Chicago’s Teachers, Labor, and The City

It’s important to note in the wake of Kristen McQueary’s odious op-ed wishing for a Katrina-like disaster to strike Chicago that the city’s political leaders–the Board of Education and Mayor Rahm Emanuel–and austerity Republican Governor Bruce Rauner aren’t waiting for Katrina to try to bulldoze the city’s schools and contracts with its teachers.

In Chicago, parents are hunger striking (see Diane Ravitch) to protest the slow-death closure of one neighborhood public high school as Chicago pursues another instantiation of the privatization-by-charter approach that Jelani Cobb identified in his recent New Yorker article on Jamaica High School–a process that creates “failed schools.”

The CTU is also fighting over a contract in the context of a fiscal crisis that they contend is really a political crisis–the city and the schools are “Broke On Purpose.”

Here’s Chicago Teachers Union VP Jesse Sharkey speaking at the City Club of Chicago about the crisis.

What strikes me in all of this is the way that the union has worked since its 2012 strike to frame its positions, both on wages and pensions and on CPS’s privatization agenda, around the idea that schools and the labor that runs them are integral parts of the city and the quality of its neighborhoods. They’re indeed integral to the ways that austerity-minded leaders are trying to remake it.

The bulk of Sharkey’s talk concerns the idea that Chicago Public Schools are Broke on Purpose. In Sharkey’s terms, “the fiscal crisis in the schools has been created by endeavor,” a systematic pattern of refusals beginning with former Mayor Richard M. Daley to raise school property taxes to legal capacity, or to raise the schools’ capital improvement tax. In order to reject revenue-raising, AKA “taxing the rich,” CPS  instead chose to borrow and lard future budgets with debt service, a problem compounded by a parallel development agenda funded by TIF financing, which has removed substantial amounts of property tax potential, and by credit rate swaps brokered by large banks.A fiscal situation that is a predictable product of politics and potentially reversible becomes an inevitability. Predictably, outfits like Bank of America have done fine, while the schools are told that there’s no alternative but to cut.

It’s not acceptable that there’s $274 m in windfall profits that go t0 a large financial institution at the same time that we’re cutting special education classroom assistants, we’re cutting bus aides, we’re cutting elementary school sports, we’re slashing our schools to the bare bones.

Sharkey’s best moment came when asked whether the teachers’ union has responsibility for solving the fiscal crisis:

But what you’re not going to see us do is go arm in arm with someone who, in their other arm, has an ax, and is taking us out behind the shed to go visit a stump. That’s not the way that’s going to go down with us…. We really do take the idea that we’re the  defenders of a public trust, public education, very seriously. We have a big microphone. You know, typical parent, on the South or West Side, doesn’t get to stand in front of a room like this… and talk about the funding of public education. We do.

Americans have long thought that public schools were essential as incubators of citizenship. Students would learn lessons not just about academics but about how democracy is practiced. There’s always been a divergence, noted by some and ignored by others, about just what the real lesson has been. The CTU might go on strike again, but even if they are out of the classroom, they’ll be teaching.


School Reform and Metropolitan History

As I wrote recently, part of what makes Andrew Highsmith’s new book Demolition Means Progress so compelling is his attention to schools, and particularly to the intersection of the “community school” concept and segregated real estate markets, as drivers of racial and economic polarization in metropolitan Flint. There are many books coming out that seek to examine the role of schools in urban and suburban history, not just by explaining how changing communities affected schools, but how schools figured in those changes. Emily Straus’s  Death of A Suburban Dream: Race and Schools in Compton, California, Brett Gadsden’s Between North and South, and Ansley Erickson’s forthcoming Making the Unequal Metropolis: School Desegregation and Its Limits exemplify an important trend in scholarship.

That said, there is another trend that I think is worth noting, that of long-form journalism that engages with this sort of academic history. Some of its practitioners, like Jelani Cobb, are both academics and highly prolific public intellectuals, which fills a blogger like me with envy and gratitude at once. Gratitude chiefly for pieces like Cobb’s New Yorker article on the demise of Queens’s Jamaica High School, once a thriving center of opportunity in a neighborhood in transition from white ethnic working class to African American and now truly multicultural but disadvantaged (you can google the title and access the article through the search page if you’re not a subscriber).

In his opening, Cobb writes that

The school’s closure felt less like the shuttering of a perennial emblem of stagnation than like the erasure of a once great institution that had somehow ceased to be so.

All too often such a “somehow” is made to be an all-purpose deflector of analysis, on par with “mistakes were made.” But Cobb digs in to “somehow” in ways that avoid a reductive narrative of white flight and neighborhood disinvestment. Jamaica thrived, though not without challenges, as the first Black students entered, and continued to thrive, though with escalating challenges, through economic crises that spanned Cobb’s own years as a student at the school, even as whites left the area and the school’s population became poorer. So why is it closing?

Historians tend to look toward long-term antecedents, processes set in motion by decisions that, because they happened long ago, are surprising to read as relevant to the present. And, for sure, Cobb writes by way of conclusion that

In a way, the protests over school closure are a bookend to the riots that broke out over busing four decades ago. Like “busing” and “integration,” the language of today’s reformers often serves as a euphemism for poverty mitigation, the implicit goal that American education has fitfully attempted to achieve since Brown v. Board of Education.

