Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Obama's impending victory

First of all, I want to congratulate many of you on your hard work. 

I still hold hope and as critical as I've been, I'm relieved that the election results for this one day seem about as good as they can get for a single election's results. But we need far more--long, life-shaking civic engagement that can really change the landscape of a society.

I hold serious hope that everyone who has assured me that we just needed to come together and ensure Obama's re-election so that we could subsequently switch into accountability mode was not just saying what needed to be said, but really honestly believes that's the next step.

Because with all that hope, I also know one harsh reality: starting tomorrow, all of the corporate influences that sidetracked Hope and Change throughout the first-term will have already had their first second-term conversations with the administration and we will have not.

The other thing that worried me about this cycle was the constant refrain of how bad Romney would make it and that there'd be nothing we could do about it. This assumes that we are at the mercy of people in power and their agenda. If this is the case, we might as well just give up now. We cannot vote our way to the free society we deserve, and there are going to be moments where we have to get mad and active and use civil disobedience to push those in power to act justly. If we do that effectively, we can win over the unjust rule of law.

We will likely need to do that under this administration as well. We must stand for what just and we should expect this administration to oppose us in many areas:

1. We need to bring people together now and resolve that we will not vote for any candidate that enters the current debate pact to exclude third-party voices. We need to act quickly and decisively to throw corporate money out of politics and grab grassroots control of policymaking in as many areas as possible. Those with power should offer resources to execute our plans, not demand that we accept the plans they impose on us.
2. We need to draw a line on due process. No President from any party should have license to employ killer robot planes to execute 16 year-old American citizens who have neither committed, nor been accused of any crime. Gibbs' comments on this case--blaming the victim for essentially having a bad dad are crazy and he should have been fired on the spot. 
3. We need serious immigration reform and it should fully acknowledge the vast contributions of immigrants--both documented and undocumented--to the country. It should seek to decriminalize immigrant populations and provide expedient pathways to citizenship rather than the fragmenting of families.
4. The final margin in the Superintendent race in Indiana and several other Congressional races suggests that Corporate Education Reform dollars only go so far in certainly contexts. They are often beating us soundly in the policy arena, but the general public is neither asking for these policies nor particularly resolute in following this corporate narrative. We need to call out the current administration's disastrous direction on privatizing education and testing the crap out of our kids for what it is: junk science that will pour over a hundred billion dollars into making our students' educations worse.
5. We need to look at making public education all the way through college free, accessible and equitably outstanding for all young people. Education should be a right, not a privilege, and we should be able to pursue it regardless of our background without being criminalized or put into veritable debt slavery for large portions of our lives.

That's just a start, but we need to nail down these commitments today and stay engaged. It is impossible for us to build the free and fair country we envision through a single election day, but we can achieve that lofty goal by applying increased organizing energy to the struggle between these elections.

Much love.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Open Letter to Newark Teachers

The Newark Teachers Union is facing a critical contract vote that was supposed to be Monday, October 28th although the hurricane is pushing back the date. It's a particularly interesting vote in light of the emergence of the NEW  (Newark Education Workers) Caucus as a group within the union opposing the contract and the current NTU leadership, along with Randi Weingarten, AFT President and Republican Celebrity Governor Chris Christie supporting it. Hear more about it here: http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/14087/newark_teachers_union_new_caucus_contract_vote_del_grosso_ratification_owen/

Unlike the AFT leadership and the annoying head of state of New Jersey, I don't think it's right for me to presume to know what's best for the educators of Newark--they certain can and must figure that out in vibrant, democratic and grassroots fashion.

On the other hand, it's vital to show support for fellow educators and to remind them that they are not alone in the fight to defend public education, so:

October 28, 2012
Dear Newark Teachers:
You stand at the crossroads of an immense and democratic decision. Many may try to make you feel like you are making a horrible mistake if you don’t vote a certain way, but I want to ensure you that it is far more important to engage in your profession, union and the policy that governs the daily learning of your students than to vote one way or another.
As a recently returned striking Chicago Teacher, I can tell you that there are plenty of things worth striking over. It’s worth standing up and saying what needs to be improved in your working conditions even if a single strike or contract negotiation cannot address all of them. I cannot think of a time in my teaching career when I was prouder than standing on the picket line to fight for smaller class sizes and humane classroom conditions with my fellow educators, students and parents.
Like in Chicago, I’m sure there are many challenges in Newark Public Schools, and some of them are unique to your situation. However, I’m quite sure that we share many similarities. We work extremely hard. We are under-appreciated  We often put our students and their families ahead of the needs of our own families. Most of all, we are under attack by the same corporate forces that seek to blame us for the problems they've created in our public school system and use that as an opportunity to divide us. They intend to take full control of the resources of our schools.
They are spending billions of dollars to sell us policies that studies tell us will hurt our students:
  1. Districts controlled by the richest of the rich who do not send their own kids to the schools we teach in
  2. Evaluations dictated by the employer and predicated on inaccurate high stakes tests not intended for this purpose
  3. Charter and turnaround schools that contextually underperform their counterparts
  4. Multi-tiered employment that will cast us as unequal based on when we were hired
  5. Merit pay
  6.  A continued erosion of our voice into the conditions of our own profession.
  7. Extended work hours without the necessary resources or adding more employees so that we are stretched more thinly
  8. Destruction of our retirement plans, so once we’ve given our all to students, we get nothing in return

