelle Rhee of StudentsFirst is one of the most outspoken detractors of teachers' unions. She quit her job as DC's chancellor of schools after firing roughly 200 teachers and putting another 700 on notice based on student test scores. Since then, her StudentsFirst organization has become a nationwide effort funded by millions from big finance and has recently dumped considerable sums into union-busting efforts in Ohio and Michigan.
Cantor is a member of the Chicago Teachers' Union (CTU), and participated in the citywide teachers' strike in Fall of 2012. The strike was the first one authorized by the CTU in 25 years, and was called after they refused the city's offer of pay increases for some and layoffs for others, and when the city refused their demands to expand programs like art and music in underfunded schools.
"They've had their share of controversies in the past, but I've never been prouder of my union," Cantor said. "Our strike had support of both the students and their parents."
A 2002 study by Arizona State University found that students learning from unionized educators statistically achieved more than those learning from teachers who didn't have a union. This could be because unionized teachers can advocate for students openly without fear of retribution from principals or school boards. It could also mean that unions like the CTU tend to be some of the only groups that advocate for equity in school districts.
"The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Schools in high value areas and wealthy suburbs do really well in terms of test scores. Their parents pay a lower property tax rate than we do in Chicago because the property is worth so much more," Cantor said. "They constantly raise taxes for schools and they don't mind, because those are their kids. But we don't yet have the political will in this country to do that on a massive scale. The people in power want to educate their kids, not all kids."