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Black Agenda Report

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

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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