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Education Thu Aug 27 2009
De La Cruz, in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, was a small middle school, taking kids mainly from Whittier Elementary and sending them on to Juarez HS. Small--a few hundred students. To the Chicago Public Schools, under the auspices of the Renaissance 2010 program, that is a bad thing.
Because the school was small, the class sizes were, relatively speaking, small. But the teachers, being unionized, tenured, and with in many cases decades of experience teaching in that neighborhood, were expensive. That, according to Ren2010, is "under-utilization". Too few kids, too much school. Yet, of course, small school size is touted as among the benefits of charter schools--more personalized instruction and care from teachers.
De La Cruz, in a neighborhood with a high number of Spanish-speaking families, in a neighborhood periodically plagued with gang problems, is an award-winning school. It won the Spotlight Award from the state Board of Education. Not a decade ago. Not five years ago. In 2009.
So here was a public school where the kids were learning. The school was making progress. The school was small and the class sizes manageable. And it had to be closed.
Why? Why close a successful, small school in a working class neighborhood?
The residents, teachers, and students surely didn't understand. A heart-wrenching "hearing" last year in February featured parents and students astounded at the callousness of a Board of Education indifferent to local control, so sure were they in the magical wizardry of the "market" to fix education. Given what happened to De La Cruz, is Ren2010 about fixing public schools? Or destroying them?
The neighborhood, the Board argues, simply doesn't need a school.
Well, except when they do.
Because the Board of Education announced, suddenly and with questionable reasoning, that much-maligned charter school Octavio Paz would move into the building that De La Cruz once occupied, under the private management of the United Neighborhoods Organization, or UNO.
UNO may be familiar to you as the Alinskyite community group that empowered working-class Latinos through collective action. That's not what it is any longer. Since the early 1990s, UNO has become a proto-corporate enterprise that attacks public institutions and hardly represents working class families in Latino communities. For current UNO CEO (yes, CEO) Juan Rangel, "networking", not collective action, is the name of the game. While UNO "builds power" as an institution, it also takes takes away.
It takes schools away.
Well, first of all, if UNO is a community organization, why isn't it fighting with residents to forestall unnecessary school closures?
But more immediately, UNO was among the major players in pushing for an increase in the cap on the number of charter schools permitted in Illinois. Charter schools, which are supposedly better because they're privately run, take taxpayer money. In UNO's case, they recently took another $100,000,000 in public money. Then what do they do?
Well, one thing they've been accused of is muscling out public schools by siphoning off the good students and rejecting problematic students. In other words, they take students likely to succeed and don't bother with kids that need a little help, dumping them on the public schools.
Some institute de facto tuitions by assessing "fines" for minor infractions, instituting various fees, and otherwise not delivering on their purported level of service. A teacher at De La Cruz shared a story of UNO canvassers going door to door to discourage enrollment in the public schools and talk up special education teachers in every room, computers in every room, brand new books--things which allegedly didn't materialize.
The name of the game is keeping costs down. You don't do that by hiring more staff, paying them well to keep them around, incentivizing their higher education. You do it by exploiting kids right out of college, burning them out in two or three years and then bringing in a fresh batch.
If this shutdown story sounds familiar, its because it played out recently about 30 blocks north, in the Noble Square neighborhood, at a school called Peabody, on Augusta just west of Noble Street. The nearby Noble Charter, the shiny nuggest used by privatization advocates as proof that there's gold in them privatized hills, has a reputation for stringent fines, fees, and allegedly maneuvering out the less fortunate (and therefore less likely to be high-performing) and more resource-intensive (special ed or behavioral needs) in order to minimize the need for experienced (and therefore more expensive teachers). Peabody, luckily, was spared, after a spirited fight from parents and teachers.
Because charter schools are able to prey upon the cream of the public schools, they leave only the more challenging work behind for the public to pay for. Sound familiar? What if I added buzzwords like "pre-existing condition" and "preventative care" and "insurance companies"? Like health care, education is a place where market forces are unable to reasonably operate.
De La Cruz was not as fortunate as Peabody. They were shut down, through the screams and tears of the students and teachers and parents. They were shut down, and then the neighborhood was told that two problematic Octavio Paz campuses would be moved into the building, owned by the CPS, and paying rent of $1 per year. That's a single dollar. More public subsidy.
