Chicago, IL — On May 3, President Obama proclaimed May 5-11 National Charter School Week. The Chicago Tribune noted that this was an affront to Obama’s supporters in the teachers’ union. And for good reason: Charters are almost universally anti-union. In Obama’s hometown of Chicago, corporations running charter schools educate 51,000 schoolchildren, while opposing unions and draining resources from public schools.
The day before, Obama nominated billionaire Penny Pritzker to be secretary of commerce. Anticipating the nomination, Pritzker resigned from Chicago’s Board of Education, where she championed charter schools. There is another connection of interest: Pritzker’s family controls the Hyatt Hotel chain, long the unsuccessful target of a UNITE-HERE organizing drive. Another slap in the face to the Democrats’ trade union supporters. The Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU) and the hotel workers have picketed and demonstrated together against their common enemy.
Meanwhile, mainstream media finally noticed what Substance News had reported in June, 2009. One of the largest charter school organizations in Chicago, the Democratic Party- connected, United Neighborhood Organization (UNO), had been awarded $98 million for new school construction by the fiscally strapped Illinois state government. UNO used that money to give contracts to friends of the UNO Board. As the Legislature began to investigate, UNO reversed its union-busting attitude, and in what looked like a public relations stunt, agreed to allow Chicago ACTS, the charter teachers union, to organize (87% of the teachers signed union cards). What kind of contract, if any that Chicago ACTS will be able to negotiate, has yet to be seen.
This year the big story in Chicago is school closings. The school board was due to vote May 22 on the 54 proposed schools to be closed. So why is it that we are called to celebrate National Charter School Week? Why call for charter expansions, while all the major cities in the country are closing schools? Politicians from the federal government to the local level claim that charter schools have more flexibility than traditional schools and that privatization fosters innovation. But that is not what has happened. Studies show that charter schools function no better than traditional schools, while they drain neighborhood schools of resources.
The reason is that charters are a key weapon in the corporate takeover of public education. Capitalists are sitting on piles of money. Every public space becomes fair game to increase their investments. Private interests already dictate to public schools. Books, tests, and food industries have made billions, holding educational institutions hostage. With charter schools, the city funnels tax dollars directly into corporate pockets. This subsidizes these private interests for each student enrolled and removes education from public accountability. It also undermines a main source of opposition coming from teachers who are about to be dispossessed by school closings.
What is the key to National Charter School Week? First, loot the public treasury at the behest of the corporations; then destroy the teachers unions. The goal of the CTU and Chicago ACTS is to stop the expansion of charters. This is a political battle, in which both Democrats and Republicans are the declared enemies of the combatants.