We don’t want your Big Mac! We just want our schools back!

This is my perspective on the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), a reform caucus within the Chicago Teachers Union. This is not an objective history, and if you ask someone else who is involved, you’ll likely get a different story. My emphasis in this article is on the creative tactics and protests we used, and the situations that really hit my heart.

CORE McDonalds Flyer 

In Daley Plaza, we had a bubble machine: a wheel of small plastic circles that dipped into a soapy solution and moved upward in front of a fan. Bubbles floated chaotically out, caught in the cold December wind; they careened through the Plaza towards the bright orange Calder sculpture. But the machine was freezing up. It produced smaller and smaller bubbles until, alas, we stripped the gloves off our hands and did it the old fashioned way, dipping the plastic sticks into the hand-warmed solution and blowing. In an action organized by the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) and Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE), we explained that these were the sorts of bubbles students should make during childhood, rather than the tedious ones shaded in with number two pencils for the ever-growing battery of standardized tests. This action was how CORE hoped to influence then-President-elect Obama’s education policy before he left for Washington.

Two years later, CORE ran for the leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), which represents public school teachers. The night before the union election, I got a call from a colleague:

 

So, why should I vote for CORE tomorrow? my colleague asked, Convince me.

Well, I think it boils down to a basic philosophical difference. UPC, the incumbent caucus, basically stick to bread and butter issues like salary and health care and grievances. CORE will do those things, of course. But we are also interested in reaching out to the community to build support, in battling the privatization of public education, in fighting the standardized test culture, and in repairing the image of the teacher.

UPC is so narrowly focused that they don’t realize the union is being intentionally undermined by broad political forces, I told my colleague. Private corporations want to capitalize on the $700+ billion national public education "market."

 

A few months after the bubble action in Daley Plaza, CORE organized to protest the upcoming round of school closings. As protesters marched at the Commercial Club of Chicago, which houses the Civic Committee, a few of us wore sandwich boards, called out in our best carnival voices, and gave out spoof prizes. In a "Billionaires-for-Bush" style performance, we pretended to be Civic Committee members selling off the schools at a corporate bazaar. Our action was inspired by the real Renaissance Schools Fund Symposium on May 6, 2008 entitled The New Market of Public Education. The corporate sponsors in our spoof pamphlet were the actual supporters of the Renaissance Schools Fund. This fund provides financial backing for Renaissance 2010, the plan that closes neighborhood public schools and opens charters. We decided to attack Ren2010 by focusing on the corporations that fund it. That list is sobering and scary: the Gateses, the Waltons, People’s Gas, Exelon (ComEd), Walgreen’s, Sears, Ariel, and Northern Trust, to name a few.

 

CORE looks at the larger political issues, I said. Who stands to profit? Who is being heard? Who supports the efforts to create a few model schools and shuffle around the rest? How is it funded?

 

Another action targeted McDonalds, one of the corporations that fund Ren2010. At a McDonalds in Hyde Park, we handed out fake coupons that read, "A portion of each dollar goes to undermine your school." We definitely attracted attention as we chanted: "We don’t want your Big Mac! We just want our schools back!"

My children still sing that one.

 

The strategy being employed is to break the union slowly. Each year a dozen or so schools are closed and re-opened under private management without union representation. I really believe it was the public protest and pressure and organizing that CORE did over the last two years that kept six schools off the closing list each year. If you want to influence the decisions made by CPS and the mayor, since he appoints everyone, you have to create public pressure they can feel.

 

"Guggenheim School is not a cancer that needs to be cut out." That was the heart-wrenching defense of Shirley Kane, a former teacher and parent at a school closing hearing in the Guggenheim gym. CORE had come to the hearing to support the school’s community members. "Put the resources in this school to make it what it ought to be," said another parent. A CPS official stressed that the proposed school closing was not an indictment of the students. The actions of CPS said otherwise, however, and each person that stood to speak made the implicit assumptions explicit. Hundreds of people who teach and parent and attend Guggenheim made it clear: they did not want their school shut down. CPS responded, in typical colonial rhetoric that barely masked its exploitation: we know what is best for you, this is for your own good.

 

The thing about CORE is, we actually listen and support people. If a school is up for closing, CORE answers questions about the process and explains what has happened in the past. But more importantly, we ask, "How can we support you?" If you want us at a school closing hearing, we’ll be there. If you are protesting with a candlelight vigil to mourn your school, we’ll be there.

 

I had tears in my eyes as I watched community members defend their school. Outside of Guggenheim, we marched up and down the sidewalk. There were no television cameras, no CPS officials—they escaped out the back door. It was just us: people who care about public schools in Chicago, Guggenheim and beyond. Our marching was a collective mourning. Our clear plastic cups with a candle inside were not false symbols. Our voices were a cry of defiance and solidarity. "Save Guggenheim" was a plea, a demand, and a pledge fading into the paved night.

 

CORE connects with parents and community groups. We helped to create GEM, the Grassroots Education Movement. You know, there are many things parents and teachers agree on, like class size or standardized tests. Why not include everyone who’s invested?

 

Yet, I cringed that evening at Guggenheim, when some members of CORE brashly handed out our literature during the school closing hearing. To me, the staged picture with CORE people behind Guggenheim parents and teachers just seemed over the top. We wanted people to know CORE was there, but maybe this was too much. Or maybe it was making me uncomfortable with why we were there: was this all just electioneering? The problem with growing a group when you are trying be elected is that it’s not enough to just do something. You have to let everyone know you did something. This necessity can double back and cast doubt on legitimately altruistic intentions.

In the end though, I know I wouldn’t spend my time going to school closing hearings just for some union election. If that were the case, my heart wouldn’t feel so heavy listening to the parents and students. We are teachers because we care about our students. The teachers who are part of CORE are also activists because we see forces harming our students that are beyond the limits of the classroom.

 

CORE plans to mobilize teachers and create public pressure to actually change education more towards what it should be.

 

And with that, he said, I’m convinced.

As were 12,000 others. CORE won the 2010 union election in a runoff with 60% of the vote and grassroots organizing is to credit. Conversations like the one I wrote here occurred on the phone, in classrooms, hallways, and parking lots. The election of CORE is a repudiation of Arne Duncan’s Renaissance 2010-style education policy that he is now implementing on a national level. CORE will stand up and battle to change the way education has been framed nationally.

Hopefully, CORE’s election to head the CTU will empower us to change more than we could have otherwise. As we move into more formal positions of power, the roles are more rigid. There are certain things that we cannot do as the Chicago Teachers Union because we are bound by a contract. The quick and nimble fluidity of CORE’s beginnings will probably be hard to preserve as we look to involve 30,000 union members. It is a tradeoff: now we have a national audience. Karen Lewis, the CORE candidate elected as CTU president, is on the news talking about privatization, TIFs, opening the CPS books, and bringing the joy back into teaching and learning. These topics were never on the table before.

The stakes are high. We teachers have everything to gain, and little left to lose. Our job security is uncertain, our image is tarnished, and our autonomy to actually teach is highly compromised. As a society, we stand to lose one of our last public institutions to privatization, and our future generations to boredom, test score measurements, and the whim of profits. ◊