Class warfare in the classroom: A story of teaching and treachery in Obama/Romney America

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CHICAGO -- In a public school with some of the poorest kids in Chicago, one English teacher who had been cemented into the school system for more than a decade and wouldn't do a damn thing to lift test scores had an annual salary of nearly $70,000 a year. Under Chicago's new rules, which holds teachers accountable and allows charter schools to compete, this seniority-bloated teacher was finally fired by her principal.

In a nearby neighborhood, a charter school had complete freedom to hire. No teachers' union interference. The school was able to bring in an innovative English teacher with advanced degrees and a national reputation in her field -- for $29,000 a year less than was paid to the teacher fired by the public school.

You've guessed it by now: It was the same teacher.

It's back-to-school time! Time for the editorialists and the Tea Party, the GOP and Barack Obama's Education Secretary Arne Duncan to rip into the people who dare teach in public schools. And in Arne's old stomping grounds, Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is stomping on the teachers, pushing them into the street.

Let's stop kidding ourselves. This is what Mitt Romney and Barack Obama and Arne Duncan and Paul Ryan have in mind when they promote charter schools and the right to fire teachers with tenure: Slash teachers' salaries and bust their unions.

They've almost stopped pretending, too. Both the right-wing nuts and the Obama administration laud the "progress" of New Orleans' schools -- a deeply sick joke. The poorest students who struggled most with standardized tests were sent into exile by Hurricane Katrina.

One thing Democrat Emanuel and Republican Romney both demand of Chicago teachers is that their pay and their jobs depend on "standardized tests." Yes, but whose standard?

Here is an actual question from the standardized test given to third-graders in New York City by the nation's biggest test-for-profit company: " ... Most young tennis stars learn the game from coaches at private clubs. In this sentence a private club is a _____." Then you have some choices in which the right answer is "country club -- place where people meet."

Not many of the people who "meet" at country clubs are from the South Side of Chicago -- unless their parents are caddies. Yet teachers on the South Side whose students are puzzled by this question could lose their jobs or have their pay cut. Students on the lakefront Gold Coast all know that Mommy plays tennis at the country club on Wednesdays, so their teachers get a raise and their schools get high marks.

You want to know what's wrong with our schools? Benno Schmidt, CEO of the big Edison Schools teach-for-profit company is a greedy privateer. But he told me straight: Before Hurricane Katrina, his company would never go into New Orleans because Louisiana spent peanuts per child on education. He made it clear: You get what you pay for. Not what you test for.

So the charter carpetbaggers slither in, cherry-pick the easy students, declare success. The tough cases and special ed kids are left in the public system so the charter schoolers and their champions can claim that public schools are failing.

Here's what the teacher who was terrible at $70,000 but brilliant at $41,000 told me: "They're not doing this in white neighborhoods. And they want to get rid of the older, experienced teachers with seniority who cost more. Get rid of the teachers and, ultimately, get rid of the kids. And the charter school gets to pick the kids who get in."

It's simple. When you look at the drop-out rates in New York (41 percent) and Chicago (44 percent), the solution offered is to pay teachers less. They punish those who dare to work in poor schools where kids struggle.

It's notable that, when he lived in Chicago, Barack Obama played basketball with city school chief Arne Duncan, but Mr. Obama sure as hell didn't send his kids to Arne's crappy public schools. Those are for po' folk. His kids went to the tony University of Chicago Laboratory School in Hyde Park.

Mr. Obama believes what Mr. Duncan and Mr. Romney believe: There's no need for universal education and no need to spend money on it. Yes, they like to say that "children are our future." But they mean children elsewhere are our future: the Chinese kids who will make the stuff we want and the children of India who will program it all for us. After all, how much education does some kid from Texas need to stack boxes from China in a Wal-Mart?

Education is no longer about information and learning skills. It's about "triage." A few selected by standardized tests or privileged by birth will be anointed and permitted into the better and "gifted" schools.

The chosen elite are still very much needed: to invest in India and Vietnam, to design new derivatives that can circumvent our laughable new banking laws and to maintain order among the restless millions of drop-outs squeezed out of the colon of our educational system.

The Obama/Duncan/Emanuel plan creates Bantustans of nonchartered, cheaply run dumpster schools within the public system. But Mr. Romney and the GOP also would give every child a "choice" entirely outside of the public system by giving kids "vouchers."

Of course, such "vouchers" don't vouch for much. Mr. Romney's prep school alma mater, Cranbrook Academy, runs $34,025 a year, not counting the polo sticks and horses. Hyde Park Day School Chicago charges $35,900. The most generous voucher program is Washington D.C.'s, beloved of the GOP, which pays about $7,500. At Cranbrook, that would buy about two months of schooling. To give each kid a real choice, not just a coupon, would require a massive increase in spending per pupil. I didn't see that in the Republican platform, did you?

The experienced teacher in Chicago who took the pay cut was offered one consolation. She was told she could make up some of the pay loss by quitting the union and saving on union dues.

So that's the program. An educational Katrina: Squeeze the teachers until they strike, demolish their unions and drown the students.

Chicago's classroom war is class war by another name.

Class dismissed.


Greg Palast is the author of the new book "Book Billionaires and Ballot Bandits: How to Steal an Election in 9 Easy Steps" ( Proceeds will go to the nonprofit Palast Investigative Fund for reporting on voter protection issues. For two decades, Mr. Palast was an investigator for Chicago-area unions, including the Chicago Teachers Union.


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