Class Confrontation in Chicago

An interview with
Pauline Lipman

The Chicago Teachers Union is confronting Chicago’s elite. Let’s hope their model of unionism spreads further.

Chicago teachers on strike in 2012. Spencer Tweedy / Flickr

At three minutes to midnight on October 10 — after more than a year of negotiations — the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) signed a tentative agreement. Members voted to approve the contract in the last week of October, settling a contract campaign that many assumed would lead to a protracted strike.

Since 2012, when teachers staged a seven-day walkout, the CTU has emerged as a major political force in the city. Their fight against Rahm Emanuel has a lot more at stake than wages and pensions. By helping build a citywide coalition of teachers, students, parents, and community groups, the CTU is demanding public reinvestment and the end to austerity.

Before the settlement, Micah Uetricht, Jacobin associate editor and author of Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity, sat down with Pauline Lipman, author of The New Political Economy of Urban Education and professor of education policy at the University of Illinois-Chicago to discuss how the CTU’s contract campaign intersects with the neoliberal agenda in Chicago and across the United States.


What has changed in Chicago since the last strike?

PL

What we’ve seen in the last four years is a very sharp example of neoliberal austerity — specifically austerity urbanism, visited on the public schools in Chicago. We’ve had incessant attacks, beginning with the closing of fifty schools in 2013, teacher layoffs, significant budget cuts, outsourcing of various education services to public providers — from outsourcing custodial services to Aramark, the seventh largest employer of prison labor in the United States, to the outsourcing of nurses. They are stripping neighborhood public schools.

We’ve also seen the fallout of the economic crisis and the debt that they incurred through toxic swaps and other risky financial investments, which produced a rationale for further austerity. So they’re using the fiscal crisis as an opportunity to dismantle whole chunks of public education, primarily in black and brown communities.

We really see the effects of the school closings over time on the black teaching force, which has declined from 40 percent in 2000 to about 23 percent today. There’s also been a loss of union members, particularly a loss of black teachers, who are in many ways the most militant sector of the CTU.

The legitimacy of CPS and of the mayor and the appointed board of education has been thoroughly eroded. They have very little legitimacy left. Rahm’s approval rating is in the tank. This February, 60 percent of parents said that they supported the CTU’s solutions for school improvement compared to 20 percent for Rahm’s.

So there’s been a delegitimizing of the state in this process, thanks to the incessant, persistent, and clarifying organizing of the community organizations, the Grassroots Education Movement, and the CTU.

What has the impact of the 2013 school closures been on teachers and students? How have communities that lost neighborhood schools been affected? Are the schools that overcrowded? Do they have enough teachers?

PL

When they closed those fifty schools — which is on top of 110 other school actions since 2000 — it amounted to about 160 school actions in the last fifteen years. That includes closings as well as phaseouts, consolidations, and turnarounds, which are all school closings by another name.

People are still really feeling the impact of the mass school closings in 2013. One impact is the loss of black teachers. Two is the loss of so many neighborhood institutions in black communities, in particular. Kids are having to go longer distances to schools, take more dangerous walks to school, and there are very few neighborhood schools left in some areas of the city.

In a number of cases, the neighborhood schools that received students from the closed schools are dramatically overcrowded and under resourced. At Mollison Elementary, for example, which was a receiving school for Overton Elementary, special education students are receiving services under the stairs, which is an assault in multiple ways. That’s just one example. We’ve heard horror stories from around the city about the ways in which education has been degraded.

We did a study that was completed a year after the school closings in which we interviewed parents from three different areas of the city whose schools had been closed. And the psychic cost of these closings, the grieving that parents and children experienced from the loss of these schools, has been significant.

And now we have these fifty empty buildings. About half of them have been repurposed. But we have large, boarded-up, now dangerous buildings in communities that have already been disinvested, that already have empty buildings and empty lots. So that further degrades those neighborhoods and makes them less safe.

Why do you think the CTU lost the school closings fight? Is it simply because, with an unelected school board hand-picked by Rahm Emanuel, the union and community groups had no one to pressure? Was it because they lacked the kind of power that they wield during an action like a strike?

