Thursday, October 17, 2019

Flashback teachers strike 2012: Lessons from the last strike

Unions join picketing teachers, Chicago, 1983
     With 30,000 members of the Chicago Teachers Union now officially on strike (though the mayor's press office is calling it a "work stoppage," because that sounds better, to them, I guess). This is the first time the CTU has struck in seven years, and I've been revisiting the columns I wrote in 2012. In this column, I try to put the strike in context of past strikes.

     So what does history tell us the city of Chicago and mayor Rahm Emanuel can expect now that the Chicago Teachers Union has gone on strike for the first time in 25 years?
     To set the stage: Ronald Reagan was president. Our school system was a national shame—the secretary of education, William Bennett, would soon deem the Chicago Public Schools the worst in the nation—"I'm not sure there's a system as bad as the Chicago system," are the words he actually used, noting that almost half of Chicago public school teachers sent their own children to private schools.
     The strike occurred Sept. 8, 1987, exactly 25 years ago, and would end up lasting 19 days, the longest ever.
     Teachers strikes weren't the rare occurrence back then that they are today—the 1987 strike was fourth since 1980, the ninth since 1970—teachers had walked out for 15 days in 1983, for 10 days in 1984. A high school senior in 1987 would have already lost nearly 10 full weeks of school due to strikes.
     The situation was similar around the country. It was a season of walkouts—20 other teachers strikes were going on in four states at the same time, though the collective students affected in those strikes, 260,000, didn't come close to the 435,000 student who attended CPS then, about 8 percent more than today.
     The length of the strike, following the recent past strikes, finally broke the patience of Chicago's parents. Parents rebelled—they organized their own huge demonstrations, formed "freedom schools," and demanded Mayor Harold Washington resolve the situation. That was probably the biggest impact of the strike, and something Emanuel ought to bear in mind. The city will only tolerate so much.
     When the 1987 strike occurred, negotiators weren't even close. Teachers were asking for a 10 percent raise the first year, a 5 percent the second. The district was offering what was effectively a 1.7 percent wage cut.
     Union president Jacqueline Vaughn called the board's proposal "unrealistic." The board used a stronger word.
     "I am tired of raping the system to satisfy the desires of employees," said finance chairman Clark Burrus.
     As the strike dragged on, student athletes missed games, college-bound seniors predicted they'd be packing for college while still attending high school, and everyone worried about baking in un-airconditioned classrooms, which they would.
     The strike was settled on Oct. 3. The teachers agreed to a 4 percent raise in the first year, with the second-year raise contingent on funding being found somewhere. Superintendent Manford Byrd said the agreement would mean the immediate layoff of 1700 teachers and staff. Funding for the bus system was cut so severely it had trouble getting kids to school, particularly as the school year stretched far into the summer.
     Washington immediately began organizing the groundwork that would lead to massive school reform, but his untimely death on Nov. 25 removed him from the scene, an escape from political consequences that will probably not be available to Emanuel.
     Within a year, Gov. Thompson had signed a school reform law that created local school councils that gave parents a much greater say in the operation of their school.
     The last day of school in Chicago was June 30, 1988, the latest the school year had ever gone. Students and teachers suffered alike. Teachers fell ill, or quit. At Yale Elementary, 7025 S. Princeton, at the end of one sweltering day two teachers announced they weren't coming back, and they didn't. Students quit too—one class that was supposed to have 35 had only 8, by the last week.
     Yet in some important ways, not much has changed.
     In 1987, 43 percent of incoming Chicago freshmen would drop out of high school without graduating. Today's drop-out rate is 39.4 percent, the lowest it has ever been.
                —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Sept. 10, 2012

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

‘One Day’ — ace writer spins gold from an ordinary Sunday

     What do you do when you’re the best, the very best, at what you do? When you’re a writer who has done the hard work, enjoyed a stellar career, received the plaudits — not one but two Pulitzer Prizes.
     Where do you go from there?
     You could forgive Gene Weingarten had he, at 68,, furled his sails in some snug harbor. After all, this is the man who talked star violinist Joshua Bell into standing at a Metro station in Washington, D.C., playing his priceless Stradivarius violin for tossed coins. A mere prank in the hands of a lesser journalist, Weingarten and his colleagues at the Washington Post turned it into a meditation on values, beauty, and how we spend our limited time on this earth. That earned his first Pulitzer.  