You’ll recognize many of these corporate goals in the contract you are being asked to vote on. You’ll also recognize them as policies that serve a corporate purpose but in no way help your instruction. Now you are faced with a decision to make: “Would voting for this contract help or hinder my teaching and the quality of life for my students and my own family?”
It is a shame it has come to this—I, like many of you, wish I lived in a time where I could just close my classroom door and be an awesome teacher to my students—but it’s also an opportunity. Heroic battles are not waged and won by superhuman heroes, but by every day people inspired to do what they never thought themselves capable of.
So go forth and vote what you feel to be best for students, but look beyond that too. The fight for our profession, the public school system and our very American democracy is at hand. The bigger question is not whether or not Newark teachers should accept this contract. It is whether we as educators will continue to allow the super-rich to fund and push separate and unequal education or we will force them to step aside so with our parents and students voices combine we can shape our schools and classrooms in the ways we know to be best.
Be courageous, and stand up for what you know to be right. This is a glorious teaching moment, and you are just the educator to shine in it!

Xian Barrett, Law and Chicago History Teacher, Gage Park High School, Chicago Public Schools
2009-2010 U.S. Department of Education Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow
VIVA Teacher Leader

Saturday, October 6, 2012

"Real parents"

The director of Education Reform Now which is a differently named part of Democrats for Education Reform, Ms. Nieves Huffman recently wrote an article on Catalyst: "Real Parents Have Been Standing Up" to respond to a thoughtful piece from Wendy Katten, director of Raise Your Hand for Public Education.

I'll try to avoid snark until the last paragraph as I respect that we can have reasonable discussions within our differences about educational policy. We can be polite. We can be respectful. That is, until the last paragraph, then we get to treat each other and all bets are off.

I think Ms. Nieves Huffman's story illustrates exactly why CPS should be expected to adhere to state law and common decency into major facilities decisions. I would include attendance boundary changes.

What she describes is exactly why hedge fund managers should not dictate policy in Chicago; parents and students should and educators should be supported to implement that policy.  It sounds like Ms. Huffman-Nieves agrees in her emphasis on the need for parents and key stakeholders (like students and educators) to be involved in the process.

I expect that she will stand by that conviction and testify with us at future Board meetings, run expensive television ads and use her thoughtful, Broad reaching voice to contest CPS' atrociously bad school facilities process which has been excoriated by a honorable state panel of educators, community organizations and educators.

Furthermore, I hope that she will reconsider using an illegally obtained list of parents' private contact information to spam parents to watch a non-veiled piece of corporate funded propaganda that is rapidly emerging as one of the worst movies of all time. (#1 Worst Box Office Showing of the Last 30 years.)

I would not to presume to know better for her and her funders' organization than she does, but given her stated goals, I would advise the convening of some non-hedge fund connected parents who don't have the means to choose selective schools (charter or otherwise) and ask them where the ample dollars they have ought to be spent.

After all, that would be democratic parent voice, which would deliver better decision-making and may have helped avert the strike in the first place.

Finally, in reference to the titles of the pieces, I'd say that Huffman doesn't really address the key issue here at all: There's a difference between an independently formed advocacy group that builds itself from the ground up and a well financed organization that obtained its money and chose its positions before it spoke to its first grassroots parent voice. "Selected voice" is not the same as "grassroots voice" and is infinitely less useful for creating good policy. If I can find 200 parents to take $1000 to make their kids smoke cigarettes, that doesn't count as a grassroots parent advocacy group for child smoking, it's just me being a terrible person.

Xian Barrett
Prime Minister, Chicago Barretts for Billionaires Not Getting to Run Rabbit Proof Fence Experiments on Other People's Children

Postscript: What I hope is not lost in the playful sniping is that we do have an obligation to fight for true democratic voice. I know that may sound presumptuous, but I'm not saying that I have the right to define what is "true" voice. I think that everyone has a pretty good understanding that the law that lets billionaires buy elections and run constant and misleading ads through groups like DFER does not promote a fair marketplace of ideas. On the other hand, Raise Your Hand's labor of love has brought together people across communities and led to the development of new ideas that with advocacy and implementation will lead to a better education for Chicago students.

