The teachers’ strike in Chicago in September brought into sharp relief many of the difficult issues surrounding one of the nation’s greatest social problems: the persistent failure of public education. Nowhere is that national failure more evident than in Chicago, with a drop-out rate of 40 percent.
Some of the proposals made by Mayor Rahm Emmanual that led to the strike represent positive steps. Nonetheless, the reaction of the teacher’s union was in its own right understandable and should have been better anticipated. The teachers’ union likewise shares some blame. Resorting to a strike when negotiations appeared close to an agreement was civically irresponsible.
Beyond the particulars and personalities in this dispute looms the larger problem of fixing public education nationwide. That matter cannot be addressed by continuing the vilification of public school teachers. These are the folks on the frontlines; public education cannot be “fixed” without their committed and creative participation.
Self-described education reformers persist in placing the lion’s share of the blame for the various failures of public education on classroom teachers. But the Chicago union asked a legitimate question: Is too much being demanded of teachers in responding to the economic, social and familial disarray suffered by many of the children they are asked to prepare for higher education and productive adulthood?
Chicago’s teachers, and teachers everywhere, are correct to demand greater support services and smaller class sizes, even as reform-minded boards of education are correct to seek longer school days, better accountability and improved performance. More should be expected of teachers (and more should be demanded of the higher education programs which purport to prepare them), but real reform cannot be achieved by focusing on just one aspect of the public system’s manifold failures. A cynic may wonder if the real goal of such “reform” is not an improved education for America’s schoolchildren but the political takedown of a powerful unionized workforce and the opening of a vast new arena for corporate profit-making.
Some of the Chicago Board of Education’s proposals, though hard for teachers to accept, like merit pay and reconstitution of the tenure system, are critical components of reform. Teachers have to show more flexibility. But even in a time of reduced resources, municipal, state and federal government must make realistic if unpopular assessments. It is a rhetorical commonplace that education cannot be fixed by throwing more money at it, but this is a policy apparently unknown in suburban school districts where per capita spending can greatly exceed spending in urban or rural communities. Rebuilding U.S. public education into a system that produces college graduates who can compete with the world’s elites and a competent workforce ready to take on the jobs of the future may mean spending more money in socioeconomically challenged districts, not less. It is a task that must be accepted nonetheless. It is inimical to a just and democratic society to maintain two separate, unequal systems, whether that dualism is based on race or on property tax bases.
Fixing education should be at the top of the nation’s priority list; our best minds and most creative thinkers should be assigned to this critical task. Instead, most of the energy surrounding the restoration of public education revolves around free-market fixes that create opportunities for charter school venture capitalists, even as the resources to pay for education continue to come from government. But in the real world, outside of conservative think tanks, privatization is not necessarily the most effective approach to improving school outcomes. In Finland, for instance, it was not charter schools or an emphasis on high-tech breakthroughs or individual excellence that led to globally envied improvements in student performance; it was an insistence on educational equity in resources and school capacity for all of Finland’s increasingly multicultural student body. That meant improving the system in place, not breaking it down into free-market chunks to be divvied up among campaign contributors who stand to gain the most from charter school experiments.
The church could play a greater role in responding to the crisis of education in America, were it allowed to; but secular forces suspicious of religion seem immovable, and the establishment of voucher systems that could relieve some of the pressure on public school systems seems ever more unlikely. Lay Catholics and church officials, all the same, are required to fulfill the church’s commitment to the common good. They have a responsibility to insist on an equitable and effective education for all of America’s children who, in public schools, will be taking first steps into what should be a lifetime of learning.