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Teachers File Racial Discrimination Suit Against Obama Administration's School 'Turnaround' Plan

by Bruce A. Dixon

In May, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan declared [1] the Obama administration's intent to close and "turn around" 5,000 'underperforming" public schools in poorer neighborhoods across the country. Duncan's last job was CEO of Chicago's public schools where he shut down dozens of neighborhood schools, practically all in lower income areas, and dismissed thousands of committed and experienced teachers, the vast majority of them African American women.

When the Chicago Teachers Union made no effort to reach out to parents, students or their communities, refused to organize teachers to oppose the wave of school shutdowns and privatizations, teachers organized what they call CORE, the Coalition of Rank & File Educators. CORE [2] has now filed suit against the Chicago Board of Education, charging that the mass dismissal of hundreds of mostly black veteran teachers and their replacement with uncertified and generally underqualified white teachers is racially discriminatory.

"We looked at the number of teachers who lost their jobs in these 'school turnarounds,'" CORE research director Carol Caref told BAR, "and we looked at the number of African American teachers who were employed in those same schools or in the charter schools which replaced them and there was a huge discrepancy which couldn't be accounted for by chance. The fired teachers are disproportionately African American, and the newly hired teachers are not."

"Even if it's inadvertently discriminatory, it's still discriminatory because the majority of the teachers wiped out in these turnarounds are African American," offered Chicago teacher Wanda Evans. The fired veteran teachers, CORE also maintains, are being replaced by a much younger, much whiter and much less experienced corps of instructors graduated from a handful of accelerated programs funded by Boeing, the Bill and Melinda Gates, Bradley, Walton Family, Rockerfeller and other foundations, and favored by City Hall and the Commercial Club. "The new teachers are paid half or less what experienced teachers with advanced degrees were making. They are forced to work longer hours. They are reluctant to stand up for themselves or their students and tend to be fearful of participating in union and other activities. A high percentage of them burn out or are not asked to stick around after their first year," according to Jackson Potter, another CORE teacher.

"The young, mostly white replacement teachers are de-skilled temp workers, teaching test-preparation skills. They are neither connected nor committed to the communities their students come from," added Evans. The prospect that Chicago's disastrous educational policies are about to go national is frightening, say the teachers BAR talked to. "We all hoped that Obama would not fall for this okie-doke of high-stakes testing, No Child Left Behind, of demonizing teachers and dismantling public education," Ms. Evans continued. "But he (Arne Duncan) was the president's basketball buddy. It was a slap in the face locally to even have a CEO rather than an educator in charge of our schools here, and a slap in the face for us all nationally to have such a terribly unqualified person as Secretary of Education. Mr. Duncan has not taught in any classroom a single hour, and is in fact not qualified to teach anyplace."

The Chicago-style "school turnaround" model does indeed owe more to the culture of corporate asset stripping and raiding than it does to any known strategy for educational improvement. In school "turnaround" operations, every teacher, food service worker, building engineer and custodial staff person is fired and the slate wiped clean. Experienced teachers who have invested their careers in urban education and are not rehired are, in the board's terminology "honorably terminated", with no specific reason given for their dismissal. "Show me a hospital, no matter how bad it's doing," asked one CORE teacher, "where you walk in and fire every doctor, every nurse, every administrator and tech without bothering to professionally evaluate them? It just sounds foolish. Why does anybody imagine this would help improve a school?"

Karen Lewis, a CORE co-chair and veteran former teacher at Chicago's Orr High School saw "a solid four restructuring processes in ten years. In ten of the eleven years I taught at Orr there were six principals. In the last year there were three principals." The next to last, she relates was a 27 year old accountant who graduated from some principals training program favored by City Hall. Like Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan, he had no classroom teaching experience. But in corporate-raider fashion he didn't need it. "He was their cleanup man. He came in to downsize departments, fire people, to cut programs, and clean the books," Lewis explained. Later that school year City Hall replaced him with still another closeout principal who would spend the remaining money on showy projects, frequent filed trips, T-shirts, special events and other nonsense that had little or nothing to do with instruction in the classroom but were heralded in the corporate media as good faith efforts to correct the situation at the troubled high school.

During the ten years of corporate school-busting reform, Orr was broken up into four smaller schools, only one of which remains today. That was a military academy, whose director took his institution off campus so as to escape the stigma of the parent high school's corporate-engineered "failure." And as it happens, turning public high schools and even middle schools over to the military was another hallmark of the Duncan regime in Chicago.

Ruled for more than 40 of the last 55 years by two men named Richard Daley, Chicago has given the nation dubious education reforms before this. The New Orleans model, in which the entire public school workforce was fired at one stroke immediately after Katrina, and all the city's public schools replaced with charter schools was implemented by Arne Duncan's predecessor at the Chicago Board of Education, Paul Vallas. Like Duncan, whose longest period of employment before the Chicago Public Schools was as a professional basketball player [3], Vallas was no educator either. Vallas was an accountant. And as in New Orleans, the closing of neighborhood public schools in Chicago and their wholesale replacement with charter and other special schools has destabilized vast residential areas of the city and greatly contributed to gentrification. CORE teachers pointed out that Chicago still has laws on the books enabling elected councils of parents to veto the contracts of principals and certain portions of individual school budgets. The turnaround policies allow authorities to strip these last vestiges of democratic control over educational outcomes from those who ought to be among the primary stakeholders --- parents.

The widening craters of collateral damage caused by these misguided policies extend well beyond the affected students, families and their immediate neighborhoods, into the broader communities that teachers live in. These experienced black teachers were part of the bedrock of stable African American communities. Up till now, they could buy homes, raise their families, send their own children to college and play active roles in their churches, sororities and a wide variety of local and civic affairs. Dispersing and dispossessing hundreds of such teachers in Chicago, and tens of thousands nationally of their livelihoods and agency in mid-career will be a severe blow to African American communities across the country. For the nation's first black president, a former community organizer at that to embrace such a socially destructive policy is puzzling indeed.

But just as bad policies and bad examples come from Chicago, so do good ones. "CORE has only been in existence a year. In 2008 we were only able to get a single neighborhood pubic school off the "turnaround" list," Potter told us. "This year we have stopped the turnarounds at six schools. We've done what the Chicago Teachers Union never did, reaching out and building partnerships between teachers and community organizations and parents and students." In 2010 CORE may field a slate of candidates in the union elections in an effort to reclaim the union for its members.

"If I could get a few minutes of the president's time," Carol Caref told us, "I'd tell him that public education and quality neighborhood public schools are the foundations of stable, livable communities. Turning schools into test-prep centers doesn't improve the quality of education. Neither does repeating the corporate propaganda about our schools being 'dropout factories,' as Arne Duncan does. What works are resources, stability, parent and community involvement and smaller class sizes. Schools in wealthier neighborhoods have all these things. Children and families everywhere deserve them."

Effective teaching, as one CORE teacher put it, is a performance art. You need commitment, connection and experience to pull it off, not hysteria, insecurity, mass firings and more tests. Somebody, they say, needs to tell President Obama.

Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report and based in Atlanta. 

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