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TRNN Replay – Karen Lewis: Obama’s “Race to the top” means a lot of students will be losers

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to the Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay, and we’re in Dearborn, Michigan, again, at the Labor Notes Conference. Joining us now is Karen Lewis. She’s a school teacher in the South Side of Chicago. She’s president of the Chicago Teachers Union. Thanks for joining us.


JAY: So your guy is president of the United States.

LEWIS: Yes, he is.

JAY: And he’s had a lot to say about reforming America’s educational system. So what’s he proposing and what do you think of it?

LEWIS: So he’s proposing “race to the top”. So a “race”, in terms of what I think about, it means there’s winners and losers. And education shouldn’t be about that at all. Education is our last bastion of a democratic institution in this country. So the idea that we’re going to compete for, in Illinois, what amounts to $200 a kid and turn education on its head�.

JAY: What do you mean $200 a kid?

LEWIS: If you look at the amount of money for which we would be eligible and you divide it by the number of students�

JAY: Of the federal program.

LEWIS: �yes�and you divide it by the number of students in Illinois, it comes down to basically $200 a kid. This is so not worth it to tie tenure, to tie teacher evaluation, to tie everything to standardized tests.

JAY: Because the way this proposal works is if you want the federal money, you’ve got to reach certain requirements. So what are the requirements he wants you to meet?

LEWIS: Well, the first one that our legislature already did was to take caps off of charters. So they didn’t take the caps completely off, but they bounced them pretty high. That’s number one.

JAY: Caps on how big they can get?

LEWIS: How many charters you can have.

JAY: Okay. So these are charter schools that get public money.


JAY: But they run more like private schools.

LEWIS: Absolutely.

JAY: And they can be kind of specific. They could be�.

LEWIS: These charter schools, even though there are only 50 charters originally, they could have multi-campus. So instead of having one charter school, what you could easily have is an organization that has a charter and have 10 or 12 campuses.

JAY: Well, President Obama’s been a big fan of charter schools.

LEWIS: Yes, he has.

JAY: And so what’s wrong with that? The argument is they give students a better education; there’s more focus on the kids. What’s wrong with the idea?

LEWIS: That’s the argument. It’s not the reality.

JAY: What’s the reality?

LEWIS: So the reality is if you look at charter schools and how they’ve done, by and large they do no better with more resources and with a different level of kid than the neighborhood schools. Let me give you an example. Charter schools, some say they operate by lottery, which they do, but they have a high tendency to cancel out students. So kids that are real discipline problems, kids that have special needs, if they don’t feel like working with those kids, they find a way to cancel them out. Those kids have to go back to the neighborhood schools; they have to be taken. But here’s the interesting thing. The money that’s associated with each child�so there’s a per child tuition, so to speak�that money goes to the charter coffers. But if the kid leaves the charter school, the money doesn’t go with the kid, whereas in a regular public school, if my kid transfers from school A to school B, the money goes from school A to school B. So you also find that right around the time where it comes to take the tests that determine whether a school is functioning or not, these charter schools have a tendency to cancel out those kids.

JAY: “Cancel out” means what?

LEWIS: Get rid of.

JAY: But by�.

LEWIS: It’s a nice way of saying�.

JAY: Sit down and talk with them and persuade them to get out.

LEWIS: That maybe this is not the place for you. Or they just boot them out.

JAY: So the main critique of charter schools is that it weakens the public school system.

LEWIS: It does.

JAY: Is that actually happening in Chicago?

LEWIS: That is actually true. Yes, that’s true.

JAY: So in what way is it doing that in Chicago?

LEWIS: So in order to go to a charter school, a parent has to actually apply, make an application and apply. Right? That, all of a sudden, changes how many parents will actually do that in a neighborhood. And especially in some of our lower socioeconomic neighborhoods, you have parents that do not understand the nature of what that means, so they’re not going to necessarily do the application. The applications are long. Sometimes they ask for parents to spend a certain amount of time in the schools. This actually “weeds out”, quote-unquote, a bunch of parents. So what happens is you can’t just show up at a charter school and say, here’s my kid; take them. So you do have to go through a certain amount of steps.

JAY: But why does this weaken the public school system?

LEWIS: Well, what it does is it tends to cream the students from the top. So parents who are highly motivated and working with their children and students who are highly motivated have a tendency to want to go to charter schools. So, again, what that leaves is the child whose family may be a little bit more dysfunctional in a neighborhood school.

JAY: So it’s all about creating tiers.

LEWIS: Absolutely.

JAY: You have private schools. You have charter schools. You keep creating�.

LEWIS: No, before that, we even have more�we have more tiers in Chicago. We have selective enrollment schools. These are schools where children test to get in, but they’re completely public schools. So we [inaudible]

JAY: So again creaming off the kids that are doing the best, and you leave schools filled with kids that aren’t doing so well.

LEWIS: Yes, absolutely. But they were punished. Those neighborhood schools are indeed punished for serving students just as well, if not better, than the charter schools. So here are the data that you’re talking about. Stanford did a study on chartered schools in general, and what they found was about a third of them do a little bit better than neighborhood schools, a third of them do the same, and a third of them actually do worse. So we’re looking at two-thirds of schools that don’t do any better than neighborhood schools�.

JAY: But siphon off a lot of public money.

LEWIS: And have nonunionized faculties. And by law, the charters in Illinois, the charters in Chicago, those teachers can unionize, but they cannot join the Chicago Teachers Union.

JAY: By law.

LEWIS: By law.

JAY: So the argument in favor of all of this is that more kids are getting a better education, even if you’re writing off some kids or a lot of kids to very little education. But they’re saying the old system was broken, that a lot of kids weren’t getting a decent education.

LEWIS: But the problem is that’s not true. Okay? So what they’re saying is there are children that don’t do well on standardized tests. What has happened is the children aren’t getting any better education. Matter of fact, now they’re getting worse education, because in order to concentrate on a test that tests math and science, they have narrowed the curriculum. So now we have students that do not get art, music, world languages, social sciences. They do not even get recess or physical education, because�I mean, I’ve heard teachers say to kids, well, you know, after you take the ISAT [Illinois Standards Achievement Test], then we can have recess. So children feel like, oh my God, if I don’t do well on this test, my teacher may lose their job, my school may close. I mean, we’re putting all this pressure on a test that tells us more about a kid’s zip code than it tells us what they’ve actually learned.

JAY: In the next segment of our interview, let’s talk about President Obama and the teachers, because he’s more or less said there’s a lot of either lazy teachers or not very qualified teachers. I’m not sure he’s used the word deadwood, but other people have. And he’s got a lot of teachers angry�and a lot of the same teachers who actually went out and got him elected.

LEWIS: And got him elected.

JAY: So in the next segment of our interview, let’s talk about President Obama and the teachers. Please join us with Karen Lewis on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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Karen Lewis is a president of Chicago Teachers Union and a chemistry teacher at Martin Luther King College Prep, Chicago, IL.