Obama and the Chicago teachers’ strike – you reap what you sow

The President of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, is putting a brave face on the “strike” by Chicago teachers. Only a few weeks ago she was lauding the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and the Chicago Public School (CPS) system for having resolved their differences as it looked like a strike would be avoided.  Now she is gamely telling the PBS News Hour that this a “local” issue that has to be resolved locally, ignoring the fact that she was on national TV explaining this.

Behind the scenes she, and many other pro-Democratic Party labor leaders, are pulling their hair out.  There could not have been a worse time to pick a fight like this with the city of Obama just as he emerged from his highly successful Democratic party convention. That convention was a convention in name only, of course, as video of LA mayor Villaraigosa ignoring the clear vote of the delegates on key issues indicated.  It was political theater of the highest order, hitting its peak not with the speech of the President, but with the speech of the former President, Bill Clinton, who likely helped many voters ease their growing doubts about the Obama Administration.

Now a strike by the CTU over issues that are murky and confusing to the average citizen threatens to distract the electorate just as the Obama campaign picks up lost momentum.

How could this have happened?

The ironic answer is that President Obama himself deserves some of the blame. At the top of the CTU leadership is a group of political activists for whom the health and well being of students is not the top priority much less the bread and butter concerns of their fellow union teachers. Instead, they are the hard core of a highly ideological milieu that has over the last decade or more burrowed their way into the teachers’ union.

Now they have their hands on the levers of power of a large urban union and are doing what no sane union leader would do, namely striking at a point where they are least likely to gain allies among Democrats and others on the left whom they normally could, and should, count on in a battle of this magnitude.

Only a group with a different agenda than that of the genuine labor movement would take such a huge risk. Actually, from their standpoint – one which advocates “r-r-radical” change – it makes a peculiar kind of sense because it appears to demonstrate their intransigence. While stalwart militancy can be a valuable trait in a labor leader, mindless militancy of the sort on display among the top leaders of the CTU is dangerous. For too long the democratic left inside the AFT and elsewhere has ignored these risks.

What animates this “mindless militancy”? It is the so-called “social justice” ideology propagated by a sectarian element in American schools of education and among their teacher graduates by individuals like Linda Darling-Hammond, Bill Ayers, Mike Klonsky, Gloria Ladson-Billings, Peter MacLaren and others.

Thus, Karen Lewis, the new “fist in the air” fire brand president of the CTU in the words of her ally the Maoist education activist Mike Klonsky. Lewis recently traveled to Seattle not to discuss the tragedy of poor student outcomes in our nation’s schools but to rally the “Shock Doctrine” troops among the social justice crowd to take over the teachers’ union.

Lewis appears in fact to be more likely a “sheep in wolf’s clothing.” She signed off on legislation last year that severely restricted her own union’s collective bargaining rights. The bill was attacked as union-busting by one Illinois legislator. Worse, Lewis apparently did this behind the backs of her own union members who hit the roof when they learned of the move. In other words, any “militancy” being shown now by Lewis may be a dysfunctional form of compensation for her role in weakening her own union.

Keep in mind that I put quotes around “social justice” because this crowd’s “social justice” ideology has nothing to do with the social justice agenda of the genuine labor movement or the civil rights movement. This is, instead, an agenda about gaining political power, not for the students and teachers of our blighted urban schools, but for the advocates of “social justice” and its allied ideas such as multiculturalism and identity politics.

While proposed as something radical it is important to keep in mind how conservative and reactionary this ideology is, in fact. It represents a retreat from the genuinely progressive and radical agenda of the civil rights movement and the labor movement. And it is therefore not a surprise to realize that this new “social justice” agenda emerged in the wake of the defeat of those earlier democratic movements in the late 70s and early 80s.

The ideology actually leads the labor movement backwards into the divisive morass of politically correct identity politics. In the world of education, for example, it actually helped support the pro-corporate school “choice” movement by the formation of politically correct small schools like the “Social Justice” high school in Chicago. Not a surprise that figures like Ayers and Klonsky back the same idea as one supported by the Gates Foundation.

