Black Agenda Report's Bruce Dixon interviews Chicago educator and activist George Schmidt
This is a transcript of a December 22, 2008 Bruce Dixon interview with longtime Chicago educator and activist George Schmidt broadcast on WRFG 89.3 FM Atlanta.
BD: Our next guest George Schmidt was a Chicago Public School teacher for 28 years. A longtime union activist, he was once a candidate for presidency of the 28,000 member Chicago Teachers Union, one of the largest union locals of any kind in the nation. He is a founding member of Substance and Substance News, an organization and a newspaper originally founded to represent the views of Chicago's substitute teachers. Substance News, which you can find online at substancenews.net is still required reading for anybody who wants an unfiltered view of the road public education has taken in Chicago and nationwide over the last two decades. How you doin' Mr. Schmidt?
GS: It's been a fun week, to be sure.
"This is not the kind of change we needed or we hoped for."
BD: We've got a lot to cover. Can you tell us about your own background for the first minute or so of this?
GS: Well, I spent almost all my public school teaching career in the inner city high schools of Chicago, starting at Dusable in the upper grade center, and teaching at schools like Manley, Marshall, Collins and Tilden. My last years of teaching were at Bowen High School on the city's far south side near the Indiana border where I taught English and where I also served as union delegate and what we called the school security coordinator. During those years I was also very active in the union, as you pointed out. At one point I got over 40% of the vote in a race for president of the Chicago Teachers Union, but I didn't win.
BD: Yeah, it takes a little more than 40%. Well, we're talking to Mr. Schmidt because last week president-elect Barack Obama tapped Arne Duncan, who heads the Chicago Public Schools to be his Secretary of Education. Now Chicago has the third largest school system in the nation, so if you can make it work for the citizens of Chicago maybe you ought to get a chance to do it nationwide. So how's it workin' in Chicago, man?
GS: Basically, it's not. It's not working for the majority of children in the city and it's certainly not working for the majority of teachers. In order to understand how that particular sentence can be nuanced, you have to understand two things. The first is the dominance of the corporate narrative of “school reform”. In 1995 democratic control of the Chicago Public Schools was taken out of the hands of parents, teachers and citizens and put into the hands of Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley. A new law which was passed by the all-Republican state government at the time gave Mayor Daley the power to appoint a seven member school board eventually --- at first he appointed a five member thing that was called the School Reform Board of Trustees --- and the power to appoint a newly created chief executive officer based on the corporate model to run the Chicago Public Schools. Daley was also given power over the entire school system's budget, and for the first time in 17 years, the school system was freed from the oversight of an outside entity called the School Finance Authority.
What Daley did since then was basically massively increase the public relations spin that was put on every activity performed in Chicago, to the point where the gap between the reality of the public schools we have in our city and the claims that have been made about them is as great as any between fact and fiction anywhere on the planet.
BD: We hear a lot about “reforming education.” I'm from Chicago, and back in the 80s when I was involved in school reform, school reform meant giving more power to parents and to rank and file teachers, power to determine curriculum, even to let parents evaluate the performance of teachers and programs and principals. You talked about the corporate narrative of school reform. Just what is that?
GS: The corporate narrative is the dictatorial model that you get in any corporation under a chief executive officer or CEO. And just as it's failed now miserably in corporate America, with the collapse of Wall Street and the finance industry, it's failed in the public schools as well. But just as a year ago you would find very few dissenters on the private sector analogy so today we still find not a loud enough voice for those who dissent against the claims that the corporate model (of education reform) has succeeded. Basically what you're talking about by the late 1980s we had one of the most democratic models – with a small d – of school improvement anywhere in the United States. In 1988 Illinois passed a law which gave an elected Local School council of ten or eleven members the power at every school to hire and fire the principal to set curriculum and to have an enormous say over the budget. The majority of those Local School Council members were parents. Those of us who were active at the time participated in those elections and those processes.
BD: So that was school reform in the eighties.
GS: That was school reform in the eighties, and that grew primarily out of the work of Harold Washington who we elected mayor of the city of Chicago in 1983 in a mass movement that locally rivaled the mass movement which just elected Barack Obama president of the United States.
BD: So now we've replaced democratic school reform that gave parents the power with what exactly? I understand one of Arne's pet things is giving public high schools over to the US military.
GS: Yeah, that's one example of several and it's a very good one. Beginning in the first days of the 21st century, literally Chicago instituted military high schools. And we're not talking about high schools that have ROTC programs, we're talking about high schools that are run by and for the military. The first of those was established in the heart of Bronzeville, the south side community at 35th and Giles, in the old armory there. It's now the Chicago Military Academy. Since then they've set up two more army high schools. Carver and Phoenix, a Marine high school and a naval academy which is named the Hyman Rickover Naval Academy inside Senn High School.
BD: Except for the naval academy operation inside Senn High School all of these are in African American communities, are they not?
GS: Yes they are.
HG: George this is Heather Gray. Is this a model that's in other parts of the country as well? Are other cities doing this?
HG: So this is unique to Chicago.
GS: This is unique to Chicago.
GS: Most places where you have more democracy, even where you have this CEO type dictatorship now, the citizens are better positioned to resist it than we are here in Chicago.
