Sunday, August 12, 2012

Choosing Solidarity not "Choice"

I've been reading UIC professor Pauline Lipman's book The New Political Economy of Urban Education: Neoliberalism,Race, and the Right to the City. I have long been a fan of Dr. Lipman and have seen her at multiple education events around Chicago. She is a fantastic example of an academic/activist: someone who uses her research and expert knowledge to affect change through real grassroots movements.

In her chapter on "Choice and Empowerment" she does a great job of framing the reasons many progressive teachers and parents are drawn to charter schools. The truth is that many neighborhood schools, primarily schools in low-income neighborhoods of color, have been historically and chronically disinvested in. Add to that over a decade of top-down "accountability" measures which have effectively removed autonomy, creativity, and passion from teaching. She calls the choice of some progressive teachers to move to charters a "moral crisis" (p. 130) where they understand they contribute to a larger problem but still feel they have no other options: 

Some teachers working in social justice oriented charters also talk about a "moral dilemma."  They know charter schools are part of the neoliberal restructuring of public education which undermines the public interest and produces educational inequalities. They feel complicit in this process yet guard the space for teaching that they believe in a and a context of ideological support and collaboration of like-minded colleagues.  As one teacher put it, "I know charter schools are bad for public education, but I could never teach like this in CPS." (p. 131-132)

Parents which she interviewed also speak to the desire for better resources like smaller classes, more arts (in some select charters), more technology.  These parents "did not claim ideological allegiance to school markets or privatization.  Their choice of a charter school was tactical, pragmatic" (p. 135)  Parents, rightfully-so, want the best for their children.

The truth is that both the teacher's desire for autonomy and flexibility and the parents desire for greater educational opportunities afforded by greater resources are all possible in traditional public schools.  So this begs the question, "why not allow ALL schools this type of autonomy coupled with full-funding?"  Here is where the resistance to corporate education reform is coming to a head.

If education reformers are going to promote "choice" off the claim that the "status quo" is insufficient (which in low-income communities, no one is disagreeing) then they must first give the full resources and autonomy granted to charters to the neighborhood schools.  This purposeful starving of neighborhood schools and strangling of creative best teaching practices has become too obvious to ignore, even by the most "pro-choice" advocates.

The obvious "choice" to fund charters, selective-enrollment, and magnet schools over neighborhood schools in the current CPS budget is exactly why so many parents, teachers, and activists came out to actively call-out CPS during these school budget hearings.  It is not fair.  Not to the teachers, the parents, and certainly not to the kids.  Parents and activists planned a large-scale protest for the scheduled Facilities Task Force meeting where CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard was scheduled to speak. I, along with countless others, had planned to attend until the event was unexpectedly canceled due to "security concerns".  Our city's leader of the school system is literally afraid of the growing voice of resistance to CPS' corporate-dominated plan to expand charters while underfunding neighborhood schools.

In my opinion, this growing tide of resistance must continue to demand equal access and freedom to create community-centered, democratically-run neighborhood schools.  They must continue to demand the funds to implement a community's school vision.  But we need more support, especially from the charters and turnarounds which CPS and the Mayor are using as hammers to smash neighborhood schools around the city.  Members of the charters and turnarounds should join in this fight so as not to be complicit in the destruction of opportunity for many children and families in disenfranchised communities everywhere.  Charters must no longer be used to divide us in our shared struggle.

 I call on parents, teachers, and students in the charters to stand in solidarity with your neighborhood school counterparts.   I ask for teachers in the charter schools to actively write, speak publicly (when possible-I know most are not protected by union protections), and advocate for the types of services, resources, and autonomy which supports great teaching.  I also urge them to speak out about the corporate practices and cost-cutting measures in too many school which undermine teaching and learning. It is important that we remain a united front committed to getting funding and flexibility in ALL schools for ALL kids while pushing for freedom of dissent and fair-work practices for all.

This need for solidarity and acknowledgement of the greater unfair politics behind the charter movement will become increasing important as CPS and the CTU move towards a possible strike.  Charter school teachers, parents, and students will you be willing to support your brothers and sisters if they are forced to walk the picket line?  Will you speak to the media when the first headlines come out saying you agree in their need to strike if CPS does not address the major inequities in the system?  Will you resist the ways CPS and Mayor Emanuel will point to your schools as examples while they never acknowledge policies which undermine the neighborhood schools?  Will you do all that is in your power to support public education in our city and our country?

In a time where we are taught to be consumers first, to aggressively go and "get yours" before looking at your neighbor, I call on all of us who fight for quality, equitable education to change the discourse.  Let all educators stand united-brother and sister-in the fight for great schools for every child.  Acknowledge that is it access to resources and autonomy which draws many to the charters and then fight for that for all teachers.  Meanwhile, the unionized teachers of Chicago will fight for YOU to have protections from arbitrary firings and for workplaces which do not demand unsustainable work loads and additional duties due to cost-cutting or corporate greed.  And surely all parents can unite in the battle for quality, fully-funded schools with low class sizes, comprehensive curricula filled with music, art, gym, and world language, recess, and creative, fun, responsive teaching not centered around standardized tests and threats of punishment.

I have been hard on charter schools and alternative certification programs like Teach for America on this blog.  But I promise, if you come and support public education with me and my colleagues around the country, I don't care if you come from a charter or TFA or wherever.  (Be assured, I will keep pushing back on you if your claim your organizations are better or ignore the unfair differences teaching in different settings thanks to current neoliberal education policies.)  But if you march with me, rally with me, speak out about the true causes for struggling schools (poverty, deliberate inequality, racism and NOT "bad teachers" or their unions) then we are united. 

I highly recommend Dr. Lipman's book.  I also applaud her for being both an academic and an activist.  She is an example to all who fight for social justice.  Will you join the fight alongside people like her? 

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