March 29th, 2012 by jacqueline
Last month, my little, public elementary school, Nettelhorst, invited Karen Lewis, the President of the Chicago Teachers Union, to speak at what was billed as a Parent Appreciation Night. After a gushing introduction from one of our most beloved teachers, Lewis lamented the fact that Illinois ranks 49th in state education funding and praised our school community for facing the crisis head on.
Although some parents objected to being window dressing for what they felt was essentially a Teacher Appreciation Night, most were happy to play along. Sadly, I was out of town, but I’m supportive of any event that gives our teachers the recognition they so rightfully deserve. Our teachers, individually, and as a collective whole, represent everything that is right with public school education. I would put my kid’s education on par with any private school in this country—our teachers are that good.
So, when the first email hit my inbox, I became apoplectic:
“Are any of you aware that Karen Lewis wants the funds raised by Friends of and other parent groups to be distributed equally among all CPS schools? This apparently came up after she visited Nettelhorst and saw the new playground equipment. She has been bringing this up during the CTU contract negotiations. It’s hard to imagine that this could be done legally, but I think people should know where she’s coming from.”
Over the past weeks, this rumor has been flying through Chicago’s tight-knit parent community like a game of telephone on steroids.
My first reaction to the news: Wow. Just wow. In a district that’s beyond broken, my community has been working like gangbusters for almost a decade to rejuvenate its neighborhood school. The layers of insult are staggering: Here’s the head of the Teachers Union — after enjoying a potluck dinner cooked by our award-winning teachers (some of whose salaries are paid from parent-raised funds) — addressing parents in our freshly renovated auditorium (made possible by parent-raised funds) with the audacity to use our über-devoted parents as a beating board in her street fight.
Folks can debate the injustice of a system that asks schools to self-finance until the cows come home, but our fundraising prowess is born of necessity, not greed. My school makes do with a quarter of the operating budget of a similarly sized school in a less-advantaged neighborhood. Does Lewis even know that representatives from over seventy public schools came together in our auditorium to learn from our example? A pox on her house.
As more and more emails from enraged parents jammed my inbox, I started to seethe: I imagined Lewis in a remake of one of my favorite Partridge Family episodes, the one where the gang has mistakenly switched dates with the Temptations and winds up playing a Detroit social club owned by Richard Pryor and Louis Gosset Jr. (for real). During the big finish song and dance number, we’d see snippets of Lewis wearing a ginormous tie-dye caftan, smoking a lil’ dubbie, like back in the Dartmouth days, cruising around in the family’s psychedelic bus, dolling out our fancy new auditorium chairs across every school in Chicago. When she runs out of chairs, she starts to divvy-up our professional quality sound and lighting system, and then, moves on to dismantle every other parent-driven capital project, including our new U.S. Cellular science lab, Blackhawks Fitness room, and Nate Burkus teaching kitchen. As a precocious Danny Bonaduce bounces on Nettelhorst’s lone remaining chair in an otherwise empty auditorium, Shirley Jones and Lewis hug it out. C’mon, get happy!
“That’s crazy,” Lewis tells me (I only told her about the email, not the Partridge Family dance sequence). “It’s beyond stupid. CPS could never solve the funding crisis by portioning off the miniscule assets of 501(c)3 Friends of groups citywide. What I have said, repeatedly, is that Nettelhorst is a great example for schools across the country. It feels like a home, not like a prison. Every school should have parents that care this much.” It’s hard to imagine how this lovey-dovey sentiment could threaten the powers that be in a CTU contract negotiation.
So, how did her big wet kiss get twisted into a closed-door Maoist rant? Admittedly, I had no trouble jumping on the bandwagon myself. It was an ridiculously easy jump — there’s so much self-generated caricature on the web and in the press, it’s as if Lewis had built me a springboard to crazy town, personally.
“As a teacher, I would ask you to reflect upon the reasons why you lept,” she asks. “What made it soooooooo easy to believe that Karen Lewis would attempt to take money away from one group of children contractually? How would that even work? We live in a society in which our fears are preyed upon and used to magnify differences. That way, we can be easily manipulated to work against our own self-interests.” Lewis believes that this kind of viral email is part of a carefully orchestrated disinformation campaign to turn affluent, northside parents against the CTU.
“This is no joke,” says Maria Mikel, a recipient on the original email stream. Her two children attend Hawthorne, one of Chicago’s most desirable magnet schools, and its PTA raises over $250K annually to pay for additional teachers. She insists that distribution in the name of equality isn’t the point. Mikel argues that the CTU is running at a deficit due to gross mismanagement, and that Lewis is salivating over who controls these uncontrolled PTA funds, who gets hired, and how much they’re paid. This fight is all about money and power.