     He is also the guy who took a story most readers can’t flee quickly enough — kids dying in hot cars — and put their parents’ heartbreak on the page, earning his second Pulitzer.
     How do you top that?
     If you are Weingarten, who has a funny as well as a serious side, you find a challenge equal parts epic and implausible. You try to do something virtuosic. “A stunt, at its heart” as Weingarten himself admits. The journalistic version of a swan dive off a tall ladder into a teacup.
     ”I set myself a goal that I wasn’t sure I could hit,” Weingarten told me.
     He drew slips of paper out of a hat, selecting a random day between 1969 and 1989 — old enough to be a challenge, recent enough to provide living witnesses. That date was turned out to be Dec. 28, 1986. Then he dug into records, interviewed 500 people, worked six years and produced a riveting collection of stories pivoting on that date: “One Day: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary 24 Hours in America” (Blue Rider: $28).

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Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Strike flashback 2012: The one school stat that nobody’s discussing

    With a good possibility of Chicago's public school teachers striking this Thursday, I thought I would look back at my coverage of the 7-day 2012 strike. 
    It's very rare that I read an old piece of mine and think, "Man, that's cold." But there are moments in this column that, well, let's say they're not overflowing with sympathy. The sixth paragraph, crudely stereotyping parents of CPS students, I would certainly claw back if I could and replace with something more nuanced. It sounds almost Trumpian. Then again, I'm not paid to coo the party line, and I called it as I saw it at the time. The current drop-out rate, by the way, is about 22 percent, which either shows dramatic progress in seven years, or a skillful cooking of the numbers or, most likely, a little of both.

    If I ran a hospital where 40 percent of the patients who checked in died rather than getting better, how long would you allow me to debate the details of our doctors’ salaries, our hospital care guidelines, or specific room amenities before you raised a finger and said, “Hey, let’s talk some about that 40 percent dying part. Because that would seem far more important than whether your doctors buy their own scrubs or not.”
     That’s basically my attitude toward the spectacle of the 2012 Chicago teachers strike. Teaching is hard, and teachers deserve respect, and I am not saying that 160,000 of the current 400,000 Chicago public school students will drop out because they have lousy teachers. If I had to guess, I’d say for every student driven off by mediocre teaching — or no air conditioning, or lack of counselors — there’s another who would have been lost were it not for a great teacher. Maybe two.
     But that dropout number sits there and ticks. I’ve seen it cited as high as 44 percent; as with all statistics, there’s an amazingly wide range of opinion regarding what the true figures are and what they represent.
     Whatever the actual number, it’s been ignored lately — the only story I saw it in was mine, plus a William Bennett column quoting me (queasy company to keep, I admit). Maybe part of the game is we have to assume students want to learn, that they are coming to school to soak up good teaching. Otherwise, what’s the point of sweating all this? In light of 40 percent of students dropping out, why bother with teachers at all? Why not just hire security guards — cheaper, less training required — to keep an eye on teens as they sit in classrooms watching TV, awaiting the inevitable moment when they shrug and wander into the street to live whatever kind of life you can live without a diploma?
     There is an argument that the crux of the problem isn’t really teachers, good, bad or indifferent; it’s parents. If your parents are paying attention to you and care about your education, then you’re generally going to be fine, no matter what kind of school you go to or what caliber of teachers you find there.
     But if your mom’s a drug addict and your dad’s who knows where, then you could be set down in the front row of Freshman Success A01 at New Trier and you’d still most likely screw up, and quickly, too, because you couldn’t cope with this strange new world.
     The Sun-Times did a survey, years ago, of kindergarten teachers, one that made a huge impression on me. It asked teachers to evaluate how prepared Chicago 5-year-olds are when they arrive for the first day of school.
     There were kids who didn’t know their colors or couldn’t count to 10. Some kids didn’t know their own names, only what street tag they went by. The best teachers in the best schools in the world couldn’t help kids like that catch up, and while those were the exceptions, you can’t give teachers an impossible task and then punish them for not doing it. Which seems to be what often happens.
     The dropout rate in Chicago is about 40 percent. Any idea, any clue what the national average dropout rate is? Brace yourself for another shocking figure that isn’t seen much:
     About 30 percent. About a third, which is almost as bad as 40 percent. Something has gone very wrong in this country if we can’t get one out of three kids to finish high school.
     Public high school, that is. Private schools are an entirely different matter. The National Catholic Education Association reports a dropout rate of 0.9 percent, or a 99.1 percent graduation rate. Why the difference? Is teaching so incredible at Catholic schools that their students are kept engaged and studying, then sent off to college with a fancy diploma and a pat on the head? Perhaps.
     Or maybe any student whose parent cares enough and has the resources to get him or her into a private school is going to do well.
     The strike is going to be resolved, maybe as early as Friday. If not, then next week, or eventually. What will not get resolved — we sure haven’t resolved it yet — is the staggering failure and human potential tragedy represented by that 40 percent dropout rate.
     Why haven’t we? Because it’s hard. Because it cuts to the very core of society. Failure among Chicago public school kids is acceptable to the rest of the city and country because it’s not their kids. The dropouts don’t even look like their kids, generally.
     On the national level, we have one party pretending we all begin at the same starting line, and anyone who gets ahead deserves it, while those who fall behind can be justly ignored. But that’s simply a lie. The playing field is skewed. My kids exist in an education-rich culture where students scramble over each other to strive, to succeed, to grow and learn. While a few miles away, 40 percent of students and their parents don’t even grasp that without a high school diploma, your chances are somewhere between little and none. That problem is going to exist long after the cheer goes up and the strike is over.
                    —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Sept. 14, 2012

