Alderman Joe Moreno of the 1st Ward used to have a reputation not just as the “Hipster Alderman,” but also as a progressive. This reputation was not without some basis in past activism, as I detailed when I interviewed Moreno in February. But if going on Fox Business to bash teachers unions is now “progressive,” then the term has finally lost all meaning.
On the first day of the Chicago Teachers Union strike, Moreno joined the appropriately named “MONEY with Melissa Francis” on the FOX Business Network to stand up for the city’s teachers. Well, after a fashion:
Francis: “If I were a parent in Chicago today, I would be so angry… if you’re a working parent, what are you supposed to do?”
Moreno: “Absolutely, I agree Melissa, and thanks for having me… Let’s cut to the chase as you said, this strike is a shame— it’s a shame that they’re on strike. They should not be, they should be in— and we have fantastic teachers, I support the teachers, but the union, by calling this strike, has made a severe mistake. Our kids are not being taught, our parents are having to find other coverage for them, and it’s a shame. It should never have happened, they’re very close on a couple of small issues—”
Francis: “Alderman, I have a couple of problems with what you said there already though. You say the teachers are doing a great job. It alarms me that anyone here is asking for any kind of a pay raise when you look at the facts, which are: Just fifteen percent of fourth-graders are proficient in reading. Fifteen percent. In 2012, Chicago’s freshman dropout rate was 39.4 percent. That is just terrible. I’ll give you the last one. Only about 60 percent of Chicago high school students graduate, compared to a national average of 75 percent. Given those statistics, why does anyone deserve to keep their job, much get a raise in this situation?”
Moreno: “You bring up a great point. We have some of the best schools in Chicago. Some of the top ten schools in Illinois—”
Francis: “How is that possible with those stats I just gave you?”
Moreno: “We have some schools that are very challenged, and we’re trying to reform education. Any time we talk about reforming education—doing charter schools, doing turnaround schools, which I totally support—we get pushback from the Chicago Teachers Union. They’re a conservative union. They want to be a progressive union? They’re stuck way back in the sixties and seventies. We need to move forward.”
Painting corporate education reform as “progressive” and unions who oppose it as “conservative” is not a narrative Moreno invented. Nostalgia is generally a dangerous tendency, but perhaps the CTU is indeed hearkening back to the sixties and seventies: To a time when the Democratic Party made a better show of representing the interests of the working class, and when support for labor was understood as a key requirement of calling oneself progressive.
Now the historical moment of the CTU strike has revealed the extent to which aggressively neoliberal, business-driven education policy has infiltrated both the Democratic Party and many liberal pundits (both trends that have been observed thanklessly over the years by Jeremiahs ranging from Ramsin Canon to Diane Ravitch).
And Moreno, in turn, has had his own moment of revelation. Forced to “pick a side,” (has it really been just ten months since I first wrote that?), to choose between his beloved charters and any shred of an illusion that he is genuinely progressive, the 1st Ward Alderman has instead sided with Rahm, Romney and Ryan, with David Vitale and Juan Rangel, with Rudy Giuliani and Rupert Murdoch. He has sided, if you will, with “MONEY.”
But the way the bipartisan consensus on education “reform” is supposed to work goes something like this: Republicans threaten to complete abolish all public education, and Democrats present themselves as the more reasonable alternative, the ones who want to simply reform the system (by paying teachers less, eliminating their bargaining power and job security, and privatizing schools by stealth).
However, it seems as if Moreno wandered off script, faced with Francis’ enthusiasm for eliminating the public school system: When she suggested “blowing up” all traditional public schools and replacing them altogether with charter schools, he nodded and concurred.
Francis: “If you know the answer and you know what’s right for parents, why don’t you blow up the traditional schools and have more charter schools? You say yourself that you see the better results and that the problem here is the union. So why not take a stand and get rid of them right now?”
Moreno: “Right. Right. So we’re getting— We just got a new charter school. I have three in my ward. We are doing a turnaround at Clemente High School that has 3,000 seats. We’re only getting about 900 kids there now. … We know IB programs work. We know charter schools work. We have to move forward on that. We know turnaround schools work. We’re doing more and more and more of that in Chicago. If we don’t have a partner at the table that’s willing to be progressive…”
Let’s just repeat that: A Democratic Alderman, a “progressive” one no less, went on Fox Business to affirm the rabidly anti-union’s host’s desire to “blow up” the public schools in Chicago. Oh, and replace them with a model that has been shown to do no better, but pays teachers less and tends not to allow unions. We live, as the CTU strike is showing us daily, in extraordinary times. But this is still a remarkable development.
Moreno used to like to play at being a punk. Much like Paul Ryan (another opponent of the CTU strike), who declared Rage Against the Machine to be his favorite band only to receive a stern rebuke from Tom Morello (who has told the CTU to “Give em hell“), it may be time for Moreno to hear from some of his punk heroes. (Remember The Clash’s odes to siding with the bosses against the workers? Me neither. There may be some annoying libertarian punk precedents, but not many.)
And what about the “good” teachers, the ones Moreno likes, the ones not part of that mean old “conservative” union? Well, those charter school teachers who have won the considerable struggle to unionize in such a hostile environment say that the strike gives voice to their concerns, too.
Let’s suppose for a moment that Joe Moreno doesn’t hate all unions on principle. Let’s presume for a moment that high opinion of charter school teachers isn’t limited to those who haven’t been able to organize. Maybe he should listen to the ones who have?
By Joe Macaré