But good historians can recognize more proximate causes, and narrative breaks.

Both busing and school closure recognize the educational obstacles that concentrated poverty creates. But busing recognized a combination of unjust history and policy as complicit in educational failure. In the ideology of school closure, though, the lines of responsibility—of blame, really—run inward. It’s not society that has failed, in this perspective. It’s the schools.

Indeed, the idea of failed schools is the principle innovation in the opportunity hoarding of educational opportunity, replacing the ideology of the neighborhood school that condemned busing in the 1970s. In New York, it’s been a post-millennial phenomenon. First, the school campus was cannibalized by smaller independent schools because the New York School administration was in thrall to Bill Gates’s ultimately failed experiment in small high schools. Then, further reform, also driven by large philanthropists, kicked in:

In 2004, in the name of greater choice, the Bloomberg administration revised the districting rules to allow students to attend any high school in the city. Given the realities of residential segregation, and of school quality as a determinant of real-estate values, there was something almost radical in that idea. It’s even possible to see the Bloomberg plan as a long-awaited response to Arthur Levitt’s claim, in 1954, that the problem in New York was not segregated schools but segregated neighborhoods. But it also meant that students whose parents—owing to language difficulties or work demands, immigration status or a generalized fear of bureaucratic authority—could not or would not pursue other educational options for their children found themselves relegated to increasingly unappealing schools.

Indeed, both neighborhood schools and “choice” have worked within a political economy where educational opportunity was scarce, and therefore susceptible to hoarding and exclusionary behavior. The invocation of neighborhood schools was effective in the 1970s as a way of linking territory, property in real estate, and a presumed property right to superior educational opportunity. Today, when pertinent divides of socioeconomics and race are as likely to be expressed by differences among central city neighborhoods and among suburbs as by the city-suburb divide, the wealthy and influential seem, at least in metropolitan areas, to be asserting a presumed right to superior educational opportunity by deterritorializing education–other than in neighborhood schools of last resort–and letting those with privileged mobility claim the spoils.

Disaster Envy and Austerity Morality

Over the weekend Kristen McQueary, who is not some crank on Thought Catalog but in fact a member of the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune, a major metropolitan news daily, wrote what will surely go down in history as one of the most repugnant opinion pieces of all time. McQueary used the occasion of the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s devastating landfall on New Orleans and the Gulf Coast to reflect on what she considers the storm’s ultimately positive legacy: the privatization of the public school system, the dissolution of public housing, and sweeping fiscal austerity. This may not have the rhetorical panache of William Graham Sumner’s 1883 What the Social Classes Owe Each Other, but if I ever have the good fortune to write the history textbooks of the 2030s it will be reprinted in one of those little sidebars as a primary source illustration of the elite mindset of our second Gilded Age.

McQueary’s column might not otherwise have raised much ire; after all, such austerity narratives dominate public discussion of urban issues as well as city governments. Bond ratings have pushed aside questions of how people can earn a living; educators have become cast as obstacles to education while “entrepreneurs” are mythologized as the solvers of problems heretofore unknown; and prosperity seems increasingly to consist of a funhouse mirror view wherein wealth follows from making everyone poorer. But McQueary wasn’t content to leave it there, wishing that a similar storm might hit Chicago, unleashing the kind of disruption that changed New Orleans, because, and I’m not kidding here, people in Chicago are waiting for deliverance from the city’s budget and unfunded pension problems just as people in New Orleans waited on rooftops to be rescued from drowning in floodwaters (it’s worth noting that McQueary’s metaphor doesn’t even make narrative sense–are Chicagoans already desperate to be rescued? Why do they need the storm, then?). Hard to imagine anyone getting upset, right?

McQueary has of course “apologized” for the fact that some readers (those with functioning moral sense) found her comparative assessment of the seriousness of death and displacement in New Orleans and budget troubles in Chicago, and her apparent belief that lowering the wages of garbagemen and stripping teachers of tenure protections made it all worthwhile, to be completely disgusting.

The problem is that McQueary has disowned her metaphorical conceit but not the ideological indifference to human suffering behind it. She has also completely distorted the political economy of rebuilding, imagining the wrenching changes to the city’s political economy that followed its physical destruction as more or less consensual:

In the years after the storm, residents were divided. Some wanted everything rebuilt the way it was. Others wanted to move forward in a new direction. And that’s ultimately what happened for large parts of the city. New Orleans, of course, hasn’t solved all of its problems. But as Mayor Landrieu reminded us, by the time he took office in 2010, there was a mandate not to put New Orleans back like it had been, but to build a city that works.

Who could quibble with such an anodyne statement? The city used to be messed up, but now it works! Some people disagreed about what to do, but eventually some of them got their way! Out with the old, c’est la vie, laissez la privatisation roulé!

