An open letter to WBEZ

21 Jul

(The following is an open letter to WBEZ, following a dreadful story about the Chicago public schools contract negotiations with the teachers’ union. It sums up my feelings on the longer school day, charter schools, the mayor, and teacher pay.)

1.

I’m a Chicago public school librarian, and I’m unhappy—disgusted is a better word—with WBEZ’s coverage of the contract negotiations between CPS and the teachers’ union. Linda Lutton’s “news” story on the arbitration report was biased, misguided, underreported, sloppy and unfair. Her disdain for the teachers’ side of the debate was clear and unabated. It left a bad taste in my mouth. I’m half-convinced that Fox News has hijacked WBEZ.

This is my retort.

The story was laid out in a disingenuous manner. Lutton began by saying, “When was the last time someone offered you a twenty percent pay raise?” She could just as easily have begun by saying, “When was the last time someone tried to make you work twenty percent more for less pay?” (She does not mention that the board revoked our contracted raise for the last school year.) She framed the entire debate by teachers’ greed, instead of Mayor Emanuel’s implacable devotion to a political hobbyhorse—a longer school day with no substantive improvements, no enrichment programs that would improve our children’s lives, and no additional staff. Lutton presents teachers as greedy leeches with their grubby hands in the public coffers. But I don’t know anyone on the planet who would want to work longer hours for the same pay, or accept 20 percent more unpaid work without some type of challenge or negotiation.

2.

The major problem with Lutton’s story was what she didn’t report.

Some of the best schools in the state are Chicago public schools, operating under the current school day. This wasn’t mentioned. Some of the worst school districts in the country exist in “right to work” states. This wasn’t mentioned. Two of the CPS schools that experimented with the longer school day this past year saw their scores go down. This wasn’t mentioned. Other school districts with longer school days offer more enrichment opportunities (very few CPS elementary school students have access to learning a second language, for example)—the types of educational experiences that make children enjoy going to school and score better on tests; these classes require more staff, which CPS can’t afford. This wasn’t mentioned. An increasing amount of CPS budget money is allocated to charter schools. This wasn’t mentioned. Nor was the fact that, noted in a WBEZ story among other places, charter schools, in general, don’t perform better than their public school counterparts.

Thirty years ago the U.S. educational system was the envy of the world. This with almost 90 percent unionized teachers (and very few standardized tests). This wasn’t mentioned, either.

Mayor Emanuel—the manufacturer of this current crisis—was hardly mentioned at all. There was no discussion of why we’re in this budget crisis. The administration’s tax policies weren’t brought up; nor the “bonus,” Emanuel found money to fund, offered to schools that adopted the longer school day early (which was consequently ruled illegal); nor the controversial TIF funds; nor his bullish tactics; nor his saying “Fuck you,” to our union presidentduring an early negotiation meeting. Finally, amid Lutton’s editorializing on the teachers’ salaries, Emanuel’s refusal to any compromise whatsoever was mentioned, but not commented on at all.

Emanuel causes this situation, but the teachers are being blamed.

3.

Emanuel clearly sees this conflict in political terms. He wants a win. But teachers see this conflict as essential to our mission and survival. Every teacher I know wants the world to be a better, more equitable place. Many CPS teachers see the job in terms of social justice. But it is enlightened self-interest: we want to be fairly compensated for our work. Teachers who are valued, trusted and fairly compensated will be better at their jobs than teachers who are maligned, mistrusted, and abused. What’s good for the teachers is (almost always) good for the students.

If the union rolls over on this, we’re lost. Our autonomy, our relative economic stability, it will all be taken away. Emanuel, and the following mayors, will be able to do whatever they like with public schools, by fiat. Good older teachers will retire early. Good younger teachers will look for work somewhere else. Talent will drain out of the system.

And who is better suited to decide what’s best for our kids? People who have dedicated their lives to the craft of teaching, people who work with Chicago public school students every day, people who have trained and earned multiple degrees in the field?

Or, a rich Beltway mayor who hasn’t taught a day in his life?