Why should we care? Because I believe that when we push aside these money groups and really get the voices of those who experience the daily indignities of our school system, that's when we'll finally have the opportunity to reform our schools for the betterment of kids, not moneyed folks.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Coming Home

In a few minutes, like 3.8 million other educators nationwide, I will enter my classroom to teach a handful of the 55 million students in our country's education system. Our motives and focus will be the same--to deliver the best future for the students we teach.

For the last week and a half, that mission hasn't changed, but for 25,000 Chicago educators, we chose a more unconventional route to fight for that mission--we went on strike. We decide that the Chicago Public Schools Board of Education had treated our students and ourselves so poorly, that the most prudent way to earn the best future for the students we teach was to leave our classrooms.

Looking at the final outcomes, and how far the Board moved, I'm proud to say we accomplished what we sacrificed and set out to do. Make no mistake--our students, their families and we sacrificed a great deal for this. After all, the only people still getting money to put food on the table through this were the CPS higher-ups and the Mayor; even as they stonewalled our student centered asks.

I also feel some disappointment. My classroom still won't have air conditioning. Our class sizes situation is incrementally improved, but it will still be a major issue. We may have a slightly less test centered culture, but we are still facing a tsunami of corporate profits and test-based child abuse.

But that disappointment doesn't lead to discouragement. We stood proudly, we fought, and we won for our students.  It is not a final victory or a resolution. We must continue to fight tomorrow and every day after that. We will just be doing so from our classrooms instead of from a picket line.

I hope we've shown that to our millions of colleagues who followed the strike closely and sent their support. I hope we've taught the country that billionaires not only don't have all the answers to the challenges of public education, but lack the basic knowledge and stake in the game to do much more than pad their pockets at our children's expense.

We must teach well in our classrooms, but as the leaders of the educational arena, we have a far greater calling. We must work with our communities, hear their needs, desires and grievances and develop a better education system by and of the communities we serve. We must lock out corporate voice and control--to be sure, if businesses want to help with best of motives and ample resources, they are welcome--but they must not set the agenda.

We are the leaders we have been waiting for. Let's create a vision for a better school system, and let's fight like hell to make it reality.

Thank you and much love to all of you. I can't wait to see where our paths cross.

Monday, September 17, 2012

A student addresses Rahm's dismissal of air conditioning as a real issue

The following student comment on Facebook has 16,304 likes:

Hi, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, I am a student at Lincoln Park High School, and my father is an employee of the Cook County Jail. You stated yesterday in your news conference that air conditioning in schools is not an important factor in negotiations, but at my fathers job when a temperature reaches a certain degree for the detainees they must get relief or it is inhumane. Are you saying that detainees should have better conditions then CPS students and faculty? I know this cannot be a deciding factor in the contract so lets bring out the real issues at hand and take control of a situation and lead by example and by the mayor you were elected to be!

P.S. You should really be in on all meetings pertaining to the negotiations!

If the billionaires and millionaires running our city can't listen to the teachers, please let them listen to the students. 

Contingency centers: A view from the inside

In many ways, our strike in Chicago is about differing view of public education. The Mayor has always pushed two tiered education between open enrollment neighborhood schools, and selective charter and test-to-get-in schools.

One product of the strike has been that the board has had an opportunity to demonstrate their vision of education as they set up “contingency centers” for students while schools were out of session.
Media coverage of the inside of the contingency centers has been quite sparse. I spoke yesterday with one of the people forced by central office to cross the picket line to staff a contingency center who outlined the conditions inside:
There are 15-25 students daily at the school. Some of the students present are children of board employees working at the site. The others are a mixture of elementary and high school students, some from the school and some from surrounding schools. There are dozens of board employees, so many sit in the cafeteria. There really isn’t substantive work to be done. People want to do work, but this is a waste of time and resources. There are way more people than needed. When we found out about the contingency centers, some of us were at least excited to be working with kids, but many were dreading it because they aren’t used to working with students.
We were told to address any student questions about the strike by saying, “The teachers have a right to strike and both sides are working for a solution” and to leave it at that. We saw it as a teachable moment, but we were told that we couldn’t say anything else.
So I would hope for several things moving forward: A more strategic, thoughtful deployment of staff. Also, I want a resolution where teachers get what they need. Most importantly, I hope that it raises questions both within CPS and nationally about the privatization of education and the inequities of the conditions that students are learning under. These questions have always been important to me. I hope through the strike we can address them.

