Chicago City Colleges Take Corporate Turn, While Unions and Students Fight Back

Candice Bernd

CHICAGO—As corporate executives continue to be brought in to replace formal educators in the Chicago City College’s (CCC) system and on the CCC’s Board of Trustees, the education transformation promised by the “Reinvention” initiative is continuing to prove itself as a business co-opt of education started under former Mayor Richard Daley, and being escalated under Rahm Emanuel. Six presidents of Chicago’s City Colleges are being fired and replaced, after the board rewrote their roles and duties, and gave them no time to adjust to the changes before firing them. Board Chancellor Cheryl Hyman says that CCC has created an advisory committee, with the input of staff, faculty and students, that will make decisions about CCC leadership. But community activists, students and teachers unions are pushing back with direct action and possibly legal action, saying they weren’t listened to in the first place.Members of American Federation of Teachers Locals 1708 and 1600 picketed outside the CCC District Office in downtown Thursday, June 16, calling for the rehiring of the six presidents and an elected Board of Trustees. The unions are also calling for a forensic audit of the money that has been poured into Reinvention as well as all expenditures of the District Office since Hyman’s appointment.“This is about private corporations owning the education process,” Activist Lel Onyeali said. Community organizers jam-packed the Board of Trustees meeting to publicly address board members about Reinvention and its consequences. Reverend Paul Jakes Jr. of New Tabernacle Faith Baptist’s Westside congregation, told the board Thursday that a coalition of lawyers are ready to file a lawsuit if the board’s actions are found to violate the Shakman decree, which prohibits the hiring and firing of government employees based on political affiliation.“You don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater,” Reverend Jakes told the board. “Can I get an Amen?”The CCC Board points to low enrollment rates and low graduation rates to justify the firings of the six presidents, and union members are asking them to show the facts.Delores Withers, who is the president of the Federation of College, Clerical and Technical Personnel Local 1708, says that until the current summer semester, CCC was actually seeing an increase in enrollment rates. She says you can’t compare graduation rates of CCC to those of other four-year universities because the demographics of students are much different. The adult student population at CCC is much higher than in four-year universities, and many of these students don’t intend on graduating when they register for classes, Withers said. Withers said that when Chancellor Hyman was appointed, the union was warned of more than 300 job eliminations with Reinvention, but there was no mention of all the hiring that she would do at the top.“We’re sitting in a situation now where the top becomes so heavy that there are no workers,” Withers said. “There won’t be a college system, there will only be over-rated, over-hired, over-priced administrators.”Local 1708 has been locked in negotiation with the district for about a year. Withers said a new business-model has been emerging within the district that sees no place for the union within CCC and is seeking to abolish the union, along with jobs and contract benefits. Chancellor Hyman is a Commonwealth Edison executive with no background in education. She has spent more than $300,000 to replace CCC presidents; money that students say could have been used for scholarships.Proposals are on the table that would get rid of many college names, including Harold Washington, Kennedy-King, Malcom X and Olive-Harvey, and centralize the system into one entity. The board also wants to raise tuition and narrow open-enrollment, minimizing some of the only opportunities for higher education for many people in Chicago. Vivian Moreno, a student at Wilbur-Wright College and a member of Students for a Democratic Society, said Chairman Martin Cabrera promised a hearing with students, faculty and staff to address their concerns. More than 70 people showed up for the scheduled meeting when they were told it had been canceled. Moreno says the student activities fee, a part of the tuition at Wright, was originally managed by the college’s Student Government Association, but now has been moved off campus and taken into district as part of more centralization efforts. “We won’t see that money,” she said. “Working class students are now directly paying for a crisis that we did not create.”Millions of dollars has been spent on a PR campaign for Reinvention, claiming that CCC have failed and that drastic budget cuts are needed. The PR campaign is part of the national trend of teacher-blaming, the real aim of which is the move towards charter schools. The firings come as Gov. Quinn recently signed an education overhaul bill into law Monday that makes it easier to fire teachers and harder for them to strike, while lengthening the school day—a promise of the Emanuel campaign.

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Candice Bernd is an editor and staff reporter at Truthout. Her work has also appeared in several other publications, including The Nation, In These Times, the Texas Observer, Salon, Rewire.News, YES! Magazine and Earth Island Journal, as well as in Truthouts anthology on police violence, Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect? She received two awards from the San Francisco Press Club in November 2018, and the Dallas Peace and Justice Center’s annual journalism award in December 2016. Follow her on Twitter: @CandiceBernd.
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