Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Chicago Fire

There is a destructive fire raging across the south side of the city. The city doesn't have a fire department, because that would be big government inefficiency.  The janitors who work in that part of the city are  having a hard time of it, going in every day to clean floors that are liable to be burning to a crisp.  As for the people who live in that part of town, they are suffering as grievously as you might expect. Early death, terror, family breakdown, and so on.  The people on the north side of the city are intermittently annoyed by the mess across town; when they notice what's going on, they blame the residents or the janitors.

The new mayor, a rich banker who lives in a mansion in a neighborhood far, far from the fire, ran his campaign largely on janitorial reform.  He tells the janitors that they are failing and tries to break their union.  The mayor says things like, "Even people who live on the south side must have clean houses, and these janitors aren't doing their jobs!"  While he talks, the south side continues to burn.  He switches janitors from building to building, but the fires go on.  He gives people vouchers to hire new janitors, but the fires go on.

The mayor passes a new law that requires the janitor's union to have 75% of its members vote for a strike, instead of the customary simple majority; janitorial reform groups, most of which have been bankrolled by billionaires, assert gleefully that this is an insuperable bar.  The billionaires continue to opine that the sufferings of the people who live on the south side would be greatly relieved if only the janitors would try to sweep a little more scientifically in the buildings that the billionaires don't mention are burning down around them.

Armed with this new law, the mayor then rescinds a cost of living raise and institutes new evaluation procedures for the janitors.  If their buildings burn down while they are cleaning them, they will be fired.  Faced with impossible working conditions and a rolling back of their hard-won rights, the janitor's union recommends a strike, and over 90% of the membership votes yes.

Across the country, pundits and news outlets that have largely ignored the fire itself, which has been burning for years, become fascinated by the labor dispute. The New York Times runs an editorial judiciously blaming both sides, and its columnists write that the janitorial union has to get with the program, since other countries don't have as many dirty buildings.  The columnists usually mention the children who live in the dirty buildings, and they usually mention Finland, but they don't mention that Finland doesn't have vast fires raging out of control in over 20% of the buildings children live in.

Amazingly, the janitors stand firm, and the strike is resolved.  The fires continue to burn, and the children continue to suffer. Why can't we see that poverty and inequality are like vast fires consuming our children and our souls?

A few snapshots:

Of the City of Chicago's 400,000 schoolchildren, 85% are low-income.

The child poverty rate in the US is over 20%.  In Finland it is about 5%.

In US schools with less than 10% low-income students, reading scores on the PISA test are much higher than those of Finland as a whole, which has a child poverty rate of about 5%.

Breast cancer mortality rates on the south side of Chicago are twice as high as those on the north side, and there are three times as many free mammography clinics on the north side as on the south side.


  1. Who let Jonathan Swift into Leafstrewn?
    Today's blog is LOL funny, but not funny at all. Last night, Linda Darling-Hammond, Stanford school of education professor, went up against some conservative think-tank (oxymoron) wonk. She was spot on about the preposterousness of schools and teachers being expected to alleviate poverty. Additionally, she spoke about the severe limitations of the tests many states are using to evaluate students. School systems tying teacher evaluations to test scores on lousy tests: a bankrupt idea. With unmasked cynicism, the conservative wonk suggested that for evaluation purposes perhaps teachers would welcome the chance to teach struggling students because those students have the most ground to make up; therefore, their teachers would have a greater span of possibilities in which to show progress. Logical: no. Good reason for teachers to choose to work with struggling students: no. An answer for American education: no.