These disparities are highlighted further when look at the contingency centers from the outside as our students’ learning conditions had transitioned from a mayoral afterthought to a mayoral political bargaining chip.

Trying to break the strike, Emanuel and his education team stocked these locations with many of the very resources we were demanding on the picket line.

In our schools, students collapse of heat stroke as they struggle to focus in 96 degree classrooms. Jean Claude-Brizard announced that all contingency centers would have AC.
In our schools, students deal with a lack of supplies and broken clocks in every room and when we complain, nothing happens.  Brizard addressed this in his contingency plans (albeit by asking replacement supervisors to bring their own).

In our schools, students are not guaranteed any class size limits, and if class sizes begin to approach reasonable numbers, the board will quickly cut teachers even as late as 4 weeks into the year, plunging students’ schedules into chaos. At the contingency centers, Brizard promised at worst a 25 to 1 ratio, and many have more adults assigned than students.

In many of our schools, cafeterias sometimes run out of food and students are not allowed to bring in outside food. At the contingency centers, Brizard made a point to promise enough food for all students who attended.

Finally, to get to our schools, many students have to pay their own transportation. Low income students often qualify for reduced fares, but even that process can be complex. Often students will miss a day or two a week as their bus fare has run out or someone in the family has used it for something else. The Mayor granted students free CTA rides all week during the strike.

If we received the supports that the contingency centers receive every day, we never would have had to strike.  Our city leadership is clear—students’ welfare is important when people are watching, but not when they are quietly trying to get their education.

Strike week 2: Democracy takes time, but it's the opposite of what's hurting our kids

Last week, I outlined some of the many reasons why we as Chicago teachers were fed up and ready to go on strike. More than just the strike, I wanted to highlight how students are injured by the daily conditions that our district inflicts upon them.

When students experience horrible conditions in school, it inflicts more than an initial hurt, it undermines their faith in the educational system. Why should students continue to come to school each day and give their best when the institution itself regularly attacks their basic human dignity?

 Beyond raising consciousness of these issues, I had hoped it would also send a message to our district and city leadership that instead of accusing teachers of hurting students by striking, they could simply address the issues most vitally threatening our students’ educations, and we could see a quick resolution to the strike.
Instead, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has laughed off the classroom conditions saying, “It’s 71 degrees outside, we don’t go on strike for air conditioning.” Of course, the Mayor doesn’t have to go on strike for AC, his office has it, and it wasn’t 71 degrees when summer school was getting canceled this year. More than that, it wasn’t his kids who were getting picked up by ambulance after succumbing to heat exhaustion, as happened in a neighboring classroom to mine on Tuesday, September 4.  If it had been one of his kids, I sure wouldn’t have mocked the situation; I would have fought to get it addressed. I’m a teacher, not a mayor, so I see what they view as “other people’s children” as my own.

Yesterday, the Mayor added insult to injury by announcing his intentions to file an injunction on the strike yesterday on two criteria: that the strike is illegal, and that the strike endangers children. So Emanuel has not only failed to address our initial concerns for our students, but has made the claim that we are hurting our students into a court case.

Make no mistake—the Mayor’s own poor policies are what are endangering Chicago students not just during the strike but every single day in our city. I empathize deeply with students and parents who are dealing with the challenge of missing school temporarily until the days are made up. However, the quality of the 180 days they will be in school and their safety commuting to and from school and in their neighborhoods is even more important. I’ve lost 5 students straight from my classrooms to city violence. They were killed commuting to and from school, standing on their porches, or walking home from a friends’ house.  The mayor wouldn’t stand for this for his own children.

I worry some that through this strike, it will take some time to rebuild trust. Our students don’t trust the school system, and the fact that we chose to strike, many of them understand, but some will be upset. I only hope that when they see why we stood up and what we were fighting for, they will understand.
I think it may be harder today as many expected us to return to school this morning. The issue is that it doesn’t ever get this bad in a democratic system. Chicago’s top-down educational system run by people who don’t send their kids to the schools they govern is what helps create these inhumane conditions. While it will take longer for the educators of the city to review the proposed contract we’ve fought for, we cannot simply accept what is being handed to us by our strong, capable leadership.

Democracy takes time. It is messy. But it is just and it creates freedom for those who inhabit it. As epic blogger Fred Klonsky writes here, we don’t live in a democracy and it may confuse and confound those running Chicago when they run into one, but we can at least create one in our union. I am eager to get back to school, but I unceasingly yearn for a democratic, empowering education system for our students, and I’m thankful that we are modeling those principles within our union. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


Sunday night, anxious about the oncoming strike, I spent ten minutes of my time with my small voice to write a short piece about why I was striking. I sent it out via twitter and facebook, and let it go for the night.