If, indeed, Lewis really did make these statements, nobody will go on record with any details about exactly what forum, when, or to whom (don’t judge: if Erin Brockovich lived in my kind of town, she might think twice about putting her own kids at risk). Nevertheless, sources insist this was a private email, sent to a handful of moms, the furthest thing from a massive cyberspace attack. Regardless of it’s origin, or even it’s veracity, the rumor has gained enough traction to generate a gazillion emails. Why?
“Unity is power,” warns Lewis. “A powerful alliance between parents, community members and educators is a frightening combination. Right now, these affluent parents form the main group against the proposed seven and a half hour school day. How can my political opponents best incite them? Throw up some socialist nonsense that says an angry black woman is going to reach into their house and steal their money.”
Like Lewis, Wendy Katten, the spitfire behind Chicago’s Raise Your Hand Coalition, also suspects political games are afoot. However, unlike Lewis, Katten doesn’t have a big problem lengthening the school day per se, if the Board delivered a bonafide funding stream to pay for it all. Should Lewis emerge from CTU negotiations with a overflowing firehouse fund — perhaps Susan Dey and David Cassidy pull-off a swicheroo with the $1.2 billion held in the city’s notorious tax-increment financing (TIF) slush fund? — kudos all around.
Pretending that happened, Katten still worries about what benefits students would actually receive during these additional minutes. More of the same is more of the same. If the extra class time is not dedicated to the good stuff, like art, music, language, physical education, and so forth, RYH’s thousands of parent members have voiced a collective yuck.
“At some point, we are going to have to move beyond the politics of education and have some real conversations with all stakeholders about how we can address the educational deficits in our school system,” argues Katten. “We envision a time when education isn’t so politicized and all parties can come together to discuss the educational needs of our children. This is what parents crave.”
The real issue on the table right now is the lengthening of Chicago’s school day, currently one of the country’s shortest. It’s no secret that Lewis and I don’t see eye-to-eye on a great many things, including merit pay, teacher tenure, and her vilification of Arne Duncan and Rahm Emanuel (in full disclosure, the Secretary wrote the Foreword to my book, How to Walk to School: Blueprint for a Neighborhood School Renaissance, and the Mayor wrote the Afterword). But for a moment, forget all that professionalism/accountability goo — the Mayor is simply asking teachers to work an additional thirty minutes. For those of us grateful to have full time jobs in this limping economy, such a request hardly seems like crazy talk.
The argument goes something like this: teachers are already “compensated” for a 7 hour work day. Their lunchtime may be technically unpaid, but that’s pretty much the way it works for all working stiffs. Moreover, most workers cannot choose to shorten their workday and take their lunch at the end of the day. When 75% of all CPS schools declared themselves “Closed Campus Schools,” students lost their recess, had their lunch shortened to 20 minutes, and their school day shortened by 45 minutes. Net result: Adults win; kids lose.
Many teachers, including some very fine Nettelhorst teachers, insist that these critics are using fuzzy math, and that criticizing the union ultimately hurts teachers. They argue that teachers are paid for only 6.25 hours. At my school, teachers have voluntarily given up a union mandated planning period so that every kid in building can have lunchtime recess everyday, guaranteed. Efforts to take precious minutes away from essential preparation and collaboration time hurts educators and children alike. Nettelhorst teachers are in the building well past six every evening, and on weekends, and over the summer—all unpaid. Surely, they aren’t devoting every ounce of energy to our kids for a paycheck. Is a modicum of respect and compensation from the good people of Illinois really so much to ask?
This fight, like everything else in my bare-knuckled city, is political; and if all politics is local, what happens to your kid each and everyday is about as local as it gets. Just as war protesters are wrongly labeled unpatriotic, parents who criticize the CTU are often wrongly accused of teacher bashing. Everyone loves teachers and kids (they’re like puppies), but there must be a way to talk about these complex issues without demonizing teachers, marginalizing parents, or sort-shrifting students. Lewis is right: every kid in America deserves a school like Nettelhorst—but it’s going to take a village.
To sail out of the mess that is American education, everybody in the boat needs to grab an oar, or at least have the decency to sit down, and get out of the way. So —
This is not crazy talk. My little school is proof positive that it can be done. Lewis, and all the parents I know, believe that every child, regardless of circumstance, deserves a great public school that delivers a first-rate education. Let’s hope as the CTU negotiations move forward, all the parties can act like grown-ups, and keep kids at the forefront.
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