In a deeply unequal society, the affluent will
always sneer at public services and the men
and women who provide them.
Last year, state lawmakers in Illinois did their
best to make a Chicago teacher strike impossible.
They passed a new law that required at least
75 percent of the city’s teachers to OK any
walkout in advance.
How did Chicago teachers respond? In advance
balloting, 92 percent of the city’s teachers
voted, and 98 percent of those voted to strike
if contract negotiations broke down.
This near-total teacher support for the walkout,
which lasted more than a week, shows just how
intensely frustrated Chicago teachers have become.
They’ve been teaching for years in schools woefully
ill-equipped to serve the city’s students.
The vast majority of these students, 87 percent,
are “low income.” Many have no books in their
homes and no quiet place to study. Some — more
than 15,000 — have no homes at all.
Yet Chicago’s political officials haven’t done
nearly enough to help teachers help these students
learn. Over 160 Chicago schools have no library.
To help homeless and other children in unstable
family situations, the 350,000-student Chicago
schools have only 370 social workers.
Teachers have consistently called for more
resources. But Chicago school officials have
bought into a reform agenda that dismisses concerns
about inadequate student support. Schools don’t
need better resources. They need, proclaim Chicago’s
self-styled reformers, better teachers.
This “reform” agenda pushes endless standardized
testing to identify “low-performing” schools.
For more than a decade now, Chicago officials
have been closing down schools they deem as
“failing” and replacing them with privately
run charter schools.
The Chicago school chief who initially led
this charter surge now serves as the U.S. secretary
of education, and Arne Duncan’s test-heavy approach
has become the conventional education reform
wisdom within both Republican and Democratic
elite policy circles — despite a clear absence
of evidence that it actually works for kids.
“If we really wanted to improve schools,” analyst
Melinda Henneberger quipped in The Washington
Post, “we’d do what education powerhouse Finland
does — fund schools equally, value teachers
more, and administer standardized testing almost
America’s affluent don’t want to hear that.
In cocktail party circles, as The New Yorker
recently noted, “a certain casual demonization
of teachers has become sufficiently culturally
prevalent that it passes for uncontroversial.”
The well-heeled talk about breaking teacher
unions “with the same kind of social enthusiasm”
they usually reserve for recommending “a new
This teacher bashing has been spreading for
several decades now, ever since American inequality
started to take off back in the 1980s. No surprise
here. These two trends — a rich growing richer
and a rich growing more hostile to public services
and the people who provide them — have always
gone hand in hand.
Wealthy people, after all, don’t typically
rely on public services. They belong to private
country clubs, send their kids to private schools,
and royally resent having to pay taxes to support
public services they don’t use.
These well-to-do need rationalizations for
this resentment. Bashing teachers gives them
one. We don’t need to “throw money” at troubled
schools, the affluent contend. We just have
to find and fire all those lousy teachers.
Interestingly, back in the much more equal
United States of the 1950s, we did “throw money”
at schools — and plenty of it.
In 1958, after the shock of the Soviet Sputnik
launch, lawmakers didn’t bash teachers. They
appropriated billions, through the National
Defense Education Act, to strengthen science
education. A half-dozen years later, the Elementary
and Secondary Education Act vastly expanded
funding for low-income students.
“Blaming teachers for the failure of schools,”
as The New Yorker’s Rebecca Mead puts it, may
be as absurd as “blaming doctors for the diseases
they are seeking to treat.”
But bashing educators makes sense to the rich.
And in a plutocracy, the rich drive the debate
— until the rest of us rise up and change the
conversation. In Chicago, teachers have now
done just that. CV
OtherWords columnist Sam Pizzigati edits
Too Much, the Institute for Policy Studies’
weekly newsletter on excess and inequality.