The response was overwhelming. First teachers, then parents and students, and finally the mainstream media reached out.

Today, I am filled with hope. I didn't conceive it, but I am proud to be part of this international movement to save public education. Let's maintain these connections, organize in our own communities and take back our education system.

To this end, I'd suggest a couple of actions:
1) Bring together parents, students and educators with equal voice.
2) Develop our own vision of what education should be.
3) Demand community control of policy and implementation of our shared vision.

As a starting point, I'd suggest that we agree on some basic ideas:
1) Public education means every single young person gets the supports they need to take ownership of and advance their education.
2) Parents and students have a right to determine what they want from their schools.
3) Teachers have a right to determine how to best fulfill parent and student vision with our professional expertise.

For too long, we've waited for the rich and powerful to improve our schools. They have no interest or motivation to do so. We are the ones we've been waiting for. Let's build the schools our students deserve.

Wearing red day 2 on the picket line.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Why I'm striking, JCB

CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard is on record saying both that CTU leadership is deciding whether or not to strike, and that “everyone knows that a strike would only hurt our kids.”

I just wanted to educate my boss a little on the history of Chicago, as he is relatively new to the area. Chicago is founded on the hard daily struggle of working people. It is the birth of the labor movement—not a movement just for wages and benefits, but a movement that stopped child labor so that each of the kids in CPS schools could attend school instead of working. It was a movement that stopped the practice of working conditions so unsafe that consumers were eating the actual workers who fell into the mix while they were making hot dogs. It was a movement that fought so that workers could have some tiny measure of time with our families rather than spending all waking hours working for the enrichment of their bosses.

But even more importantly, I wanted to educate Mr. Brizard about what it means to “help or hurt our kids”.
When you make me cram 30-50 kids in my classroom with no air conditioning so that temperatures hit 96 degrees, that hurts our kids.

When you lock down our schools with metal detectors and arrest brothers for play fighting in the halls, that hurts our kids.

When you take 18-25 days out of the school year for high stakes testing that is not even scientifically applicable for many of our students, that hurts our kids.

When you spend millions on your pet programs, but there’s no money for school level repairs, so the roof leaks on my students at their desks when it rains, that hurts our kids.

When you unilaterally institute a longer school day, insult us by calling it a “full school day” and then provide no implementation support, throwing our schools into chaos, that hurts our kids.

When you support Mayor Emanuel’s TIF program in diverting hundreds of millions of dollars of school funds into to the pockets of wealthy developers like billionaire member of your school board, Penny Pritzker so she can build more hotels, that not only hurts kids, but somebody should be going to jail.

When you close and turnaround schools disrupting thousands of kids’ lives and educations and often plunging them into violence and have no data to support your practice, that hurts our kids.

When you leave thousands of kids in classrooms with no teacher for weeks and months on end due to central office bureaucracy trumping basic needs of students, that not only hurts our kids, it basically ruins the whole idea of why we have a district at all.

When you, rather than bargain on any of this stuff set up fake school centers staffed by positively motived Central Office staff, many of whom are terribly pissed to be pressed into veritable scabitude when they know you are wrong, and you equip them with a manual that tells them things like, “communicate with words”, that not only hurts our kids, but it suggests you have no idea how to run a system with their welfare in mind.

When you do enough of this, it makes me wonder if you really see our students as “our kids” or “other people’s children”.
And at that moment, I am willing to sacrifice an awful lot to protect the students I serve every day. I am not hurting our kids by striking, I’m striking to restore some semblance of reasonable care for students to this system. I’m doing to tell you, “No, YOU are the one hurting our children, and you need to STOP because what you are doing is wrong, and you are robbing students of their educational opportunities.

I ask anyone who does remotely care about the kids we teach and learn from and triumph and cheer and cry and grow with., to stand with us and fight for a better future for our kids.

See you on the picket line, my friend.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Finding Fact: This report illustrates a simple fact--we must end corporate control of the school system

It’s time for us to draw a line in the sand: Chicago educators won’t be satisfied simply with more money that will contribute to the decline of the district finances. We must demand to be compensated fairly, but also that the district redirect its priorities back to the classroom and away from poorly thoughtful out political shenanigans. The current conflict has illustrated the path to this solution—the CPS current leadership cannot and will not ever place “children first” and so more than a favorable contract, we need a board elected and overseen by the communities whose children actually attend Chicago Public Schools.

Today, a fact-finding panel tasked with reporting on a small portion of the issues involved in the on-going battle between the Chicago Teachers Union and the Chicago Public Schools appointed board and leadership will issue a report on its findings. The report recommended approximately 18.2% more teacher compensation to pay for the mayor’s proposed “Longest School Day”.

