Chicago teacher, activist, writer, media strategist
This afternoon at 4pm, a coalition of Chicago teachers, parents, students and community members will meet at Daley Plaza to voice their displeasure with the announcement last week by Chicago Public Schools (CPS) CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett that 61 Chicago Public Schools will be closed before the opening of the 2013-2014 school year.
Byrd-Bennett is the latest in a long line of well-compensated mayoral proxies pushing forward the slow and steady destruction of Chicago schools, a process that has been going on for decades. In 1995, the Illinois general assembly passed an omnibus of reactionary school reforms, called the “Amendatory Act,” that restructured the governance of CPS. Under the new system, the Mayor of Chicago was given the power to appoint the entire Board of Education without any community oversight, the union’s ability to bargain over classroom issues was tossed out, and the superintendent was replaced with a “Chief Executive Officer,” mimicking the corporate structure of the business interests that pushed for these reforms.
Since the passage of the Amendatory Act, Chicago has seen six CEOs come and go, each leaving the system a little less stable than they found it. The first CEO under the Amendatory Act was Paul Vallas, who set schools on a path to becoming standardized testing factories. Vallas was followed by Arne Duncan, who was likeable enough to play basketball with some very important people (namely, Barack Obama, who later appointed him Secretary of Education). After Duncan, a succession of new CEOs shuffled through, closing public schools and opening charters at a pace on par with much of the rest of the country.
For most of the past two decades, the primary prerequisites for a CEO were an ability to address the media and a talent for glad-handing power brokers (and, in some cases, a willingness to fall on the sword after new policies failed). CEO were, essentially, spokespeople for the district who hobnobbed with the city’s elite. They were also involved in contract negotiations with the various unions in the schools, none of which had been acrimonious since the 1987 teachers strike.
However, the impatient Mayor Rahm Emanuel is operating in a very different political landscape than his predecessor, Mayor Richard Daley. Daley presided over 22 years of labor peace due to decades of “business unionism” in the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU)—a model where backroom deals and close relationships with management replace work actions. Daley’s ambitious plan to close public schools and replace them with charters was a long con, the equivalent of slowly turning up the heat until the frog is cooked. But this strategy inadvertently gave communities time to understand what was going on, and to organize a response. Many activists who came out of that movement took leadership roles in the CTU after ousting the business union leadership in 2010. (Full disclosure: I am a founding member of its current leadership caucus and the CTU’s new media coordinator). Last year, after Emanuel did everything within his power to avert the first teachers strike in 25 years and failed miserably, it became clear that a new type of boss would be necessary to speed up the process of busting the teachers union and turning over schools to the highest bidders. A new union and community coalition and growing public awareness around the failings of education reform meant that Mayor Emanuel had to find someone with experience executing unpopular mandates.
Fortunately for Emanuel, the answer was right in front of him: One month after the strike, CPS announced that CEO Jean-Claude Brizard was leaving the district by “mutual agreement” and that then-Chief Education Officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett would be taking his place. Byrd-Bennett can be thought of as something of a “cleaner,” like Harvey Keitel’s problem-solving character Winston Wolf in Pulp Fiction: She comes in, takes care of business and leaves quickly. In the school system of the neoliberal era, the job of the cleaner is to close as many schools as possible and replace them with charter schools before the public catches on to the plan. After the announcement, the “chaos on Clark Street” (where CPS headquarters are located) intensified, and the media painted Byrd-Bennett as a phoenix rising above the ashes to save the public schools.
When Byrd-Bennett was appointed as Chief Education Officer of CPS in the spring of 2012, quickly and with little fanfare, her savior reputation preceded her. In Cleveland, where she was hired as schools CEO in 1998, Byrd-Bennett was called the “$300,000 wonder,” a reference to her salary. The narrative in Cleveland was that she expensive, but worth every penny. While media wrote glowing reports about her, Byrd-Bennett cut hundreds of teacher jobs and closed over 20 schools before leaving the district in 2006.
Flash forward to 2009, when Detroit Public Schools Emergency Manager Robert Bobb hired Byrd-Bennett as his “chief academic and accountability officer.” Over the next two years, Bobb and Byrd-Bennett closed 59 schools and cut 30 percent of the workforce. In the tradition of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s “Renaissance 2010” plan and Philadelphia’s “Imagine 2014,” in March 2011, DPS announced its “Renaissance Plan 2012,” which included adding 41 charters, making 29 percent of district run by private interests.
Byrd-Bennett has proven herself so skilled at the art of “cleaning” districts that she has part time job with the Broad Academy training school superintendents in the ways of corporate education reform. The Broad Academy is a billionaire-funded venture that closely resembles Teach for America, but it trains aspiring school district superintendents instead of teachers. “Broadies” often come from business or law backgrounds and have a keen interest in neoliberal education reform. After training, Broadies are placed in high-profile positions in urban school districts throughout the country. The Academy’s graduates include Jean-Claude Brizard , Detroit’s Robert Bobb, and CPS newcomer Chief of Innovation and Incubation Officer Jack Elsey, who worked with Bobb and Byrd-Bennett in Detroit.
The Broad Academy is an initiative of the Broad Foundation, which literally wrote the book on closing public schools, School Closure Guide: Closing Schools as a Means for Addressing Budgetary Challenges. One of the more telling sections provides tips for effective public relations, offering detailed instructions on how to make the public feel like they are part of the process without actually listening to them. For example, the guide offers instructions for messaging to the media, offering a table of “ineffective statements” and offering “possible alternatives” for each. Instead of saying that “the district is operating in the red and this cannot continue,” the book suggests a more effective alternative: “The fact that the district is operating in the red prevents us from providing the best possible educational opportunities to the children in this community in a sustained way.” Lines like these were delivered by CPS bureaucrats at school closing hearings that took place earlier this year in various Chicago neighborhoods, which were attended by thousands of concerned community members.
But if Emanuel brought Byrd-Bennett in to work the same kind of charter magic in Chicago that she did in Detroit, he may be dismayed to encounter one important difference: Chicago is now in a good position to fight back. The school closings hearings were packed with engaged, motivated citizens, and the teachers union is more organized than it’s been in three decades. During its popular and successful strike, the union’s approval rating climbed while the mayor’s fell—public opinion polls showed that taxpayers blamed Emanuel for the ugliness that took place during negotiations. The CTU’s current leadership has built relationships with community leaders and organizations, forming a coalition to fight the slash-and-burn privatization pushed by the Board of Education and its corporate sponsors, and has even hosted civil disobedience trainings open to the public. This afternoon’s protest will serve as further evidence that Emanuel is indeed up against a new opponent, one strong enough that not even the best “cleaner” may be able to defeat it.