Is Privatizing Education The Real Issue For Chicago?

By @TrishaMarczakMP |
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    (MintPress) – After a failed negotiation session this weekend, Chicago teachers are hitting the streets for a second week — and for a second week Mayor Rahm Emanuel is continuing his vocal attacks against educators, accusing them of not caring about the kids and insinuating that their attitude is driven by greed. Now, he’s taking legal measures in an attempt to force teachers back into the classroom.

    If Chicago teachers lose their fight, the city will see the closure of more than 100 public schools, creating a gap in education that will be filled by a growing number of for-profit charter schools that make their coin off public education funding.

    The man who serves as CEO for United Neighborhood Organization (UNO), Chicago’s largest for-profit charter school system, is Juan Rangel, previously known as the co-chairman for now-Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s election campaign. Just last year, Emanuel returned the favor by appointing Rangel to a spot on a panel tasked with oversight of school construction projects within Cook County.

    Charter schools create an interesting loop in the education system. While funded through public dollars, their faculty are non-union, and they’re not held to the same standards of learning as their public school counterparts.

    Emanuel’s interests are clear, and it’s taking Chicago one step closer to the privatization of the public school system, with public funds benefitting the corporate bottom line. All the while, the attention in the media has been placed on the battle over salary demands — part of the equation, but certainly not the only issue on the minds of striking teachers.


    Public funds, for-profit schools

    Within Chicago, UNO operates 15 for-profit schools. While receiving public funds, the school system does not allow the unionization of teachers and is void of regulations that its public school counterparts are held to.

    Its executive staff lineup includes eight people, one of whom holds the title of Vice President of Real Estate and Facilities. His job description? The long-term planning relating to site identification and acquisition, construction and management of property. In essence, UNO is planning on growing. Andrew Alt, the man who holds that position, is also a supporter of Emanuel.

    In the wake of the strike, Emanuel has indicated that when a settlement is reached, the go-ahead will be given to close down schools in the city, with a justification that such districts are falling short of the mark. If the plan goes ahead and more than 100 schools close, it will create a new market of students in need of education. While such large scale closures may seem drastic, the move is in line with a trend in Chicago — in the last 10 years, 86 schools have closed, according to the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU).

    Such closures have paved the way for charter schools that play by their own set of rules. The number of students in Chicago attending charter schools has grown to 52,000 — double the figure from five years ago.

    The argument all along has been the same: If a school isn’t performing, it should be shut down. The problem is that the schools in the most impoverished areas of the city have consistently scored lowest on standardized test scores. While administrators and Emanuel have pointed to teachers as the cause, educators have turned around and blamed a lack of resources (due to funding cuts) and home-related issues facing many children.

    Charter schools, unlike public schools, are then able to open — and aren’t held to the same regulations associated with standardized testing. The schools receive public funds, have the freedom public school teachers don’t have, in terms of standardized tests, but are paid from the same pot. The only problem for teachers, however, is that those working in the charter system aren’t able to unionize.

    It’s a move many of the striking teachers have said is part of Emanuel’s plan to break down the power of unions in the city — and a move that’s likely to make his supporters, Rangel included, a few dollars richer.


    Media message?

    The media coverage on the strike has largely surrounded the issue of salary, with critics complaining that teachers turned down a three-year step increase in pay of 16 percent. While it may have been a good deal in the salary section, it didn’t cover the other demands of the more than 20,000 teachers.

    Along with the collective opposition to a charter school sweep, teachers have complained that cuts to public education have undermined the quality of the service. In a press release issued before the strike, CTU indicated cuts to physical education, the arts and foreign languages as main issues of concern.

    “We have chronic underfunding and misplaced priorities in the system,” Chicago public high school teacher Jen Johnson said in the press release.

    That creates a problem in a system where funds for public education are going to schools that aren’t held to the same standards and regulations — charter schools where people stand to profit. In many ways, it’s difficult for public school and charter school teachers to compete. While the benefits of working under a union in a public school may provide security, the freedom to not ‘teach for the test’ is available in the charter schools.


    Privatizing education

    Emanuel is known for his mission to overhaul the Chicago education system. Yet with cuts to programs, paired with plans for pay-for-performance salary models, teachers argue it becomes more and more difficult to teach students to perform well on standardized tests. The other option, according to Emanuel? Rather than funnel more money into the public school system, it’s moved to charter schools.

    It’s a move that’s gained momentum — and doesn’t seem to be slowing down. And it’s not just in Chicago. Cities across the nation are facing the same issue, creating a debate over the direction of the public school system.

    And with people like Rangel, who worked previously as co-chair for the now-mayor, standing to benefit from the move, there’s a reason for those on the outside to question the real motive behind the charter school trend. Who benefits from the transfer of taxpayer dollars to privatized education systems? The private business or the student?

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