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Education Wed Oct 28 2009

The CTU Needs Democracy and Rank-and-File Leadership

The father of the American common school system, Horace Mann, once referred to the public school as "the greatest discovery ever made by man". I tend to agree, though the scientific method is up there, too: giving every child the same education and critical thinking skills is necessary to building the cognitive girding that a true meritocracy requires.

A public school system is also invaluable to democracy because they are in a sense immobile, essentially local, and connect families, workers, and youth in one place. It's easy to see why the public school system is a favorite target of reactionaries on the right: done right, it undermines the status quo by its very existence.

Despite the right's constant harping on the evil teachers' unions, there's no debate as to their positive impact on education historically. America's schools improved by every conceivable measure as unionization of the profession grew. In fact, teaching only became a profession because of teachers' unions. It's easy to forget now, but the schools were a patronage dumping ground in all but the toniest of schools for generations.

Despite the hysteria whipped up among parents and the free market fundamentalists, teachers don't go into the profession because they hate children and teaching. Teaching is an immensely stressful profession--consistently ranked among the most stressful. Teachers have to face roomfuls of children and adolescents in the most emotionally trying times of their lives, and they must manage to both educate them and keep them in line. The caricature of the teacher who puts on a movie and puts her head down to sleep is just that, and is the result of years of propaganda and little else.

Don't get me wrong; teachers' unions need reform. There needs to be a reasonable method for removing bad teachers; there needs to be room for innovation in curricula. And they need democracy.

In Chicago, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) is among the largest unions in the city. It has members who work in every neighborhood, and who must by law live in the city. Their membership has ties to the community through parents and after-school organizations. A vibrant and democratic teachers' union with a real working relationship to parents could be an invaluable part of a truly democratic community and city. Unfortunately, the CTU rarely puts up any meaningful opposition to the Mayor's handpicked Board of Education: their pitiful acceptance of the disastrous Renaissance 2010 program is just the most glaring example. (A recent study by the University of Chicago found that, at best, the privatization scheme has had zero positive effect.)

But opposition to the incumbent ruling caucus--the United Progressive Caucus--has grown in recent years, due in part to their handling of Ren2010. Chicago Union News reports on the race that is shaping up, identifying the Debbie Lynch-led PACT, the UPC, the Coalition for a Strong Democratic Union (CSDU) led by ousted Vice President Ted Dallas, and the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE).

The election is next year, and in a preview, CORE is running candidates to sit on the union's pension board. The outcome of the pension board elections could presage just how competitive the union election will be.

Should an opposition caucus be elected on a platform of rolling back the asinine Renaissance 2010 privatization scheme, the CTU could expose a weak flank for the incumbent regime in the city and be a crucial positive step towards democratizing one of the city's largest institutions--the school system.

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