BD: In chicago, for the benefit of our audience, we're in Atlanta GA now, the mayor is Richard Daley. 2009 marks his 20th year in office. His father was the mayor too for almost as long, from about 1956 if I remember right to 1975, I think, eighteen or ninetten years. So out of the last fifty or so years, for forty of them the city of Chicago has been run by the Daley clicque, the Daley Regime, or as we call it in Chicago, the Machine. Arne Duncan, is he a product of the Machine.
GS: Exactly, Daley as I pointed out, in 1995 was given dictatorial power over the ChicagoPublic School system. It was based upon the lie that the system as a whole had failed, and the repetition of that lie from the eighties on. Daley has appointed two CEOs and roughly two school boards since then. Both of the CEOs have been white non-educators who replaced African American educators. Both of the CEOs had no experience in education or in corporate America. This is an important point since it's supposedly a corporate model. They were funamentally political puppets who would do his bidding.
BD: The predecessor to Mr. Duncan (in Chicago) he's a guy named Paul Vallas, isn't he?
GS: That's true. Mr. Vallas came to the chief education job in Chicago through his position as budget director at City Hall under Mayor Daley.
HG: George, just going back to the military model (of education) again. What have been Barack Obama's comments about this, if any at all.
"The gap between the reality of the public schools we have in our city and the claims that have been made about them is as great as any between fact and fiction anywhere on the planet."
GS: I haven't heard comment from Barack Obama himself, and I've known him since he was in the Illinois State Senate, and I was working for the Chicago Teachers Union. Never to my knowledge, and that may be contradicted by something on the record did he comment on this assault on the openness of Chicago high schools. But his newly incoming chief of staff Rahm Emanuael has been a proud proponent of the military academies and even bragged on one occasion I was covering a press conference and he was with Mayor Daley that he got a million dollar earmakr speicifically for the military academies while he was in the US House of Representatives as my congressman.
BD: So it does say something that out of all the superintendents of school systems, CEOs or whatever nationwide, Barack Obama reached around and found one that not only liked the corporate model but liked the military model too. Since we're talking about Chicago's unique contribution to education on the national stage, let's stick with Paul Vallas. You said Paul Vallas got his start just an average guy on the budget team on the City Hall budget team, where did Mr. Vallas go after leaving the Chicago Public Schools”
GS: After Daley dumped Vallas in 2001, he was picked up by Tom Ridge, the governor of Pennsylvania who was trying to privatize the Philadelphia school system. Vallas was made head of the Philadelphia school system in mid 2002 after a failed attempt to get himself elected governor of Illinois. He ran Philadelphia for four years I believe, the chronology may be a little off. Presently he's been sent to New Orleans where the public school system has been obliterated after Hurricane Katrina and replaced by a system of primarily charter schools, many of which have been modeled on the charter school privatization plans originally hatched here in Chicago.
BD: Arne Duncan is going to be the nation's number one guy on education. Surely this guy must have years and years of classroom and administrative experience,
GS: Wrong. He has none.
BD: So he's never been in a classroom?
BD: Except as a student, perhaps.
GS: He talks now, as he tries to brush over his resume, about how when he was a student at the very privileged University of Chicago Lab School where his father was a professor at the University of Chicago, that after school he would go to a tutoring program his mother ran in that area north of the University of Chicago called Kenwood, where he apparently, according to Arne's narrative helped poor black children with their homework. That's the extent of Arne Duncan's actual educational experience or praxis. His career after Harvard, where he supposedly got a BA in Sociology, I've never got to see a resume, was in professional basketball...
HG: What do you mean you haven't been allowed to see a resume? Why do you say that? You've asked for a resume and you've never seen one?
GS: For the past 14 years we've asked for the curriculum vitaes and resumes of top officials of the Chicago Public Schools under the Freedom of Information Act. And the answer we get every time we repeat this request is that this is classified privileged personnel information.
BD: Of course the new Obama administration is pledged to openess and transparency everywhere, so I'm sure that Arne's resumes and cv's and all that will surface really soon.
GS: If that's the case, people are going to find out that he spent most of his adult life either playing basketball or working with some very wealthy financiers from his old neighborhood of Hyde Park in Chicago.
BD: Since we are talking about applying this Chicago model of public education nationwide, what has the regime of high stakes testing and closing schools that don't meet testing goals which is now national policy thanks to No Child Left Behind meant to Chicago – oh, and one other thing I'd like to see if I can get your comment on is that Hillary Clinton at one point said let's repeal No Child Left Behind while Barack was saying, well, he didn't quite say mend it but don't end it, but something like that. So what has the regime of high stakes testing done for African Americans in Chicago and public education in Chicago?
GS: Basically the vast majority of the schools that have been closed for supposed academic failure, which means low test scores, have been those schools which served a populaiton of 100% poor black children via a staff that was almost always majority black teachers and usually a black principal. Since Arne Duncan took over in 2001, he has closed over 20 elementary schools. Most of them have been privatized into charter schools, and he's closed six high schools. In all the cases I know of, the majority of the staffs of those schools who were then kicked out of union jobs and forced on the rooad to try to get new jobs, were majority black teachers and principals, many of which I knew personally. The six high schools he closed, Austin HS, Calumet HS, Collins HS, Englewood HS, Orr HS, and Harper HS, were either all black, in the case of five of them, or majority black and Latino in the case of Orr. That's the active record of what Arne Duncan has done in his school closings for which Barack Obama has praised him. .
