Kim Goldbaum: Striking Fear Into CTU about Radicals

Both the Chicago Tribune and the Sun-Times have had articles alluding to “the radical wing of the Chicago Teachers Union.”  The radical wing.  What is the mainstream press trying to communicate?  We see the same messages against how the union was run four years after The Strike of 2012.  These reports and letters to the editor harp on how there is no money, how teachers are so expensive, and how we should sacrifice our wishes on some alter of corporate fiscal responsibility that will save money and the school system.  And it’s these RADICALS who are being unreasonable and costing parents worry, and wasting the District’s good intentions by saying no to rescinding the salary substitution (pension pick-up), no to negligible salary increases, no to doubling workloads, and no to power which refuses to consider the dignity of the students or the education workers.

Notice how the message is slightly altered from the past.  In the 1990s when the state legislature listened to the District and allowed the Board to borrow cash from our pension with the promise of payback later, and when they took away certain provisions of bargaining, the union seemed to ignore the larger implications with barely a complaint.  (This is the part that came to bite us 20 years later:  the CPS now wants to stiff paying back our pension, and then take 7% of that back, too.)  Whom are we to blame:  the diminished radical voice of the 1990s?  

At the same time, the mainstream press and the Board tried the “bad school” narrative.  They said the reasons that students were dropping out at high rates, or that schools were plagued with violence, or that scores were low and the achievement gap was increasing was because the school was bad!  As if the school could live and breathe on its own, outside of economic context.  The words reconstitution and turnaround agenda were the new business terms imposed on schools.  These were reframed as “radical reforms,” but no radicals were involved in the making of that film, and all workers and students were hurt.  Firing people who had less power and were not at fault were considered part of a “civil rights agenda” of accountability, but the only counting we could do was a body count of students leaving, of education workers losing their livelihoods, and millions of dollars going to contractors who didn’t deserve a penny and couldn’t tell you where the money that the Board gave them went.

In the 2000s, corporate education reformers lamented teacher tenure and the lie that administrators couldn’t fire teachers.  CORE fought the “bad teacher” narrative.  Meanwhile, the General Assembly of Illinois created the Peer Evaluation Review Act of 2010 that changed the terms of evaluation, but allowed Chicago to impose vague terms with unreliable student test scores.  The resulting REACH evaluation system gave the appearance of objectivity, of allowing teachers to improve their practice through professional conversations, but undid any professional productivity with arbitrary cut scores and Value-Added Measurement that reflected the failure of the District to address poverty.  Our union has lost thousands of members to the detriment of providing the best service and care for our students.  We were sacrificed by the Board of Education!

The next bogey was under-enrollment.  Under-enrollment was caused by the District’s involvement with the creation of charter schools and the movement of money to those schools and outsourced private contractors.  Truthfully, the concept of under-enrolled schools is abused here, because it contains a warped vision to save money by pretending that 35 students should learn just as well as 20 students in the same amount of limited space, if the right teacher is there.  Radicals fought that drivel, too.  Other people, acting against their own interests, defended the Board’s practice of sardining.  Despite that bitter fight, fifty schools were closed, and most of their skeletons still lay bare.

CORE has a difference of opinion with the CPS about the causes of bad education and financial insolvency.  The CPS works under the politics of sole-cause individualism. That is, the individuals make bad decisions (bad administrators, bad teachers, bad students, bad buildings, bad lessons, bad contractors), and by removing those bad elements, the system will be cleansed, and then they can hire the good, build the good, save the good, etc.  This is mythology.

CORE’s analysis recognizes that education is a social and economic undertaking, and that nothing can be separated from its context.  If something is bad, good, or in-between, it is made that way from different actions and reactions.  Very scientific.  We refuse to accept an unrealistic interpretation of the problems in the CPS.  So, as we realize that the mayor is not in our corner, we also know that he and Claypool work within a larger context of wealth and rule, and those policies have prevented better education and conditions.  

CORE aims at the whole and will call out individuals who allow their agendas to interfere with student and worker rights–period.  That is the radicalization with which we have been accused.  Radicalism is nothing if not militant.  In the CTU fight against austerity, our numbers have been sadly reduced, but at a slower rate as we have been loud about the effects on students.  Loud, proud, and in a crowd.

CORE takes pride in our efforts during the 2012 strike.  While some people may say that it’s not radical to demand the professional pay and consideration that is due any worker, it is radical to continue to fight for it in light of the history of CPS repression.  Workers all over the world are facing situations like this, and when we get together like we did April 1, 2016, to call attention to the joint causes of our economic distress, solidarity becomes a radical idea.

So, what is the message that the papers–and the ruling class which owns them–are trying to send?  They have accused us of being selfish and overpaid. They have enlisted members who are confused about how the union works, and a few members who are downright anti-union, to attack from within by writing criticisms they would not bring up at union meetings.  The corporate education reform agenda, which has striped our backs with targets, does not serve students or education workers.  You can guess that any progressive ideas our union pushed for, like recess, special education and clinical expansion, the return of vocational education, and the retention of librarians, will be toyed with, corrupted, and replaced by outsourced, computerized, and private services.  Are those moves reasonable?

We suspect the Board is red-baiting.  A previous period in history in which this was done was a disaster for the workers’ movements in this country and a political embarrassment to the nation.  It is an attempt to divide our union further, to get us to marginalize true radical voices who would do the hard work of fighting for what is right.  Unnecessary problems in education are systemic devices of the District throughout the decades, and not caused by the workers who want to preserve a good learning environment for students and healthy conditions for labor.  Our message and our mission are important.  Strengthen the union in your buildings and prepare.  And when someone says it’s the radicals in your union who are obstructing a contract, take a good look at what you have and why you have it.  Think about who is obstructing the things we need in our profession and our lives the most.  Then you say, “Radicals? Let me tell you about radicals.”

Kimberly Goldbaum