The mayor responded by once again trotting out his tired talking points that CPS has the shortest school day and year in the country. It’s not only false, at the high school level, it’s not really close. Furthermore, American teachers devote far more instructional time and students receive similar instructional hours relative to the other countries corporate education reforms often compare us unfavorably towards.

This fact-finding report that the mayor, city and district governance are tearing apart is actually a report that they themselves demanded through millions of dollars of lobbying of the state legislature.

It appears that CPS will continue to emphasize their inability to pay for basic instructional costs in the district and CTU wasn’t really interested in the fact-finding at all in the first place as CTU’s key issues such as class size and length of school day and year were not subject to either the fact finding process or required to be part of the negotiations due to state laws pushed through by CPS.

CPS will ask for either no major pay increase or massive layoffs.

CTU would be wise to redirect the conversation to teachers’ priorities—humane learning conditions for the students we teach each day. We should emphasize that CPS’ interpretation of the budget—that salaries and pensions are bankrupting the system is categorically false—those portions of the budget are at an all-time low. The budget crunch has been triggered by financial mismanagement in a system that is designed to keep educators and community as far away from management as possible.

The more I watch the process, the more I’m sure that we have no choice but to strike. This isn’t a question of money (which we could negotiate to a middle point). It’s a question of difference in philosophy. CPS believes that it should have unilateral control over all teaching and learning issues. It believes that privatization and the increasing diversion of funds from neighborhood schools and classroom level resources to magic bullet programs, turnarounds and charter schools as in its best interests. It’s not interested in providing a teacher for each classroom on the first day of each school year.

The fact finding process reinforces this notion. It demonstrates that even when CPS gets exactly what they want—a high threshold for strike, the ability to unilaterally impose many working conditions, a neutral fact-finding condition, they still cannot even be motivated to come up with a remotely thoughtful budget or proposals that will allow the independent arbiter any path out of the conflict. The solutions put forth that overworked, overstressed people to work more for no compensation or for students to face inhumane class sizes are nothing that anyone with a care for students could possibly endorse.

Since 1995, the district’s operation has revolved around a simple question, “What is in the best interest of the Mayor and his cronies?”

We must return the operating question to be “What is in the best interests of the students?”
Let me make this clear. I don’t want more money. I don’t need to work more hours. I accounted for my school related hours three years ago and found that I worked between 80-100 hours each week. I cannot extended my day and continue to serve my students in the exemplary fashion I demand of myself.

I want the Chicago Public Schools to bargain in good faith not only with the CTU and us, its members, but with students, parents and communities to the benefit of kids.

We will not negotiate for with those who would terrorize our kids, and we will compromise nothing when it comes to the best interests of their children.

In that spirit, we must redouble our efforts to remove the appoint governance structures that have poisoned our schools and our city. We must be prepared to do damage to our own families and risk our livelihoods to fight the board. We must be the barrier between our students and those who would injure them and our entire city.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

CPS FY 2013 budget quick look

Understanding the budget:
So you’ve just had the 212 page Chicago Public Schools budget dumped on you and you want to do your civic duty in understanding and commenting on it in the 3 hours before the horribly scheduled public hearings! You can find the budget here:

Why is this important?
Due to poor management of taxpayer dollars, CPS manufactures its own budget crisis every year. This results in worse educational supports for the vast majority of students while privatizing options continue to be increasingly supported. There is no scientific justification for these priorities; rather it is a strategy for manufactured crisis to force policy rather than the best interests of students driving policy and resource allocation. My hope is that this work will motivate the development of a people’s budget movement in Chicago Public Schools to oppose the current corporate structure.
9 quick things about the current budget and then some explanations:
1.       The district is taking in $5.3 billion in revenue from local (47.6% of the total), state (34.7%), and national (17.6%) support. There is an additional .8 % coming from interest income.
2.       Only $4.7 billion (88.8%) of the $5.3 billion even makes it to the General Operating Fund while 9.3% goes to debt service, much of it going to clouted banks (assigned by a School Board appointed with bankers and business people). An additional 1.9% goes to the capital fund for building and maintaining school facilities.
3.       Both the percentage of the budget devoted to teacher salaries and combined teacher salaries + pensions have declined significantly since FY2004 (Salaries 48.43%-->37.65%, combined 56.3%-->44.30%). This year’s projected decline is the highest on record. The growth has been in charter school tuition (which accounts for a portion, but not the balance of the decline in teacher salaries), and “other fixed charges” (p. 126-127). In accounts, Contracts, Equipment, Transportation, and Contingencies are rising this year (p15)
4.       The pension payments have stayed steady or declined while obligations have ballooned. This is natural with any debt that is not responsibility repaid. The vast majority of the pension “crisis” is caused by CPS and to a lesser degree, the state, diverting pension funding toward failed programs like High School Transformation. Accounting for the simple refusal to pay, they do not make up a major portion of the financial crisis on their own.
5.       Despite the discussion of $120 million in additional funds for school level budgeting, the actual outlay to schools has declined this year (-0.3%). Instead, the Chief Education Officer (15.3%), Chief Administrative Officer (22.8%), Portfolio (1368.0%) , Talent (35.5%), Law (10.1%) and Network (31.6%) offices have grown (p13 of the budget)
6.       Some of the above is explained by the shifting of responsibilities, but that still represents a shifting of funds away from school and LSC based oversight to central office oversight.
7.       The Talent Office is still completely unable to develop a navigatable staffing framework and that results in less competitive hiring by CPS and improper/inadequate staffing that severely damages students. So they received more money to oversee.
8.       The grouping of family and community engagement, LSC relations and governmental affairs suggests a priority on attempting to lobby and attain buy-in from communities rather than truly collaborative efforts that are respectful to parent voice.
9.       The deficit is at least in some part real, but should be viewed in the context of a CPS finance department that has been hundreds of millions of dollars off in their deficit projections every single year.

