Renaissance 2010: From the Front Lines

hy are unions important? This is the question that Jackson Potter and
Albert Ramirez, two Chicago Public School teachers, explore in their independently
produced documentary on Chicago’s flagship school policy known as Renaissance

Produced from a desire to educate the general public on Ren 2010 and to
motivate educators and citizens to get informed and involved, the film
succeeds as much more than a simple defense of unions—in actuality both
directors are highly critical of the political inertia and partisan infighting
of the Chicago Teacher’s Union. What the film ends up demonstrating—aside
from the undemocratic, anti-union, and socially destructive character of
Ren 2010—is that ordinary rank and file educators have the capacity to
use their creativity and insider perspectives to form dynamic critiques
of the system. Moreover, while simultaneously challenging their audience
to get out and “do something,” the directors show that regular folks like
themselves, can act as effective democratic agents. In this spirit, the
film functions as an inspiring call to intervene and resist. 

Renaissance 2010: From the Front Lines begins with a fictitious scene that
playfully features the directors in their natural habitat. We see a tired
looking teacher at work in his classroom hunched over a pile of papers,
slogging through the days marking, when a colleague shows up and invites
him to a union meeting. The teacher’s response is weighted with the frustration
felt by many educators regarding their position in the system. He declines
the invitation as he wonders aloud what difference his presence at the
union meeting would make. In response his interlocutor also begins to wonder
about the purpose of the union. 

With this the documentary begins in earnest by transporting us to a colorful
Chicago Federation of Labor meeting complete with a union mime and a pro-union
Uncle Sam who declares that “What’s good for the country is what’s good
for the people.” 

The diverse assortment of commentators at the union meeting speak to the
need for an apparatus which can collectively bargain, ensure a living wage,
protect benefits, and provide a democratic space which guarantees the right
of workers to be heard. 

From the Front Lines then outlines Renaissance 2010 and its impact on both
the physical and social landscape of the schools and neighborhoods. Through
interviews with educators, students, city officials, and community members
interspersed with footage from around Chicago, the film vividly captures
an urban mélange of school board meetings, union rallies, school buildings
both old and new, and the currently ubiquitous images of half finished
high end condos juxtaposed against the last remnants of vanishing public
and low income housing in the vast tracts of rapidly appreciating land
in Chicago’s south and west side neighborhoods. 

The film skillfully locates the push for Renaissance 2010 in the desire
of the cities elite class, spearheaded by Mayor Richard Daley and his corporate
partners at the Commercial Club of Chicago, to use school closings as a
lever for privatizing public education as well to gentrify some of Chicago’s
poorest and historically most neglected communities. We learn that Ren
2010 has been designed to close schools in these targeted neighborhoods
and to reopen them, or “flip” them, as mainly charter and contract schools—to
what some have referred to as “real estate anchors.” 

From the Front Lines highlights that, contrary to the slick language used
by its proponents, such as Chicago school CEO Arne Duncan, Ren 2010 is
not about serving the interests of kids at targeted schools, but about
serving a population of students that the city anticipates moving into
these neighborhoods as they gentrify. In the film, University of Illinois
Chicago Professor David Stovall suggests that Ren 2010 “is really about
moving the undesirables out and moving the target population in and giving
them new schools in the process.” While their schools are closed these
“undesirables” are being steered into increasingly crowded container schools
to the detriment of both those who are relocated and the original students
at these schools. These receiving schools are effectively becoming warehouses
for dislocated students and centers of heightened gang tension as well
as increased police surveillance and control. 

According to the film, the policy is designed to serve the interests of
Chicago’s business elite in at least two fundamental ways. First, Ren 2010
is part of a policy web that sets up schools that are primarily designed
to give the basic skills and cultural codes necessary to work in the neoliberal
urban information and service economy. Second, Renaissance 2010 institutionalizes
the neoliberal push for cost effectiveness, leanness, and efficiency. The
drive for charter and contract schools fits the ideological map of neoliberalism
by paying lower wages to teachers and auxiliary employees, limiting special
educational services, slashing extra-curricular activities, favoring assimilation
over bilingual education, providing less money per pupil, and by recruiting
and hiring less experienced first and second year teachers to further reduce
payroll. Teachers in these schools are not allowed to unionize, are required
to negotiate their salaries individually, can be fired at any time, and
are required to work longer hours than their public school counterparts.
As a result, teacher turnover is incredibly high creating deficits in “institutional
memory” which hinder the development of community in these schools and
fails to give the students the kind of adult consistency that youth so
desperately need. 

So why are unions important? With over 30,000 members, the Chicago Teachers
Union has the potential to lead the fight for preserving public education
and for helping make it the center of a project of democracy building.
But even as control over the Chicago Public Schools has become increasingly
wrested from teachers and communities and consolidated under mayoral and
corporate control, the teachers union remains politically ineffective over
a policy direction that is a direct threat to the union, as well as the
public schools and students it represents. By no means does the film suggest
that unions are the only answer to reclaiming schools in the public interest.
But it does question what kind of a role it will play as Ren 2010 alters
the geography of education. How long can teachers afford to wait to steer
their union toward saving their schools? 

Renaissance 2010: From the Front Lines is a timely intervention which provides
oppositional and critical language for a policy whose narrative has thus
far been primarily shaped by the interests of Chicago’s corporate elite.
But the film is more than a critical intervention and a call to action;
it is a reminder of how dedicated, creative, and talented our teachers
are even in the face of a system that provides ample amounts of top down
control and surveillance but very little support for their ideas or recognition
for their service. Jackson Potter and Albert Ramirez are to be commended
for the dedication they have shown to their students, fellow teachers,
and communities. Here’s hoping it inspires a diverse and receptive audience
to intervene, educate, and resist in the interests of equity and democracy.


Alex Means is a former Chicago school teacher.