PL

Parents have been waging this fight since 2004, with Renaissance 2010. We know that these school closings are part of a larger agenda for the city that has to do with gentrification and marketing the city to upper-middle-class people and downsizing and streamlining education for what they perceive as a low-wage or no-wage labor force.

We simply hadn’t yet developed the strength to win the fight over school closings. It’s a reflection of the tit-for-tat nature of the battle that we’re in right now, how high the stakes are, and how protracted it is. The fact that we have an appointed board is a major factor — we have absolutely no way to hold them accountable. They’re bankers and real-estate investors and corporate CEOs whose interests are completely aligned with the mayor’s and the larger neoliberal agenda for the city.

The school closings in 2013 were also about Rahm wanting to reassert his dominance after the 2012 strike. He wanted to punish teachers and parents for punishing him. It reflects the intensity of the contest we’re in.

I think the Dyett hunger strike is a milestone. And the lengthy negotiations for this contract are yet another one.

Should we expect additional school closings in the years to come?

PL

[Former CPS CEO] Barbara Byrd Bennett promised not to close any elementary schools for five years. She didn’t promise to not close any high schools. But now we have more charter school colocations, which is another way of gradually phasing out public schools through attrition and cannibalizing school space.

And there’s the tremendous disinvestment thanks to these budget cuts in neighborhood schools. These budget cuts are setting schools up to lose students to charters or eventually to be closed. So it’s not as if the situation has remained static.

There may be more school closings, but we shouldn’t fixate on them as the Board’s only strategy. There’s a neoliberal toolbox of different strategies that we see around the country — state takeovers of school districts, vouchers — there are multiple tactics.

So we can certainly expect the continuation of attempts to dismantle public education in Chicago one way or the other. And we can expect intense resistance.

You mentioned the Dyett hunger strike. Can you talk a little about its significance?

PL

I think the Dyett hunger strike has not only local but actually national significance. It demonstrated a number of things. One, that the board of education and the mayor — the authorities in Chicago Public Schools — do not care about black children and would be willing to allow black parents to starve themselves before they act to provide them with a quality education. It’s a deep reflection of the racism underlying all of these neoliberal policies.

Most importantly, it’s a reflection of the determination of parents and grandparents in that community to persist in struggling for an equitable, quality education for their children, and for some community control over the education their children should have. The Dyett struggle is against privatization, but I think it’s more than that. It’s about racial justice and self-determination.

The hunger strike really exposed the racism behind these policies. And the community’s proposal for a High School of Global Leadership and Green Technology was not simply a demand to reopen Dyett High School. It was really a proposal for the kinds of schools our children deserve, a school that embodied the vision of the community.

The Dyett plan was far-sighted and grounded in educational research. There were strong partnerships with the Chicago Botanical Gardens, Teachers for Social Justice, UIC College of Education, the DuSable Museum of African-American History, and others. And it really was a vision of the kind of school that the parents in Bronzeville wanted and was inspirational for the campaign that’s going on right now for fifty sustainable community schools.

The Dyett campaign over five years, culminating in the hunger strike, exemplifies that people in Chicago are not simply resisting CPS’s policies, they actually have their own proposals for how to transform public education, particularly in black and brown communities.

The courage of the parents, and the fact that they actually forced CPS to reopen a school that it had closed — which is, as far as I know, the only time that has ever happened — is a real victory.

It has been inspirational for people around the country and has more tightly linked and clarified the relationship between the privatization agenda and the racist agenda behind these policies.

It really clarified the inequities in Chicago Public Schools as a whole. At the very time parents had to go on a hunger strike to get a school reopened, CPS was planning to open a second, selective-enrollment high school in the Gold Coast area, just three blocks from Walter Payton High School, an elite, selective-enrollment school.

So another Walter Payton, three blocks away. While parents in Bronzeville had to go on a thirty-four-day hunger strike to get one open-enrollment neighborhood school in their community. Dyett was the last open-enrollment, neighborhood school in Bronzeville.

That tells you a lot about the landscape of education in Chicago.

You write in The New Political Economy of Urban Education about the fusion of education policy with housing policy, specifically about gentrification. How did the closures fit in with that agenda?