What is the budget?
The budget is a document that CPS is mandated to release each fiscal year to lay out the expected revenue and planned expenditures for public consumption. It is then voted on by the CPS Board of Education. Since the Board of Education is non-elected, neither the board nor central office is required to actually listen to any of public input. Nevertheless, CPS is legally required release a draft budget in June, hold public hearings and then the board must pass a final version at the following board meeting.  
If they aren’t integrated into the process, why have the hearings at all? Why testify at hearings where people running the system aren’t listening?
CPS is required by law to have the hearings. They also use the opportunity to “sell” their budget to the public. I have presented several years at the hearings. The point is not to move CPS, it’s to build community knowledge and confidence that we can build our own budget. Two years ago, I received my termination notice from my teaching position at Julian High School due to my work supporting student organizing. Even though it was very difficult, I testified through my tears to ensure the story was told.
How is the budget prepared and organized?
The process for preparing the budget, despite public outcry, remains almost completely opaque. In examining what is produced in the draft, it appears that the previous years’ budgets are used as a template with all of their underlying assumptions. Then new budget priorities are integrated and a narrative that decries a huge deficit, praises central office for cutting expenditures, and blames teachers for wanting their promised retirement contract honored is produced regardless of the current status of the budget. This results in a budget with the following portions:
·         Letter from the CEO
·         General overview that puts the current FY budget in comparison with the previous years
·         Rvenue explanation (the money the system is taking in)
·         School based budget breakdown (The money at the school level)
·         Departmental breakdown
·         Pension blaming section
·         Capital budget
·         Debt Management
·         Organizational overview/chart
·         Explanation of the various funds
·         Miscellaneous Appendices

Monday, June 11, 2012

Bullets and Names

Joseph Briggs' name is all over the news today. But nobody knew his name when he was alive. To our society, a poor youth's name is only worth knowing when they are about to be put in the ground.

They say “Bullets don’t have no names” cause they take "innocent" lives. But they do. They're made to have the names of vibrant, beautiful black and brown children on them. When was the last time you saw a bullet with a Pritzker or Crown’s name on it?

The worst part is that our kids sense that their names’ are on them. They walk outside to go to school or sit on the porch and they know that bullet may be out there waiting for them. And they often feel resigned to the unavoidable nature of it. And why should they waste time and energy in class on the play tools of the elite? If Winnetka was a “shooting gallery” would Tim Cawley (CAO of Chicago Public Schools) just give up and never let his kids leave the house? No, but if it were, the he would use his clout to do something to remedy the situation.

Joseph was a brilliant, clever child. He seemed to have some interest in our World Studies work, but mostly he was trying to keep up on what was going on around the block. I’ll never know if that’s what killed him or what kept him around as long as he was. We had some great conversations and he had days where he had the most brilliant ideas to share.

I wish I remembered them in this muddle of my mind. I think I’ll go through his work tonight.

What I do remember was a sense that his mind was often elsewhere, and while his intent was to excel in school, he was preoccupied with what was going on beyond the four walls of the classroom.

I visited him frequently in the detention room. He was there, but never really for anything too negative—talking over the instruction, disruption class in various ways, occasionally getting into a mild argument with a classmate. He was pretty calm, flashed his brilliant smile, and worked quietly on make-up work he needed to get back on track.

