Save Our Schools tries to make Chicago inroads

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Trying to maintain the momentum of the Save Our Schools Rally last month in Washington, D.C., that drew thousands from around the country, a small group of teachers, activists and public school advocates met Saturday morning to hash out the next steps of a still crystallizing local agenda.

Mike Klonsky, an educator, school reform activist and blogger, talks during the first meeting of Save Our Schools-Chicago at Hull-House Museum.

Save Our Schools-Chicago is still young and searching for a more powerful and media savvy way to craft its message, but it seems almost everyone at Saturday’s meeting could agree on one point: public education is under attack and this is the moment to fight back.

The national Save Our Schools movement, according to its website, is “united by the belief that it is time for teachers and parents to organize and reclaim control of our schools.”

While noting the opposition —supporters of vouchers, charter school expansion and privatization — have lots of financial resources and media savvy, SOS supporters believe they can mount a counter offensive. The form it will take and the methods they will use are still being hammered out.

One meeting participant said outright that public school teachers have “been Willie Hortonized.” He was referring to a convicted felon whose post-furlough crimes were used to Republican political advantage during the 1988 presidential campaign.

Former Chicago mayoral candidate Miguel del Valle (right) was among the 30 people seated around two large tables in the Jane Addams Hull-House dining room for the two-hour meeting. He was there, he said, to back any effort that supports teachers. A major focus of his campaign was improving public school education.

“I’m still waiting to see a group that is able to ensure teachers have a real voice,” Del Valle said. “I’m looking around and listening and not hearing the voices of teachers.”

About half of those at the meeting were teachers, current and some retired. A few are members of the Chicago Teachers Union and the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators. Some said they feel strongly that those organizations need to reach a broader cross section of citizens and get them more involved.   

Meanwhile, SOS-Chicago is moving forward to make its presence known. Starting Sept. 1 and every Thursday after that throughout the month, the group will sponsor Teach Ins at various locations throughout the city. The first takes place at the Thompson Center, said Adam Heenan, a social studies teacher on the South Side and Washington rally participant.

The idea behind the Teach Ins is to counter the image in the public that all teachers do is clock out after 3, said one teacher. Teachers put in much more time after the school bell grading papers and tutoring students, she added.

Mike Klonsky, an educator, writer, school reform activist and blogger who attended the Washington rally, organized Saturday’s meeting. The march, he said, was the first time teachers and activists took their concerns to Washington. Now, local chapters must work to keep alive the spirit and unity behind the rally.

SOS’s efforts aren’t about going solely after education policies put forth by President Obama, Education Secretary Arne Duncan or Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Klonsky said. There are “very big corporate forces behind” the changes taking shape in education. “Their agenda is really nothing less than taking the public out of public education [and] seeing the erosion of public decision making.”

He also alerted the group to a September event being put on by an organization called Democrats for Education Reform. DFER, which has support from a hedge fund manager named Whitney Tilson, is “about pushing more privately managed charters in the city,” Klonsky said.

On its website, DFER says it supports “mechanisms that allow parents to select excellent schools for their children, and where education dollars follow each child to their school.”

A CPS principal and former Catholic school teacher who did not want his name used said schools should be about “service to other people,” and he’s not seeing that with the push toward vouchers and privatization.

There was a blatantly obvious lack of racial diversity among the meeting’s attendees. The observation wasn’t lost on some participants, who noted that the group needs to win more friends and become more inclusive, especially in a city where the majority of public school students are African American, Latino and from low-income families.

This first local SOS meeting drew teachers from outside of Chicago. Amy Orvis came from Rockford. Her concern was on a “narrowing of curriculum due to high-stakes testing.”

Another out-of-towner, Roger Sanders, a retired superintendent of a small rural school district in northern Illinois, registered perhaps the strongest degree of disgust over the present direction of education reform.

Sanders, who said his family has devoted almost a century of service to young people in Illinois as educators, said he wants to see public education returned to parents and educators.

“I believe in the voice of people in community,” he said. “I believe in local control. I believe that national core standards, data systems, testing are wrong.  They are limiting the ability of our young people to deal with complex problems and limiting our perception of what education is, capping our young people’s capabilities.

“What I see as the potential strength of Save Our Schools is the collaboration of parents, educators, people who really care about students, not the corporate state, corporate welfare. It’s imperative for our democracy for us to take a step forward.”