From Nation of Change. By Sam Pizzigati

The sounds of September: school bells ringing, loose-leaf binders snapping open and shut, sneakers squeaking on gymnasium floors. Next to apple pie, what could possibly be more American than these familiar sounds and the local public schools where we hear them?

But times change. Blackboards and chalk no longer grace every classroom. Even pre-kindergarteners in the best-equipped schools gather around interactive smartboards and tap away on tablet computers. With the Internet, we can share lessons across borders.

In the new Information Age, are local public schools becoming obsolete? Do we need a new model for educating our young? Some sort of revolution in teaching and learning?

Questions like these demand thoughtful and patient democratic deliberation that we're not getting. In today's deeply unequal United States, we're rushing to an educational future that profits our awesomely affluent few — at the expense of the rest of us.

The most striking manifestation of this rush: the near quarter-million elementary and high school students enrolled full-time in taxpayer-funded "virtual schools" that for-profit companies now operate in 27 states. These schools have no physical classrooms, no playgrounds — and no in-person teachers.

How does learning take place? In these online "academies," even the youngest of students sit in front of their home computers. Their parents serve as "learning coaches," following instructions they read on screen. Remotely located teachers monitor and grade the students. One of these remote teachers at the elementary level can have as many as 60 students.

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The educational results from this "learning" process can be ugly. A New York Times investigation concluded that K12 Inc., one of the nation's top two corporate virtual schoolers, squeezes profits "by raising enrollment, increasing teacher workload, and lowering standards."

In Tennessee, about 1,800 kindergarten to 8th-grade students "attended" K12's Tennessee Virtual Academy last year. Virtual Academy students, notes the state education department, "performed in the bottom 11 percent of schools statewide." Other studies show similarly dismal academic results.

How could state education officials allow public tax dollars to underwrite these virtual disasters? Don't we have rules and regulations designed to protect students from commercial exploitation?

We do. But in more and more states these rules don't apply. What one analyst described as a tight-knit network of "right-wing millionaires and billionaires, bankers, industrialists, lobby shops, and hardcore ideologues" is carving out an ever-growing space where "virtually" anything goes.

In Maine, for instance, the state's right-wing governor Paul LePage, has "formally embraced" a 10-point plan that effectively sweeps away hard-won protections for students — and taxpayers.

The governor's plan eliminates "restrictions on online student-to-teacher ratios" and requires taxpayers to pay online providers by the same per-pupil funding formula that covers students in regular brick-and-mortar public schools.

The text for an online education executive order the governor issued earlier this year, the Portland Press Herald recently revealed, came directly from a Florida think tank funded by the virtual school companies "that stand to make millions of dollars" as the governor's new initiative goes forward.

These same corporations are also spending a bundle on lobbying and political contributions. And behind them lurk a host of super-rich conservative ideologues with a deep animus toward traditional public schools, what they call "islands of socialism in a free-market sea."

Meanwhile, regular public schools are facing massive budget shortfalls. In 35 states, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities just reported, state school funding has dropped below 2008 levels. Local school districts have had to eliminate over 328,000 jobs — at the same time the nation's K-12 student population has increased by 535,000 students.

In today's depressed economic times, schools don't just have more students —they have more poor students. But corporate-friendly education "reformers" don't like to talk about poverty.

For good reason. If you don't talk about poverty, the absence of wealth, you don't have to talk about wealth's concentration — and the political power this concentration inevitably forges.


Stand Against Rahm! The Chicago Teachers' Strike Is the Next Chapter in the Fight Against Plutocracy

September 12, 2012  |  

CHICAGO — I was awoken by honking car horns yesterday morning, and couldn’t have been happier for the fact. Chicago’s public schoolteachers are on strike against the city government and Mayor Rahm Emanuel. And while no one likes the budget crisis that forms the strike’s fiscal context, nor the fact that 350,000 students aren’t at school, much of Chicago is finding joy in the municipal impasse — which is why, anywhere within earshot of the schools where the Chicago Teachers Union’s 25,500 members are picketing in front of their workplaces, solidarity car horns are blasting away.

Since Rahm Emanuel’s election in the spring of 2011, Chicago’s teachers have been asked to eat shit by a mayor obsessed with displaying to the universe his “toughness” — toughness with the working-class people that make the city tick; toughness with the protesters standing up to say “no”; but never, ever toughness with the vested interests, including anti-union charter school advocates, who poured $12 million into his coffers to elect him mayor (his closet competitor raised $2.5 million). The roots of the strike began when Emanuel announced his signature education initiative: extending Chicago’s school day. Overwhelmingly, Chicago’s teachers support lengthening the day, which is the shortest of any major district in the country. Just not the way Rahm wanted to ram it down their throats: 20 percent more work; 2 percent more pay.

