Local and National Organizing by Radical Teachers: Substance News & The Rouge Forum

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #5 in October 2007]

A kindly first grade teacher is not most people’s idea of a revolutionary, but that may be because the radical history of teacher organizing has been forgotten. In Chicago during the early 1900s, teacher and activist Margaret Haley led a fight for teachers’ rights as Vice President of the Chicago Federation of Teachers (CFT) with help from militant labor leaders and allies like superintendent Ella Flagg Young. In those days, teacher organizing language was filled with declarations of class conflict and an assertion that teachers had nothing in common with the corporate bosses. Today, teachers’ unions are more conservative, adopting a business-friendly outlook and philosophy to match the emergence of neoliberal “global city” planning, such as the kind that has taken place in Chicago to the detriment of most workers. A “global city” is viewed as a major tourist venue as well as a hub of finance capital. Hallmarks of global cities include a large gap between highly paid and highly educated top tier workers and low-paid service industry working class. Despite these conditions, social class is barely mentioned as a pivotal organizing issue within the field of education.
However, radical teacher organizing is alive and well within the city of Chicago as documented bySubstance News and The Rouge Forum. Independently published for 30 years, Substance Newsis the only paper of its kind to feature investigative reporting on education in the city of Chicago. The Rouge Forum is a collective of radical educators, students, activists and interested citizens that has been in existence for nearly 10 years. It is an educational organization that connects standardized testing, the militarization of schools, the Iraq invasion, world poverty, Katrina’s aftermath, racism, sexism, homophobia, and religious irrationalism to the economic system of capitalism.
The philosophical thread that links both Substance News and The Rouge Forum is that of dialectical materialism. This means the ability to comprehend the world and to change it, rather than viewing human history as “out of our hands.” Both efforts directly challenge and critique capitalism, sharply contrasting with other liberal/progressive (often called “realistic”) educators and writers, who seek to reform capitalist schools by making them “kinder.” By not depending on grants, Substance News andThe Rouge Forum remain independent and refuse to support capitalism by operating on a “small business model.”
Rouge Forum members and Substance News columnists are outspokenly against standardized testing; both call for the abolition of No Child Left Behind, rather than reform of the more egregious aspects of the legislation. This is synonymous with a “Troops Out Now” position on Iraq, rather than coming up with more effective ways to redeploy forces in service of a nicer version of imperialism (as both political parties have continually advocated). Now more than ever it is important for educators to have radical networks to establish the international solidarity necessary to engage in class struggle with workers across the globe.

Substance News—
“Always About Justice. Always Will Be”

Substance News began in the mid-1970s as a tabloid publication emerging from the organizing of underpaid substitute teachers. It became an effective way to spread the word within the 600 public schools across the Chicago district and soon moved from the concerns of substitute teachers to an international analysis of the social forces operating on education. Substance’s founder and continuing editor, George Schmidt, was a teacher in the district who had previous experience writing for the G.I. resistance movement in subversive publications such as Vietnam G.I. and CAMP News.
Today, Substance continues its in-depth reporting, with articles written by teachers, some of whom have been with the paper throughout its 30 year history. This amazing staff of educators includes labor and anti-war activists, war veterans such as Al Korach, who helped integrate the U.S. Army and Harold Harris, an African-American who was part of the Nevada Flats/Atomic G.I. group who were forced to participate in nuclear testing as guinea pigs. The diversity of the writers’ perspectives and political views contributes to the longevity of this publication.
With few publishing options for radical educators and writers, papers such as Substance are often the only place for expressing their views. Schmidt describes, “We try to include a dialectical understanding of class and race, not so much in a cultural context, but economically.” Substance functions as a platform for teachers/workers who are often left out of academic research, which is structured (from literature review to peer review) to retain privilege and maintain ideological barriers, treating the existing economic system as a given. Schmidt maintains that “Some of the nicest people—the sensitive professors—are serving as gatekeepers… the dominant narrative of capital is locked in, while every other competing narrative is locked out.”


When I asked George to identify which of the educational issues/stories are the most important, he pinpointed testing, the international crimes of the AFL-CIO, racial segregation, and privatization.

—Testing. Schmidt outlines that “it is absolutely essential to the ruling class to establish a quantitative measure of ‘success’ or failure. To do that, the ruling class must fetishize high stakes multiple choice, machine scored, so-called ‘standardized’ secret tests.” Part of Substance’s job is “outing” the secret tests, so that parents, students, and even teachers will realize the fraud behind them. However, this is not without risk, as Schmidt discovered after publishing 6 out of 22 pilot Chicago Academic Standards Examinations (CASE tests) in 1999. The city of Chicago sued Substance for $1.4 million for copyright infringemen—this after the tests had been given to 100,000 high school students. WhileSubstance eventually lost their challenge in court (and Schmidt his teaching job), the fine was dropped—and so were the CASE tests! There is a lengthy account of the legal fight on Substance’s website which is worth a read in order to understand the costs and gains of resistance and radical action.