Monday, October 14, 2019

The mocking laughter of Trump’s base

     Winston Smith isn’t sure why he is writing his diary in George Orwell’s novel “1984.” For the future, he speculates, “for the unborn.”
     For whatever reason, he sits down to describe an ordinary evening at the movies:

April 4, 1984. Last night to the flicks All war films. One very good one of a ship full of refugees being bombed somewhere in the Mediterranean. Audience much amused by shots of a great huge fat man trying to swim away with a helicopter after him. first you saw him wallowing along in the water like a porpoise, then you saw him through the helicopters gunsights, then he was full of holes and the sea round him turned pink and he sank as suddenly as though the holes had let in the water. audience shouting with laughter when he sank...
     That scene flashed into mind, watching Trump perform his repugnant fear mongering act in Minneapolis last Thursday, as he bragged:
     Since coming into office, I have reduced refugee resettlement by 85 percent. And as you know, maybe especially in Minnesota, I kept another promise. I issued an executive action, making clear that no refugees will be resettled in any city or any state without the express written consent of that city or that state. So speak to your mayor.
     He said this because the mayor of Minneapolis, like the mayor of Chicago and the mayor of any big city worthy of the name, welcomes immigrants, particularly refugees, as the essential future American citizens that they are and always have been.
     ”Consent given” tweeted Mayor Jacob Frey. “Immigrants and refugees are welcome in Minneapolis.”
     Patriotic Americans embrace immigrants not only because it’s the right thing to do, but out of self interest, because immigrants built this country. To act otherwise is as anti-American as undercutting the military or the press or the justice system—three elements of society Trump has continually attacked, trying to dim the light they shine on his betrayal of our country and all that it represents.