He had already canceled a previously negotiated 4 percent cost-of-living raise, and accused teachers who balked of not caring about their students. The teachers’ response to this abuse is something all of us should be paying attention to. If Chapter 1 of the American people’s modern grass-roots fight against the plutocracy was the demonstrations at the Wisconsin State Capitol in the spring of 2011, and Chapter 2 was the Occupy encampments of that summer, the Chicago Teachers Union’s stand against Emanuel should go down as Chapter 3. It’s been inspiration to anyone frustrated that people have forgotten how good it feels to stand up to bullies — and how effective it can be.

The CTU lost the first skirmish last year when Emanuel trundled down to the state capitol in Springfield to wire a new statute sure to forestall accountability for his draconian plan: alone among Illinois municipal workers, teachers would need a 75 percent vote among their membership to authorize a strike. Then in June of this year, after a rally that overflowed a 3,929-capacity theater with red CTU T-shirts, almost 90 percent of members voted through that authorization, should their leaders choose to call a strike. Counting spoiled ballots, the number of teachers voting against the authorization amounted to little more than a handful.

Teachers trust their leadership. They don’t trust the mayor — who the union’s feisty president, Karen Lewis, claims told her at a social outing at the ballet shortly after his election “that 25 percent of the students in this city are never going to be anything, never going to amount to anything and he was never going to throw money at them.” The exchange points to a key hinge in the story: Who in the dispute, the teachers’ union or the mayor, most earnestly has the interests of “the children” at heart?

The CTU stumbled in negotiations out of the gate, asking for a 30 percent raise that made them look just like the mercenary self-seekers right-wing critics always claim municipal unions are: a cash-extorting cartel against the taxpaying public. But Lewis later dialed that down to 19 percent. And Rahm has never had Chicago citizens with him on the issue — he’s just arrogantly acted as if he had. In one poll this spring 40 percent of Chicago Public School parents said they “side the most” with the teachers, only 17 percent with the mayor. Black voters who gave Emanuel a majority of their votes over Carol Moseley Braun, the first African-American senator since reconstruction, are especially alienated by his treatment of the teachers — a backbone of the black professional class.

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Chicagoans came to trust the union further after system president Jean-Claude Brizard expressed frustration that the authorization vote came before an arbitrator’s fact-finding report came down — but which, when it did, largely aligned with the union’s positions. Meanwhile the public has mostly come to believe the broader story they’re telling: that this struggle is ultimately about improving kids’ learning experience (including preserving arts and physical education, keeping class size in check and enhancing services in the classroom), and that treating teachers fairly only helps kids in the end. The union also makes the morally compelling argument that yoking the survival of struggling schools to their test scores disrupts the education of the most vulnerable students — though they’re also able to make the utilitarian argument that those scores have been rising.

So for now, the momentum rests with them. A Labor Day rally in Daley Plaza in front of the soaring black Mies van der Rohe civic center was probably the most impressive political demonstration in that marquee Chicago public space since 2010′s massive immigration march (that one had city support). It concluded with an unpermitted street action, as thousands poured into Washington Street to symbolically shout up at Rahm Emanuel’s fifth floor City Hall office. The unplanned outburst of exuberance trapped several unwitting civilians’ cars inside the scrum. Cops — cheerful cops, surely thrilled at the solidarity they would likely enjoy when  their contracts came up for renegotiation — parted the crowd to let them through. One motorist I saw began leaning heavily on the horn. But not from frustration. Her other hand formed a fist and shot into the air. She was beaming, apparently thrilled to be caught inside history.

Chicago public schoolteachers don’t have a strike fund; the lost wages come straight out of their household budgets. One kindergarten teacher of my acquaintance took to Facebook to ask for bean recipes. So though this may change if the strike turns lengthy and disruptive, Chicago isn’t seeing its teachers as greedy. They’re seeing them as a vanguard in the struggle against what might happen to the rest of the middle class next if they don’t speak up.

Save Our Schools - national organization dedicated to the preservation and improvement of public schools that serve all children equitably - endorsed the CTU strike with a Resolution in Support and a $1,000 contribution. You can show your support and contact CTU through our web site at


SOS 2012 Teachers' Unions, Teachers' Rights, Teachers' Voice

SOS Labor Committee Meeting, Washington, DC
 August 4, 201     

Dr. Michael A. Walker-Jones, Executive Director, Louisiana Association of Educators
Fred Klonsky, Chicago activist, blogger, and former local union president of the Park Ridge Education Association
Xian Barrett, member of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU)

SOS Steering Committee members Lee Barrios and Mike Klonsky help moderate and act as respondents.

SOS 2012 Teachers' Unions, Teachers' Rights, Teachers' Voice from Grassroots Education Movement on Vimeo.