PL

Gentrification in some areas is connected with disinvestment in other areas. The overvaluation of land, real estate, schools, and housing in certain areas of the city is linked to the devaluation of those things in other areas.

Look at Lafayette Elementary, for example — closing that school was part of the gentrification of the West Town–Humboldt Park area. Certainly the closing of Dyett is linked to the gentrification of Bronzeville.

Uptown is another area experiencing rapid gentrification: there’s a lot of public investment in the area in terms of multimillion-dollar revamping of the transit station, they’ve received a lot of TIF money for development, and there are a lot of middle-class to upper-middle-class people moving into the Upton area, which has historically been a low-income, multiracial area of the city, with Appalachian whites, Asians, African Americans, and Latinos.

The schools that they closed served working-class students who lived in that area. So when you close a school, it becomes another factor in pushing people out of the neighborhood. Families are already having a hard time finding affordable housing; they’re in fear of being evicted when their building turns condo. But they’re holding onto the neighborhood. And schools are often a key anchor in keeping people in the area. So when they close a school, it’s often the last straw for people — it’s a mechanism for pushing them out.

In some cases, closed schools were converted into selective schools for the new upper-middle-class people moving into the neighborhood. One example is Andersen Elementary which served 85 percent low-income students, who were primarily Latino and black. They closed Anderson in 2008 and turned it into LaSalle Language Academy II, a clone of one of the most coveted elementary schools in the city. So that school then becomes a magnet for more real-estate development and for real-estate consumption, for people to buy housing in that area because they can send their children to LaSalle.

Not far in the past, Chicago was opening charter schools at what seemed like a breakneck pace. Have charter expansions slowed in recent years?

PL

They’ve consistently opened charter schools. I just counted 160 charter campuses, and there have been about 160 school actions. (That’s my own count — it’s a little fuzzy because schools have been closed and then reopened and then closed again, changed names. So not every case is clear-cut like in the case of Andersen. So actually counting them is complicated.)

In the last ten years, CPS lost thirty thousand students and added sixty thousand charter students. So there has been a steady expansion, and they’re authorizing multiple charter schools every year.

There’s a dynamic in which charter schools crowd out neighborhood public schools. For example, Wells High School is really surrounded by charters, and they’ve lost a large portion of their enrollment. And they’ve lost that enrollment just as charter schools have expanded. Kelly High School on the Southwest side is a similar case.

CPS, against protests by thousands of parents, is authorizing these new charter schools. And so Kelly is losing enrollment to charter schools while facing budget cuts and consistent disinvestment as the Board authorizes shiny new charter schools serving the same student population. This dynamic provides the rationale to close neighborhood schools, which then further spurs the addition of more charter schools.

It’s not just the expansion of charter schools, it’s the disinvestment in neighborhood schools that’s part of this larger dynamic.

[Editor’s note: As part of their settled contract with CPS, the CTU won a cap on the expansion of charter schools in Chicago. CPS has already challenged this provision]

Neoliberal reformers have adopted a civil rights discourse for their work, which we can see everywhere from Waiting for Superman to Deray McKesson’s Twitter. You argue in your book that they’ve been able to do this because teachers’ unions have failed to effectively fight those reforms and act as advocates for a broad vision of social justice themselves. Do you think this has shifted nationally, since the 2012 strike, in favor of teachers unions, or do neoliberal reformers still have the upper hand?

PL

I think it varies dramatically city by city. But I do think the neoliberal agenda has been so contested in a number of places, and even discredited — Chicago would be one, Detroit would be another, New Orleans another — that their stories have helped to create a counter-narrative.

Certainly in Chicago, it would be very difficult for the neoliberal “reformers” to claim that they’re promoting an equity agenda, a civil rights agenda — just because it’s so clear that it’s been an attack on black and Latino communities. And also because the CTU and the community organizations and the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett have all put forward concrete proposals to strengthen public schools and make them more equitable. So we’re no longer being accused of defending inequitable education or the failed policies of the past — we have our own plans for how to make education more just across the city.