—AFL-CIO, AFT and the CIA. From the late 1970s to the early 1980s, Substance covered the involvement of the American Federation of Teachers in the war crimes committed by the CIAduring the Pinochet dictatorship. As Schmidt explains, “Many of the crimes of empire in those days were done because our own working class organizations were supporting empire, to the detriment of the working class both here, and especially there.” U.S. trade union representatives gave the Pinochet regime the names of leftist activists, “who were rounded up and in some cases murdered for their political work.” Of course, counter-revolutionary activity by labor unions is nothing new—the National Education Association willingly participated in red-baiting radical teachers during the McCarthyera, resulting in loss of jobs and blacklisting. Schmidt points out that the significance of Chile for education is that it became the test case for neo-liberal privatization, aimed at dismantling public schools. University of Chicago economists (“the Chicago Boys”) traveled to Chile to impose the free market theories of Milton Freidman, using a fascist dictatorship to do so. Neoliberal economists have recently visited New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina, assisting the ruling class in replacing the public schools there with charter schools.

—Racial Segregation.  According to Schmidt, more than 300 Chicago public schools have a 90-100% African-American student population with no white enrollment. This is an incredible figure for 2007. Schmidt continues, “You can drive 1,500 miles through the United States once you leave Chicago, go through five or six of the states of the old Confederacy, and not pass as many all-black, viciously segregated public schools as you can within the city limits of one huge ‘world class,’ Northern city.” The issue of racial segregation has a lot to do with gentrification and the forced relocation/concentration of lower income residents, many of whom are African-American and Latino. Yet the Chicago Public Schools are continually held up to be a successful example of neoliberal policy, particularly at educational conferences such as the American Educational Research Association. Substance has been there to provide an important counterpoint to the glowing reports of the success of standardized testing and charter schools.

—Privatization.  The assault on workers has only intensified in the past 20 years. Schmidt argues that Chicago is a case study in the after-effects of privatization, or the dismantling of public services. Part of what makes Chicago a more effective example is that unlike New Orleans, the privatization is disguised with misleading parks projects, real estate development, and an overall aesthetic prettiness that convinces the viewer that good things are happening. Unfortunately, privatization has been aided by unions, who Schmidt says have supported these efforts, “as long as the jobs being privatized weren’t Chicago Teachers’ Union jobs.” Substance News makes it a point to print the proceedings from every Chicago Teachers’ Union meeting along with monthly Board of Education meetings in order to inform readers of trends within and without union organizing.

The Rouge Forum—“Every Part Of The World Is Our Briar Patch”

According to founders and education professors Rich Gibson and Wayne Ross, The Rouge Forum began as a form of resistance to conservative ideology and left gate keeping within the National Council for the Social Studies, a professional organization for Social Studies educators. At one of the meetings, those bringing up pressing issues of human rights were told that “race and class have no place in a social studies conference.” Several professors walked out, among them Gibson and Ross. Not much later, they formed The Rouge Forum, a community for leftist educators to meet at various conferences. The Rouge Forum also holds its own conferences, providing important opportunities for radical educators and community activists to present their research and organize for action. The Rouge Forum works closely with Substance News—both Gibson and Ross are contributing writers on teacher unionization and neoliberalism and how it operates on the local level.
The Rouge Forum uses Marxist analysis to take on testing, militarization, privatization, and racial segregation.
The symbol for The Rouge Forum is Brer Rabbit, because he, according to their website, “underlines the good cheer that rightfully guides the struggle for justice.” An Internationalist organization, Rouge members consider this struggle to be global in nature: “Every part of the world is our briar patch.” Recently, Rouge members traveled to Oaxaca to assist the teachers there in their resistance to privatization and repression. Oaxacan teachers have been killed in their efforts to democratize the national teachers union in Mexico, which has a long history of being on the side of neoliberalism and punishing dissident educators (The documentary Granito de Arena outlines this history quite vividly). While Chicago teachers do not experience the same level of repression, the ultimate vision of privatization is the same for all cities across the globe.
Membership in Rouge is free and open to everyone interested in change for social justice rather than for increased profits. Plans are also in the works to organize a local chapter in Chicago, so that different parts of the country (and the globe) can provide local resources to educational activists. The website features a wealth of scholarly writings, curriculum materials and ideas, and anti-war information. Their Petition Against the Big Tests is a fantastic manifesto against the racist use of standardized exams.

Conclusion—Strategies For Resistance

Both Substance News and The Rouge Forum outline similar tactics that must be used if educators and other activists are interested in ending capitalism. Schmidt calls for militant unions, shaping the formation of a true socialist political party, rather than working within the existing structures of theDemocratic Party or relying on the Green and other so-called ‘progressive’ parties that propose leaving the system of capitalism intact. He believes that the working class has to be a unified force rather than a group that is continually divided by immigration, race, religion, and sexual orientation.
Looking toward the future, Schmidt believes that “finance capital has to be a target of the working class today as clearly as the great industries of the past.” One symbolic manifestation of this resistance was last year’s enormous May Day demonstrations, where mostly immigrant workers marched past major banks and insurance companies. The banks and insurance companies are today’s railroad and steel barons and the working class has to be ready for more overt methods of repression, both physically and legally. Recent protests at the G8 Summits have to occur more often, and yes, this might mean more militant action. Teachers need to echo this militancy.

Radical Education Sources

Substance News is published monthly, except in July and August. Subscriptions are $16.00 per year. Write to: Substance 5132 W. Berteau, Chicago, IL 60641-1440. http://www.substancenews.com

The Rouge Forum’s website is http://www.rougeforum.org. It is updated and archived weekly. You can join an online discussion group by clicking on the link on the website.

The Educator Roundtable features information on the abolition of No Child Left Behind and standardized testing, along with a petition to sign. http://www.educatorroundtable.org/

Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies is a peer reviewed radical education e-journal out of the U.K. founded by Marxist professors Dave Hill and Mike Cole. http://www.jceps.com/

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