BD: We're not seeing much of any criticism of Barack Obama's nominations, especially not this nomination...I understand there was a meeting of the Chicago Board of Education soon after the nomination was announced, and some people who were at that meeting took issue with the nomination. Can you tell us about that?
"More than a dozen teachers and community activists from seven schools got up and exposed Duncan's public record of sabotaging public education."
GS: If you don't mind I'll give you a six day backup of that. The teaser stories began on December 11. On that day, Margaret Spelling, who's George Bush's Secretary of Education came to Chicago to stand on stage with Arne Duncan and Mayor Daley and praise the (teacher) merit pay plan that they'd introduced jointly, and to say that Arne Duncan was the same type of educational leader that she and George Bush favored. By Monday the 15th, word was out around Chicago that Duncan was probably the front runner for the Secretary of Education...
BD: He plays ball with the president-elect
GS: Exactly. On the night of the 15th it was made official. Barack Obama held a press conference with Joe Biden at Dodge School on the 16th. On the 17th, the Board of Education had its regular monthly meeting scheduled for downtown Chicago. Even though they apparently, expected it to be a love fest for Arne Duncan, what happened was that more than a dozen teachers and community activists from seven schools got up and exposed Duncan's public record of sabotaging public education, of privatizing schools, of union busting, and of fraudulently cooking the educational statistics books. By the middle of the meeting Duncan had walked out for an hour and these testimonies continued to go on. By the end of the meeting members of the board were heatedly arguing with the teachers, and after the meeting two of the teachers were threatened. Members of Duncan's staff called their principals demanding to know why they had been allowed to take the day off work to talk about Arne Duncan's crimes (against public education) before a school board meeting.
BD: Now I haven't been to a meeting of the Chicago Board of Education in a long time, but it's hard to believe that the day after Duncan had been tapped to be Secretary of Education, it's hard to believe that room wasn't full of corporate media. We haven't seen or heard anything about this. Have we? Or did I miss it?
GS: No, the dog and pony shows were on the 16th, at Dodge School where Barack Obama made the announcement with Duncan sitting there. At the Board of Education (meeting), one of the most interesting things that happened... was that not one of the TV stations was there to film or video any of this activity during the board meeting. The only photographer there besides me, because I cover every board meeting for Substance, was a woman from the Chicago Tribune and the only photograph the Tribune did was of Barbara Easton Watkins, who according to speculation here is in line to succeed Duncan here in Chicago. The TV stations boycotted the meeting completely, the story in the Tribune was a wacky one that ignored most of what happened in the meeting. The Sun-Times which is our other major daily newspaper covered the meeting slightly accurately, and NPR had a reporter there who missed 98% of what was actually going on, typical for the way Chicago Public Radio has been covering this type of story.
BD: The regime of high stakes testing and closing schools that came into national prominence which became national policy with No Child Left Behind, then is going to be with us for a while. What does that do to public education? Does it work?
GS: First of all, it has gradients. As soon as I say this you'll know what I am talking about. Public education in the United States is not a unified system of equal access for all children. It's a highly stratified system of at least four or five components. In the wealthy suburbs of any major city you'll find some of the best public schools anywhere on the planet. In Chicago we're talking about Wilmette, Winetka, the north shore, Glen Ellyn in the western suburbs, where the high schools are just everything you could want for your children if you could only afford a home in those areas.
GS: You move from there and you have rural schools in some of the most challenging schools in some of the most desolate parts of rural North Dakota or Montana. When you get to our cities and the immediate suburbs which have declined industrially too, right now what we have is a three part system, Chicago is the exemplar of that. We have a magnet school system which selects kids on the basis of IQ scores and test scores in kindergarten or the first grade, and keeps them in that magnet school system for twelve years, and that's one of the best school systems you'll find anywhere. Michelle Obama is a graduate of Whitney Young High School which is a part of that system, the magnet and elite schools in Chicago...
BD: We're down to our last minute and a half...
GS: Well then, basically... the place where the impact of high stakes testing has been most devastating has been in those schools which serve the poorest children with the fewest resources and in the most challenging environments. In that area, the schools have not been improved, but instead the teachers and schools have been under attack for failing at things the society has never taken responsibility for.
BD: Last question, if you can do this in ten or twenty seconds or so, people in their millions or tens of millions voted for change. Insofar as education goes, are we gonna get it?
GS: If this the kind of change we needed, then I am still glad I voted for Barack Obama. I'm proud I was able to publish pictures of him and our colleagues. But this is not the kind of change we needed or we hoped for here in Chicago, we the people who supported that man, and who've known him and his wife for years and years.
Black Agenda Report's managing editor Bruce Dixon is himself an exiled Chicagoan now living in suburban Atlanta. he can be reached at bruce.dixon(at)blackagendareport.com.