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Sunday, October 13, 2019


     I don't go to parties much. Some combination of my not wanting to go to parties and those who throw parties not wanting to invite me to them. Mostly the former, since I do get asked, periodically, to parties that I don't attend, since doing so requires time and effort and, as I said, as a rule I have no interest, for a variety of reasons: I don't drink, so the free booze dynamic that inspires so many is off the table. Plus the food at parties is usually less good than the food I can get on my own. Then there is the whole challenge of meeting people and, well, as a young man of my long acquaintance used to say, "People are the worst."
     But sometimes a new factor enters the equation. Like last Thursday, I put on a sports coat and headed downtown to go to the Landmark Legacy Project (Un) Gala. Yes, I am a supporter of their cause: to draw attention to LBGQT history so often overlooked, still, in schoolbooks, through their Legacy Walk pylons in Boystown and various other projects and events. Important work in a country that at times seems all too determined to shove the whole LGBQT+ cohort back into the closet. Which is impossible; the closet's too small.
    But that alone would not have prompted me to go. 
    I went because Lori F. Cannon, who was being honored with the Legacy Advocate Award, asked me to go. A force on the Chicago gay and lesbian scene since, well, forever, she's doled out millions of meals, mostly through Open Hand/Chicago.  Anyone who, among her various nicknames, has been called "The AIDS Angel" is okay in my book. But most of all, she's just one of those people that you don't say no to. At least I don't. Cowardice might be involved. Having seen her features darken with contempt a dozen times while she outlines the multitudinous personal failings of someone who has fallen from her favor and landed with a thud on her expansive enemies list, I would never want to be one of those unfortunates. Besides, she's always been a big fan of mine, and I value that in a person.
     So here I was in the Chez Event space—a clean, modern two story white cube-shaped room on East Ontario.  Lori gamely introduced me to a series of people, the majority of whom regarded me blankly or with utter incomprehension. She could have been saying, "This is Neb Steebryxzn. He's a contortionist for the Shekadence Soo-Tee." People either drifted off with a shrug or fled as if I were on fire. 
    Luckily, there was a fellow journalist whom I could compare notes with on the ever-declining state of the media—Matt Simonette, managing editor of Windy City Times, and that helped. Usually a politician is good for five minutes, and I oozed over to State Rep. Sara Feigenholtz (12th) and tried to talk with her, but it didn't quite work. The conversation never gelled, and I had to retreat. My fault I'm sure. 
     Lori gave detailed, Deuteronomy-level explanations of complex relationships and community network dynamics of a score or two of people whose names and significance immediately shot past me—it was loud. I did go up and speak to the mayor's liaison to the gay community about how Lightfoot's style contrasts with Rahm's, and to someone at Rush University Medical about their gender re-assignment program. I told him I'd love to write about that, and he said he'd get back to me, and who knows, maybe he will. Anything is possible. 
      Most people were dressed in what I would call sharp business casual: smart jackets, bow ties, hats. My blue blazer with gold buttons put me on the dowdier, work-a-daddy end of the scale, but was fine for my purposes. I was perhaps the polar opposite of a young man directly in front of me as the festivities started. He stood out for his silvery jacket, silver pants tucked into black boots, and matching intricate silver hairstyle. I photographed him from the back—I prefer my subjects to be oblivious of my presence—easier all around. But, deciding that this represented a lack of fortitude on my part, I approached him and asked to take his picture. 
     He was very happy to consent, graciousness itself. He said he name was Patrik—"like the saint"— Gallineaux, and he is the LGBT manager and ambassador for Stoli vodka, one of the hosts of the evening.  That must be a sweet gig. He lives in San Francisco, and we talked about the challenges of living there—he was lucky enough to find a rent-controlled apartment, he said, entirely by accident.  I apologized for being unable to enjoy his product, though I had done more than my share in my day to reduce the  world's surplus of Stolichnaya, and brought up the current vogue for NA beverages. "A golden age of non-alcoholic cocktails" is a phrase I actually uttered, causing my old self to spin in his deepening grave.  I sung the praises of Fre non-alcoholic wine, quite the boon companion to cheese, and he either was genuinely interested, or feigned genuine interest in a practiced and convincing manner. I tried a few full-face photographs, but they didn't quite capture the glory of the man. I thanked him, and as the party began to go into full swing, figured my energies could be better spent savoring the warm, almost summer-like evening just beginning to unfold on Michigan Avenue, so thanked Lori and headed down to the street. 