Perhaps the 118,000 African American residents who have not returned to New Orleans might have objected, had they been there to raise their voices in favor of a different mandate. For those who do live in today’s New Orleans, the notion of a “city that works” papers over some gruesome inequalities in terms of who actually works, and for how much. The city’s racial inequalities in earnings and employment are worse than ever, and the Brookings Institution has recently found “good jobs”, defined as

jobs that are accessible to low- and middle-skilled workers and offer stable incomes and upward mobility—

are insufficient in number and growing too slowly relative to those with low wages and no path to advancement or security.
Good jobs

represented 33 percent of all the metro area’s jobs in 2014. These good jobs were found in high numbers and concentrations across a range of occupational fields, from production to maintenance and from management to health care. Yet good jobs in the metro New Orleans area grew by 2.2 percent from 2010 to 2014, while other jobs expanded by 6.1 percent.

It would surprise nobody, perhaps aside from Kristen McQueary, that those holding “good jobs” in New Orleans today are overwhelmingly white. One might think that increasing the number of these jobs and ensuring equal access to them might be a priority. But that kind of thinking clearly ignores the magic of entrepreneurial disruption that so enchants McQueary and that demands fewer jobs with high wages and the security that tenure or a union contract might provide.

With occupations like garbageman and school teacher being purged from the list of good jobs, the percentage may reach single digits soon. Presumably, once nobody in New Orleans can earn a living today or save for tomorrow, they’ll all get rich through the power of the market. This sort of magical thinking would be hilarious if it weren’t the ruling idea of our time.

If you’re not tired and nauseated thinking about this, Adolph Reed has published all that needs to be said on the subject of McQueary’s column and “unpology” at Left Business Observer. A taste:

And what notion of democratic government does she operate with such that Paul Vallas’s having been freed from “restrictive mandates from the city or the state” seems like something to be applauded? He may have “created the nation’s first free-market education system” (can someone pass the salad dressing?), but, if McQueary could imagine doing the most superficial research instead of merely exuberantly rehearsing press releases, she’d have learned that that system has not, even by the the education “reformers’” very dubious metric of standardized testing, improved educational performance overall and certainly has undermined educational quality for many students in the city. And what notion of education does she operate with such that teachers are not only least competent to organize conducting it but are somehow its enemies, though a random “entrepreneur” with no expertise is the one — actually The One — to whom that vital public service should be entrusted? God help us if McQueary starts thinking about how to organize the fire department.

Ouch. Where Reed really nails it, though, is in the observation that austerity, by gutting social provision and underwriting the reorganization of the workforce around poverty wages, in fact constitutes a slow-working violence on people like those of New Orleans and, in McQueary’s fond hopes, Chicago:

The greatest irony of her original stupid article and the backtracking unpology is that she can’t recognize that it’s precisely the sort of arrangements she enthusiastically touts as the utopian possibilities opened by the horrors of Katrina that created that disaster in the first place. She’s right; it was man-made, but, if she were a little less smugly shallow and ideological, she might have asked how it was man-made. It was the product of decades of the sorts of policies, pursued at every level from Orleans Parish to the White House and by corporate Democrats as well as Republicans, she rhapsodizes about—privatization, retrenchment, corporate welfare paid for by cutting vital public services and pasting the moves over with fairy tales about “efficiency” and “lean management” and “doing more with less” and hoping to avoid the day of reckoning.

So, I’ll give this much to McQueary; she’s right that Katrina has a lesson for us. It’s a lesson about what happens when you follow the sorts of destructive approaches to public policy that McQueary shills for.

If anybody needs me, I’ll be off wishing I had written that, then wishing that it hadn’t been necessary to write in the first place.

One Way to Not Comply With Fair Housing Laws….

Via Brentin Mock at Citylab: 

In the early 2000s, Palmdale and Lancaster began spending “significant resources” to pay for investigators and sheriff’s deputies for the sole purpose of aggressively monitoring families in the Section 8 voucher program, reads the Justice Department’s complaint. As a result, hundreds of black families had investigators randomly show up at their doors, often with a posse of armed sheriffs, to search their homes and interrogate them about their housing status.

Mock quotes this from the Justice Department’s press release, available here:

[The Housing Authority of the County of Los Angeles] and [the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department] used their resources to effectuate the cities’ [Palmdale and Lancaster] mutual discriminatory goals and to carry out their own discriminatory motives by disproportionately subjecting African-American voucher holders in the cities to more intrusive and intimidating compliance checks and referring those households for termination from the voucher program at greater rates than white voucher holders living in the cities, or any voucher holders living elsewhere in the county of Los Angeles.

Read Mock’s whole account. If you guessed that public authorities in Lancaster and Palmdale would be chastened by this finding, guess again. A growing literature is addressing the history of American public housing and its privatized successor programs, notably Larry Vale’s Purging the Poorest, which evaluates the shift away from modernist mass-scale public housing in Atlanta and Chicago. Despite the well-known problems with public housing, the shift toward vouchers and market-rent subsidy programs exposes the poor and particularly the poor of color to a double-edged sword–by accepting the incentive offered by Section 8 and other market-oriented housing programs to move out of urban areas and embrace the opportunity to raise families in middle-class communities (which comes with a hefty dose of cultural paternalism), those families land in neighborhoods where their presence becomes a symbol of decline and an object of hostility.