The Uncivil War Over Schools

’63 Boycott

a documentary film directed by Gordon Quinn
Bill Healy/Kartemquin Films
Protesters against public school closings, Chicago, 2013; from the film ’63 Boycott

In 2012 Chicago public school teachers went on strike. They aimed not just to improve their wages and hours but to stalemate the reform agenda of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who wanted to replace underperforming neighborhood schools with charter schools, lengthen the school day, and tie teacher salaries to students’ scores on standardized tests. Even for Chicago, a city noted for bare-knuckle politics, it was a bruising battle. At a City Hall meeting the previous year with Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis, who brusquely rebuffed his plea for the longer school day, the famously foulmouthed mayor had replied with a tart rebuke of his own: “Fuck you, Lewis.”

In the buildup to the strike, Lewis branded Emanuel—a former chief of staff for President Barack Obama—“a liar and a bully.” She also denounced Arne Duncan, who had served as school superintendent in Chicago before Obama appointed him as secretary of education in 2009. In one especially sour moment, Lewis even mocked Duncan’s apparent lisp. “This guy who has the nerve to stand up and say, ‘Education is the thivil rights ithue of our time.’” Lewis said. “You know he went to private school because if he had gone to public school he’d have had that lisp fixed.”1

There’s an astonishing lack of civility in the war over our schools, which are supposed to teach young people how to debate their differences in a civil manner. And in urban America, it’s mainly a civil war among Democrats. Chicago is a one-party town, like most big cities, but it’s riven by bitter divisions over charter schools, merit pay, and other hallmarks of contemporary education reform. Obama stood on the sidelines during the strike, remaining neutral even though he had supported charters and merit pay since his days as a community organizer in the city. Meanwhile, the teachers who mercilessly lambasted Emanuel and Duncan mostly gave Obama a free pass.

That’s because of race, which runs through our educational civil war like a bloody river. Obama’s color surely insulated him from charges of racism, which the sociologist Eve L. Ewing, author of Ghosts in the Schoolyard, sees as the driving force behind a spate of recent school closings in Chicago. It also protects him from attacks like those from the historian Elizabeth Todd-Breland, who in A Political Education: Black Politics and Education Reform in Chicago Since the 1960s unfavorably compares “neoliberal” reformers with community-based black activists seeking self-determination through education. At the start of her book, Todd-Breland notes that the heavily black, brown, and female makeup of a pro-union protest during the 2012 teachers’ strike made it look like a rally for Obama’s presidential reelection campaign of the same year. But Obama and the teachers were often at loggerheads, which is an inconvenient fact that both…

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