Earlier this semester he checked completely out of school. He had been suspended several times, and one time he didn’t come back. I asked his sister every time we had a chance how he was doing, and she would say, “Well, you know Joseph. He’s trying…” and she would smile, but I could sense some desperation in her voice.
I hoped each day I would see him back at school, but he didn’t come back. I wanted to go do a home visit, but there was never time. I mean, not in that way where there is time, but you don’t make it—actually not a minute in the day…I think.

When I heard night before last, I wasn’t even surprised. I just thought, “What has this child done to get shot to pieces on his porch feet away from his family?”

Some of you might attempt to answer that question, but I urge you to stop. He’s done no worse that the robber barons and corrupt “do-gooders” who create the economic, social and educational chaos that our kids inhabit and help craft the devil’s bargains that good young people have to choose on.  Joseph opt-out of a education system that didn’t give a shit about his daily struggles and sought to “raise the bar” on his test scores. Two more points on that Explore test wouldn’t have help him before and it sure won’t help him now. Katie Osgood writes better on this than I ever could here.

I don’t want to teach my kids anymore if teaching means “raising the bar” and wondering if I could have done more when I have to put them in the ground. We lose our kids one at a time and it’s not because we don’t have enough “rigor”. We have too much and it’s getting worse. I remember angrily telling a beloved colleague during another frustrating day of testing (we’ve lost about 20 days of instruction to testing this year) that “we lost some kids today and we don’t even know it.”

Joseph knew more than we act like we know. He knew that there was a bullet out there with his name on it, and no amount of racing to the top or “every child can learn” rhetoric was going to save him from it.

I say this not out of fatalism, but out of hope and despair wrapped in the same package. If we empowered these youth, they could take their names off of those bullets, but we are too busy listening to people who feign care for “other people’s” black and brown children.

I loved all of them we’ve lost. Some of them were beautiful, society-changing activists, and others were beautiful, brilliant members of not so beautiful street organizations. And damn those bullets that had Salter, Holt, Daniel, Malcolme, Brown, Briggs, and all the others on them. But damn more the policies that disempower our youth and send those bullets hurtling towards them.

Until the children whose clouted parents run this city have bullets with their names on them, their mommies and daddies will still lock, load and shoot, and ours will keep dropping.

RIP Joseph. You are loved.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

A Teacher's last lesson

On November 17, Mary Thorson left her students for the last time. She was suspended without pay for allegedly cursing at a student. On Thanksgiving day, she stepped in front of a semi truck. She left a letter in her car describing the conditions she faced at her school, and her stack of disciplinary notices on her bed in her apartment.


From the descriptions in the article, Ms. Thorson poured all of herself into her students, and specifically picked an environment that she knew she could take care of students of highest need. She gave all of herself to the students in ways that most of the society could, but chooses not to. She may have made mistakes. I remember in particular a colleague who I would join frequently as we risked our own safety to break up gang skirmishes in my previous school. When CPS turned around Fenger High School, many of the roughest students were pushed out, some to our school and this led to increased violence at our school. One day, my colleague had a bat out "Lean on Me" style and students were rushing his door to get at some of his students. He hit the door frame with the bat to send a message, and the window in the frame shattered from the vibration, hitting a student who was watching the incident. It was a terrible mistake, but a mistake that many would never have been in the position to make. The student got stitched up and I spoke with her later. She said she was fine and she felt foolish for standing there. I honestly don't know how to process that situation.

What exactly happened to Ms. Thorson, or the severity of the bullying she faced, we may never know. But what she described is common, and it's quite clear the environment she faced based on the district's response to the situation. It's particularly telling that from the article, it doesn't appear she assigned much of her stress if any to the students she taught. That's a gift.

Reading the article, all the school board's statements were about how surprised they were and how it wasn't fair to blame them. You who it's more unfair to? The person who put their life on the line for first their country, then the kids, and was loved by the kids, bullied by admin and then pushed to suicide. That's not ****ing fair. And as for surprise, this situation is in almost every district and more pronounced in districts like Mr. Thorson. While we don't blame the students for the stress involved, the challenges we face each day make the lack of respect from the district even more difficult to handle. Even in my school, where the admin seems excellent, the district mandates are soul crushing.

I look forward to the blessed time with the students, but I always go to work knowing that I'm probably going to lose students and colleagues--to the stress, to the poor district supports and ultimately to depression, suicide and violence.

In allowing these conditions to continue, in a way we are all responsible. We in fear stay silent and the society in ignorance chooses to not notice the reality and blame the outcomes on those of us who devote our lives to the students in these environments.

The first step is what her colleagues did in sharing their realities and in such a way, celebrating her life and final words: "We must speak up about what's going on!"