The outrage comes not only because of the lies--the initial lie of Renaissance 2010, that it is an effort to save public schools, or the lie that no privatized schools would be moving into the neighborhood. The outrage comes because of the sense of remoteness. UNO is not a community group, they are a non-profit dress on a corporate bride. The Board of Education does not represent the people; it is made up of investment bankers appointed by the Mayor to carry out executive policy. The teacher's union is not accountable to its members, it needs democratization and toes the Mayor's line. The public schools belong to us, and they are being harmed by these remote bureaucracies, created in Masters programs and the networking events so beloved of Mr. Rangel. There policy is made, while children are moved to tears in defense of their community schools.
Kristine Mayle, a teacher at De La Cruz for the last three years, told me that because it is a middle school, it lacked the base to fight back. Parents expected the school to shepherd the children between Whittier and Juarez. This may be why they were unable to forestall closure, as Peabody was able to do. Easy pickings for an unaccountable school board and a mayoral administration that actually believed their own press in the 1990s: the free market can save your soul, and government by the people is the devil tempting you away.
So here's the answer to the mystery: Renaissance 2010 is not based on solid research, educational theory, or inference from data. It is based on a Gospel, that the Market will heal you, and government--and the teacher's unions--are necessarily the problem. Shut down schools and liquidate their staff, encourage privatize players to enter the education "market".
They start with the conclusion, and work backwards.That fundamental belief in the Market is the only thing powering the privatization zealousness of men like Richard M. Daley and Juan Rangel. Who cares about the details?
We will, soon enough. The things going on in charter schools now, between the lack of accountability to parents, schools forcing teachers to teach out of their expertise, the juking of numbers and poaching of good students from public schools--are a scandal in the making.
So they know only one thing: privatized, good. Public, bad. And De La Cruz was a victim not of a cold but well-reasoned public policy, but of a funadmentalist belief in a modern mythology.
When I say the Board of Education is made up of essentially of investment bankers intent on privatizing schools, I'm not being hyperbolic. Well, slightly. I should have said, "investment bankers and management consultants." [Updated to add: also a doctor!]
One of the blank-stare mantras of Free Market worship is that government is not qualified to run anything. Do you want a government bureaucrat doing X thing!? They'll ask. Yet when government runs things, they at least seek qualified experts to operate it (at least, usually). Here are the descriptions of our Board of Education, which makes final decisions on education policy that will educate the next generation of Chicagoans:
President Michael W. Scott, is also President of Michael Scott & Associates, LLC [a real estate and investment firm].
Norman R. Bobins is Chairman Emeritus of LaSalle Bank Corporation.
Roxanne Ward is Vice President and Corporate Liaison of Ariel Investments, a Chicago-based investment management firm founded in 1983.
Peggy A. Davis is the Vice President of Diversity and Recruiting at the Exelon Business Services Corporation.
Clare Muñana is President of Ancora Associates, a management consulting firm.
Alberto A. Carrero, Jr. is President of CBSS USA, a firm which provides financial, operational, and business consulting expertise and services.
[Updated to add, I apologize for the oversight:]
Dr. Tariq Butt Dr. is a Board Certified Family Physician with teaching appointments at the University of Illinois' Medical College, Rush University Medical School, and the Faculty with Mt. Sinai Family Practice Residency Program affiliated with the Chicago Medical School.
A nice gender and race balance, right? Mm, big city liberal "diversity". You'll note there's no class balance. Or expertise balance. These are the wealthy, representing corporate interests, as against the "bad" interests--teachers and parents.
Why is it acceptable to allow non-experts to run our schools? Because they come from the all mighty Private Sector? They can divine the powerful, mysterious secrets of The Market? It is absurd; we would scoff at government bureaucrats running Goldman Sachs, but allow their handmaidens to come and steal our schools away from us.
So, we understand the mystery. But the Mayor, the Board, and their "community" allies have to answer the people:
Why did this group of appointed investment bankers, real estate speculators, and corporate executives close the well-performing De La Cruz and replace it with a corporate, privately-run school that uses taxpayers' money?