And I do think you see that nationally as well. I think you see that in the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, which is a national coalition that includes teachers unions and a number of community organizations. I think you see it in the Journey for Justice, which has a clear racial justice agenda and a very clear attack on neoliberal policies by name. They strongly critique the claim that neoliberal reformers are defenders of civil rights and have a powerful program to transform public schools. So I think there is a shift nationally, although we see it more clearly in some contexts.

What needs to change in order to spread that? Is it the kind of rank-and-file caucus that the CTU has?

PL

There are two intersecting and equally important dynamics in Chicago. One is the transformation of the CTU into a social-movement union that has a clear anti-neoliberal, antiracist, equity agenda. The second equally important piece is the grassroots community organizations and parent groups in the city. The CTU and community, parent, and teacher organizations have built a strong alliance — the Grassroots Education Movement. This alliance has been central to the struggles in Chicago.

That’s what’s really needed in cities around the country: organizing by parents and students and community members, particularly in communities of color in alliance with teachers unions that share an anti-neoliberal and antiracist agenda. That’s the model that we need to build around the country.

In your book, you quote David Harvey: for neoliberals, “Democracy is viewed as a luxury, only possible under conditions of relative affluence coupled with a strong middle-class presence to guarantee political stability.” How has this disdain for democracy played out in the Chicago school fights?

PL

We have an appointed school board which has utter disregard and disdain for the interests and concerns, the proposals and demands and pleas of parents and teachers and students and community members. So there’s no formal democratic structure in place.

But more deeply, I would say that the performance of soliciting community input in everything from school closings to budgets — purely a performance — and the actual disregard for the perspective of community members has demonstrated that there is no meaningful public participation in these decisions at any level.

That was most dramatically demonstrated in the 2013 school closings, when thousands of parents attended multiple hearings and marches, engaged in civil disobedience, and put forward real proposals for their schools, and provided data and evidence that countered what the board said. And in the end, the board did what it wanted to.

The fact that this is clear to the people of Chicago is reflected by two citywide advisory referenda for an elected school board, both of which have passed by almost 90 percent.

And yet, there’s been little movement on this front.

PL

An elected representative school board in Chicago has to be enacted by the state legislature because state legislation in 1995 established the mayor’s control of Chicago Public Schools, including the power to appoint the school board. There’s a bill before the state legislature that would give Chicagoans the right to elect the school board like every other school district in Illinois and 99 percent of our school districts nationally.

That demand for a fully elected representative school board is extremely popular in Chicago — popular enough that state legislators feel compelled to support it, and is very much alive in the current legislative session.

How does the CTU’s recent contract campaign relate to this?

PL

The significance of this contract campaign is that this is a direct confrontation with the racial, neoliberal education agenda. The essence of that agenda is to transfer wealth upward, to disinvest in the public in low-income communities of color, and view schools as opportunities for privatization and for labor force development.

This fight was really over revenue and over making the real-estate developers and the wealthy pay into public education. In that sense, it’s really a class confrontation. The austerity agenda is an effort to make working-class people — parents, teachers — pay for the elite’s budget crisis through austerity measures, through budget cuts, through pay cuts. This fight is about insisting that the 1 percent pays their fair share.

It is a confrontation with disaster capitalism. They are using this fiscal crisis to accelerate the neoliberalization of public education and every other public service. What happens in Chicago is replicated around the country where austerity budgets are being used to make unions and working people and communities of color pay for the crisis.

The CTU and the parents are saying no — you created the crisis and have to pay for it. That’s why this fight will ripple nationally, and why the stakes were so high in this particular contract negotiation.

And this isn’t just about the schools. It’s about the entire city. We have to demand that they invest in education, public transportation, affordable housing, living-wage jobs. The things that keep people safe.

We need to talk about the criminal nature of this. We have unprecedented levels of homicides in the city, and they’re laying off school counselors, clinicians, psychologists. There are more police in CPS than there are counselors.

At a time when children are experiencing trauma, they’re engaging in budget cuts. This is really criminal, and what we need is not more police. It’s high-quality schools, healthy food, health care, quality affordable housing, living-wage jobs. It’s important to understand that the CTU’s fight is at the very core of what’s happening in the city right now. It’s not just a privatization agenda but a racial one.