Thus, instead of creating democratic, transparent institutions that can lead us out of the crisis in our schools, this “social justice” crowd functions like a mirror image of the corporate education reform crowd they so loudly denounce. This faux radical milieu has, in fact, given up, sometimes explicitly, on wider social solutions, such as integration, to the problems of city schools. They promote absurd arguments that the schools are the moral equivalent of apartheid and promote a form of reparations for slavery in the name of repaying what they call the “education debt” that allegedly has accumulated over 400 years.

If some of this sounds vaguely familiar to followers of Presidential politics, it should. This is the very same agenda that Barack Obama promoted when he was an active leader in the “Chicago School Wars” of the late 80s and 1990s. Back then he joined forces with education professor Bill Ayers to lead the Chicago Annenberg Challenge (CAC). Together Ayers and Obama pumped tens of millions of dollars into the Chicago school system with two goals: one, to promote explicitly the politically correct “social justice” agenda by financing curriculum that imposed their views on teachers and students; and two, the financial support of Local School Councils (LSCs) which were established in 1988 after a very unpopular teachers strike in Chicago.

The LSCs were very unpopular with teachers because they set up a new power base for community activists to monitor and control teachers. Ayers and Obama were well aware of this, of course, and fought within the CAC to make sure millions of dollars went to this institution precisely to help undermine the power of the CTU and its then traditional labor leadership, as well as the central power at CPS and the Chicago mayor’s office.  To do this, they had to overcome the opposition of then Mayor Daley who tried to get the Annenberg Challenge to give him the huge grant instead. And they battled with establishment figures like Arnold Weber, former President of Northwestern University and a very skilled and experienced labor economist, who fear precisely what happened: that the LSC’s and the Ayers/Obama “social justice” agenda would become a political weapon.

Of course, with this kind of ambitious political agenda it should not be a surprise to learn that that the CAC money had no impact at all on improving outcomes for students!  The CAC’s own research arm completed an exhaustive study to reach this conclusion once all the money was spent.

But the CAC was judged a huge success by Ayers, Obama and allies like Mike Klonsky (the 60s maoist who reinvented himself under Ayers’ tutelage as an “education expert”).  A new political front was now opened up by them inside the Chicago schools. This story was largely ignored during the 2008 campaign not least because the mainstream media had another agenda – electing Obama.

Thus, most prominently, the New York Times “debunked” the easy side of the Ayers/Obama relationship (that Obama had no connection to Ayers role in the Weather Underground and violent political tactics) while ignoring their very substantial work together during the Chicago School Wars and beyond, well into the period of Obama’s presidential campaign. See posts here, here, here and here. As I said at the time, the Times won the David Blaine magic award for making that issue disappear. They even ignored a report by their friends at the New Yorker magazine contradicting their reporting.

And the Ayers/Obama/Klonsky “social justice” milieu now had an institutionalized role in the CPS. That eventually led to the emergence of a layer within the CTU itself that challenged its traditional (and progressive and African American) leadership. Despite the many decades of achievement by that leadership, the CTU had proved incapable of dealing with the very severe challenges posed by dramatic socio-economic change in Chicago. This provided an opening for the “r-r-radicals” in the face of pressure from Chicago’s moneyed elite to shut down non-performing schools, lengthen the school day and reform the teacher evaluation process.

It would be one thing, of course, if this new milieu had a genuine agenda for reform of education that was linked to student capabilities. In other words, the test of their agenda is to ask, well, what will be the result for the students in a year, five years and ten years? But this group opposes measurement of the impact of reforms, despite the attempt of their own national leadership in the AFT to take this problem seriously. And it pushes for things like extended recess periods and art classes that likely are of value to students but hardly worth shutting down those same schools in a “strike” and leaving Chicago’s young children wandering the very dangerous streets of that gang-ridden city.

We are witnessing a train wreck in slow motion that cannot end well for Chicago teachers, their students or their union. Those same teachers will have to ask themselves some very important questions about how they ended up in this situation. But if President Obama is wringing his hands about how his own city and his own political allies could have created such a problem for him, then he should look in the mirror.