Private Management of Chicago Schools Is a Long Way from Mecca: Mr. Ayers and Mr. Klonsky Still Have Questions for Mr. Duncan and Take Issue with Mr. Cohen's Focus

By Ayers, William; Klonsky, Michael | Phi Delta Kappan, February 2006 | Go to article overview

Private Management of Chicago Schools Is a Long Way from Mecca: Mr. Ayers and Mr. Klonsky Still Have Questions for Mr. Duncan and Take Issue with Mr. Cohen's Focus


Ayers, William, Klonsky, Michael, Phi Delta Kappan


ARNE DUNCAN is the brightest and most dedicated schools leader Chicago has had in memory, and he comes to this post from a long and deep experience in neighborhood community development and education. Perhaps most important, he knows the value of community engagement; indeed, his first public act as CEO was to meet with the hunger-strikers and activists from Little Village/Lawndale to reverse the backward decision of his predecessor and help create a magnificent campus of four autonomous small schools at the new Little Village High School. All of this makes his response to our article a bit bewildering.

Duncan begins by admonishing us for failing to "embrace" the board's Renaissance 2010 policy and instructs us on our responsibility to be "impartial." People in power desire nothing more than obedience and easy agreement, but this is not the proper role for either reformers or scholars, and CPS policies in the past have not warranted even a tepid hug. The small schools movement in Chicago has worked through four different administrations to support teachers and make schools smaller and better. We have never been embracers, even though each regime has urged us in exactly that direction. Nor have we ever been impartial. Our role is to be skeptics, critics, and agnostics, people who can take a stand and still work with educators to transform failing schools into vital communities of learning. We've done our best to dodge the orthodoxy, dogma, and new fads that cling to school reform like barnacles, sharp and ugly, to a ship; we support innovation, initiative, and improvement.

One of our important current projects is to support the creation of a new high school on the west side of Chicago. To say that Klonsky is "bidding to open a new school under Renaissance 2010," as Duncan does, shows that he misunderstands our role and our efforts. But the language of "bidding" is revealing and pretty much confirms our main point regarding the selling off of public space. The forces driving Ren 10, including privatizers and business-oriented foundations, create a market metaphor for school change and insert a half-language of business into the conversation: economies of scale, standardization, stakeholders, best practices, inputs and outputs, skill sets.

And bids. It's true--Ren 10 will have "bidders," mostly private educational management companies (EMOs), that will tender offers to run the overwhelming majority (despite Duncan's denials) of the district's 100 new schools. Two-thirds of the new schools will be non-union, and most will have no elected Local School Councils. When Duncan claimed that 14 of the first 22 new schools used union teachers, he was telling only a part of the story. In the next wave of selections from new school "bidders," 16 out of 16 bids went to non-union EMOs, including one to discredited former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett's K12 Inc.

The assumption driving Ren 10 in this direction is that the main obstacles to school improvement are poor teachers, their union, and the community. As Eden Martin, head of the powerful business lobby, the Civic Committee, wrote to Arne Duncan a year ago: "The school unions will not like creation of a significant number of new schools that operate outside the union agreement, but operating outside the agreement is a key element of this strategy." CEO Duncan responded that he's not an ideological person, but that "I like the competition and choice this will provide. I want Chicago to be a Mecca where entrepreneurship can flourish." (1)

The EMOs use the language of autonomy to evade community engagement and collective bargaining with teachers. That's why we also take some issue with Lewis Cohen's one-sided emphasis on autonomous schools. While we support the main thrust of Cohen's position and appreciate the need for new small schools to have as much local control as possible over their own budgets, teacher hiring, and other administrative matters, we don't regard autonomy as the be-all and end-all in "what it's all about. …

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