4.

After Lutton’s biased report, other voices should have been brought in for commentary. Someone with an opposing point of view should have been present. But the subsequent discussion—with Tony Sarabia and Becky Vevea—did nothing more than validate Lutton’s prejudice. This is problematic for three reasons. First, the whole point of the commentary setup is to provide dissenting points of view, allowing for competing viewpoints to battle it out in the marketplace of ideas. Second, editorialists—such as Maureen Dowd or David Brooks—do not operate as reporters who then get to comment on their own stories. Lutton should not have been there to reiterate her earlier points; she already expressed her opinion on the matter. Third, and most importantly, the whole panel touched on half a dozen issues without digging into the causes behind those issues.

Reporters dig; editorialists opine.

Here’s an example: Lutton mentions the “education reform” groups working down in Springfield; she portrays these organizations as disinterested good guys. She gives no names. She gives no background. She offers no context. She doesn’t even say what their agenda really is. One of these “education reform groups” is Studentsfirst, headed by Michelle Rhee. Studentsfirst has a stated policy to abolish teacher tenure; link pay to data; and bring in more free market principles (meaning deregulation), among other things. Author Diane Ravitch addresses Studentsfirst and other “education reform groups” in the March 8th edition of The New York Review of Books: “The reformers’ detachment from the realities of schooling and their indifference to research allow them to ignore the important influence of families and poverty. The schools can achieve miracles, the reformers assert, by relying on competition, deregulation, and management by data—strategies similar to the ones that helped produce the economic crash of 2008.”

These educational “reform” groups see collective bargaining—a right many people, me included, see as constitutionally protected—as a barrier to making life better for students. These “reformers” are dedicated to our destruction. They want nothing less than the eradication of teachers unions. And we can’t work with someone who wants us to fail.

You either believe in collective bargaining or you don’t. If you don’t, take a look at the public education utopias in right-to-work states like Georgia, Florida, Alabama and so on.

5.

Lutton made a point of emphasizing the average teacher salary, $70,000 a year. First of all, so what? Do we want the best teachers for our kids? If so, we have to be willing to pay them well. Secondly, Lutton does not explain whether this figure includes the yearly CPS pension contribution, money that, thanks to a broken pension system, young teachers expect never to see. Nor does she note that since teachers pay into the pension system rather than into social security, we will not be eligible for social security when we retire. Teachers want job security, a decent wage, and a reliable retirement. And we’re the villains? Lutton stands alongside Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Scott Walker, Chris Christie, and Mitch McConnell in her unexamined attack on public sector employees. At least Hannity, Limbaugh, and company are up front about their allegiances and don’t let their editorializing masquerade as disinterested reporting.

This was and is a very important, very complicated news story, and Chicagoans across the political spectrum deserve a balanced in-depth report on the issue. They did not get it. Nuance, details, dissenting opinions, historical context—these facets, the things that make this story complex, were ignored. Sarcasm, ad hominem attacks, and snide remarks were opted for instead. These are the amateur’s weapons.

6.

The final irony of all this is that WBEZ is a public radio station. The same root forces attempting to destroy public sector unions are also dedicated to the ruin of NPR and its local affiliates (as well as PBS). NPR is an annual target for small government Republicans. They despise the notion of public radio. Just two years ago, the Republicans in Congress mounted a national campaign to end all public funding to NPR. They find the very idea of tax dollars going to radio programming to be obscene. One pundit said, “One [tax] dollar is too much for NPR.”

Now, I love NPR. I love what it stands for. I love that it exists outside the profit-driven paradigm and runs commercial free. I love that it is a public sector success story. I love that it offers balanced news stories with insight and integrity.

But this was a political news story, and there was no insight and little integrity. Someone who is opposed to NPR, or WBEZ, could very easily misrepresent the tax dollars to public radio discussion in terms of deficit-reduction and political bias—and those same opponents to NPR could use this story as an example—saying something like this: “When was the last time someone made you pay for political programming you fundamentally disagree with?”

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