Saturday, October 12, 2019

Mail call

     One of the many aspects of journalism that have been done in by the internet are letters to columnists. There isn't space to run them, and besides, anyone who still has a job as a columnist at a newspaper is too grateful to be employed to risk the "Gone Fishin'" aspect of printing readers letters.  They can hear their boss sneer, "You know, if you don't want to do your job, I can find someone who does..."
    Oh, some papers still have comments section, but those are labor intensive, requiring more effort to pluck out the obscene, the racist, the crazy and unfathomable, than was required to write the piece itself. Most publish a few carefully-culled letters to the editor and call it a day. 
     While I do take a certain lepidopterist's interest in the wackier missives, lately I really make a sincere effort to not to read them at all, to delete my Spam filter without a glance. Because reading the stuff, well, it can make a boy sad. And if you react with anything bordering on the censure they deserve, half the time they'll go shrieking to your boss, showing off the boo-boo, complaining they've been ill-used. Because nobody cries like a bully. So why bother? What's the upside? Nobody learns, nobody changes.
     Yesterday's column on Rev. Jim Wallis, and his commonsense observation that you can't follow both Jesus Christ and Donald Trump, drew more than the usual reaction. Which I was ready to ignore. But before 9 a.m. I got this, from regular reader Kevin Illia.
Neil, Good Morning! Wait for it! Wait for it! I am talking about the"Blow-Back" to your column. Please write about it. I can only imagine the type of comments you will receive. Have a Great Weekend! Kevin
   He sounded so excited. And he said "please." So I steeled myself and looked in the spam filter, and was not disappointed. The very first message,on the top of the page, was this all-caps bulletin from Robert Craig:
    Yes, a lack of statistics regarding synagogue attendance, that is the germane point here.  Is that enough? One more. Okay. Move to the next one, from Jim Courchene, who to his credit can use the shift key:
Hi Neil,

Not sure if you were able to catch the best speech ever given yesterday by your President. Just have to ask when your hatred of this great man and the millions of voters who have elected our leader and who has done so much good for our country is going to end. God bless you and hope you can tone down your hatred in the future. It has been many years that you continue to belittle and shove you hateful opinions down your Sun Times readers throat.
Have a good day and I like to see you stop such hateful writtings one day. Going to be 5 more years and I feel you may loose your sanity all together like all your violent hateful protesters that create havoc across our country.

      He's referring to the repulsive hate speech Trump gave in Minneapolis, where he bragged about turning away refugees and slurred Ilhan Omar, the congresswoman from Minneapolis who has the audacity to insist on being both Muslim and American. As a matter of fact, I did watch parts of it, sickened and thinking of Orwell's "1984," and the cinema audience cheering while the refugee boat is bombed in a newsreel. 
      There are worse—mean, vindictive, throwing the old mud—but I don't want to give them the compliment of attention, and will leave those to your imagination.       
       Happy Kevin? You no doubt see why I'm usually content to leave them in the filter, unread and answered. Why go to the trouble? And it's only fair; they never consider what I have to say—failure to evaluate the world around you is how a person ends up supporting Donald Trump. I don't expect reality to ever dawn; to move forward, our nation will have to go around them, or over them, with them wrapped around our ankles, crying all the while, they way they did for eight years while Barack Obama tried to help them get health insurance. Though frankly, that is, as Jim suggests, probably five years away, at least. This can't be easy, and if you imagine we're near the end, think again. 

Friday, October 11, 2019

Trump or Jesus? Christians can’t follow both

Rev. Jim Wallis

     Many Christians pluck a line from the Bible and pretend that it is the entirety of Scripture, using the command as a club against anyone who makes them uncomfortable. Their religion is a green light from God Almighty to harass gays, plague women, and of course support Donald Trump, the living embodiment of their faith.
     “I love him so much I can hardly explain it,” said right-wing pastor and Trump adviser James Robison.
     Many echo Robison; 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump.
     But there are also Christians like Rev. Jim Wallis.
     ”There is a conflict between the politics of Jesus and the politics of Trump,” Wallis said. “Racial bigotry is a deal breaker for the Gospel. White nationalism, which Donald Trump embraces and champions, isn’t just racist—it’s anti-Christ. Dehumanizing immigrants isn’t just racist—it’s anti-Christ. Demeaning women isn’t just sexist—it’s anti-Christ. At some point, Christians have to ask themselves: Are the teachings of Christ going to be followed or not?”
     Nor is Wallis alone: 90 Christian leaders joined him signing a call for this Sunday, Oct. 13, to be a National Day of Prayer “for the truth to be revealed through the impeachment inquiry.”
     ”For the sake of our nation’s integrity and the most vulnerable in our society, we call on fellow Christians to support the current impeachment inquiry,” read the statement. “Now is the time to shine the light of truth.”
     Wallis is coming to Chicago to promote his new book, “Christ in Crisis: Why We Need to Reclaim Jesus” though it really is a homecoming.


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Blog header: Christ as the Man of Sorrows with the Symbols of the Passion, circa 14th century, from the San Pietro Martine conservatory in Florence.