Features » June 14, 2016
Meet the New Leader of Chicago’s Principals Who’s Taking on Rahm Emanuel and Corporate School Reform
Troy LaRaviere is an award-winning educator and a fierce critic of Emanuel’s education agenda. Bernie Sanders has his back—and he’s not closing the door on a run for mayor.
"Rahm Emanuel’s administration has an unhealthy obsession with redirecting our tax dollars toward people who don’t need them—the wealthy interests that support them. Anything that gets in the way of that—my work, the work of others—is a target."
The Chicago Board of Education suspended Blaine Elementary Principal Troy LaRaviere without explanation on April 20. The ouster did not go over well. Supporters held rallies throughout the city. Chicago newspapers ran editorials blasting the board. And Bernie Sanders issued a statement defending LaRaviere, blaming “[Mayor] Rahm Emanuel’s unhealthy obsession with revenge.”
Why so much uproar over one public school principal? LaRaviere is no ordinary educator. Besides his stellar record at Blaine, he has made a name as a vocal critic of the pro-corporate education policies of Emanuel and the mayor's hand-picked school board. LaRaviere endorsed Emanuel’s 2015 challenger, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, as well as Bernie Sanders earlier this year. In a powerful ad for Sanders, LaRaviere states, “the chief politician standing in the way of us getting good schools is our mayor.”
When the list of charges against LaRaviere was finally released, it included rejecting standardized testing mandates and “improper political activity.” His fellow principals apparently weren’t bothered, electing him on May 19 to head the citywide Principals and Administrators Association with an overwhelming two-thirds of the vote.
In These Times sat down with LaRaviere at a coffee shop in his Lakeview neighborhood to discuss his recent election, top-down school reform and rumors of a mayoral run.
Many viewed your election as a referendum on Emanuel’s education agenda. Were you surprised by the outcome?
I wouldn’t have been surprised either way. Before I was asked to run, I didn’t see myself as a representative of principals—I saw myself as a principal who has both a bird’s-eye view and an on-the-ground view of education policy. People were being misled on the impact of this administration’s policies and the people who have the best position to inform people—us principals—weren’t saying anything. So I saw myself as one principal doing what I could to inform the public.
I didn’t know if it was going to be worth the time to try to invest in organizing principals or continue to do my thing on my own. I was called by four or five different principals—members of the Association—right before the nomination. I didn’t intend on running before then. You know who the first person to suggest I run was? [Former Chicago Public Schools CEO] Paul Vallas.
I was on a City Club panel with him last August. Three days before, we met in a downtown law office with other members of the panel. When I walked in, Paul was there and he said: “Troy.” I was like, “Paul Vallas knows me?” After we finished the meeting, he stuck around and talked to me for almost an hour. He seemed very interested in my work. He made the suggestion that I run. He said, “I think you can do a lot with that office.”
I didn’t decide to take the plunge until those members called me. I had already been effective at getting my own voice heard. I accepted the nomination in order to get the voices of all principals heard. They nominated me and voted that day. Ken Hunter was nominated and I was nominated. I won the vote 6 to 4. So I was the board’s nominee. Ken decided to petition to get on the ballot for the general election. So we actually had two competitions for this presidency.
One you initially won out with the board, and then you get an overwhelming vote from the membership.
And here’s the craziest thing: There’s been a lot of talk about me running for mayor. You know who the very first person to ask me to run for mayor was? Ken Hunter.
This was back in the spring of 2014. Bob Fioretti and a bunch of then-Chicago mayoral candidates reached out to me. [Chicago Teachers Union President] Karen Lewis wasn’t a candidate but she reached out. Karen was really cool about it, she didn’t ask for anything. Everybody else wanted something. There’s nothing wrong with that, “Can you speak at this event?” Can you come here?” But Karen was just very supportive, she didn’t ask for anything.
Fioretti asked me to come to a progressive caucus fundraiser where Howard Dean was going to be. So I came and was introduced to Ken Hunter. He was sitting at a table and I sat down and he asked, “so are you running for mayor or what?” Those were the first words out of his mouth. This was before Chuy had jumped in the race. He talked to me about all these positives, “you’re articulate, black, handsome, etc.,” ticking off boxes, really trying to convince me to run for mayor. The idea that he and I would end up running for this office against each other—my life is surreal.
In a 2014 op-ed for the Chicago Sun Times, you wrote to educators who were fearful of losing their jobs if they spoke out, referencing your Navy service: “I did not travel across an ocean and risk my life to defend American freedoms only to return and relinquish those freedoms to an elected official and his appointed board of education.” The school board has now removed you as a principal, yet your fellow principals voted for you. Do you feel vindicated?
I’ll feel vindicated when we have a great school system that uses evidence to organize and reform the schools rather than ideology. I’ll feel vindicated when we put world-class resources behind the rhetoric of a world-class school system. The things we need to do to create a great school system are simple. They just take some political will.
At Blaine we were one of only four schools in the city—four schools—out of 650-something, to have had the kind of consistency in raising student achievement that got us the top two mayors awards three years in a row. Now, I would love to be able to say: “Man, this happened because I’m just awesome. I came in with all these innovative ideas.” But that’s bullshit. You know what I did? I just looked at the research. And I implemented it. It was that simple. The research goes against this wave of ideology that’s overtaken our school system. The ideology says choice and selective enrollment. But the research says that if you have a curriculum gap, then you’re going to guarantee you have an achievement gap.
You’ve said that op-ed changed your life. How so?
Once I got the job at Blaine, for the first two years all that I did was focus on creating a great school. I didn’t get involved in any kind of politics. I sat and endured this administration quietly like every other principal in this city.
But while I was trying to do the things that got Blaine where it was, there was one bad decision after another by this administration. The Aramark contract [privatizing custodial duties at CPS schools], the ridiculousness of the longer school day and how that was handled, hearing that network chief tell us “you don’t get to have a say, you don’t get to have an opinion, that’s the board’s opinion.”
So I wrote the op-ed, and the response was just incredible. You’ve got to remember, I’m just this dude who worked his way up from 43rd street. All of a sudden, there are all these reporters trying to talk to me, one thing after another. It was overwhelming, people expressing all this hope, in me, in what I wrote.
There was a line in the op-ed that said that whenever this administration did something that misleads the people, we need to get up and set the record straight. That goes back to my seeing myself as someone who is an instrument of democracy.
That’s how that changed my life—it was the catalytic event in which I gave myself the responsibility of informing the public.
CPS is facing a steep budget crisis at the moment. Will the school system be able to survive?
We certainly can survive, but only if we learn the lessons of how we got here. We have seen completely reckless, irresponsible, incompetent management of money. We have contracts [with private companies] like SUPES, Aramark, Sodexo. Any plan to get us out of here has to put in safeguards so that kind of reckless spending cannot happen again.
We also failed to generate adequate revenue. So any solution has to involve generating new revenue.
City Treasurer Kurt Summers recently lent his support to the Chicago Teachers Union’s plan to sue the banks, like Bank of America, that knowingly sold junk derivatives deals to the school system, costing the district $228 million in penalties. Do you support that strategy?
We have to push the idea of suing the banks. It keeps how we got into this mess in the public eye. The city can also enter into agreements with CPS to pick up expenses currently being covered by the school board [such as pension payments], freeing up funds for schools and classrooms. Then there are the typical revenue ideas being mentioned: sales of services, a financial transactions tax.
But one thing that I’m not impressed with is that I haven’t heard anything about revenue coming from the Treasurer Kurt Summers’ office. But now he’s talking about suing the banks? Where was he two years ago before the city decided to pay these banks? Now that they’ve paid everything, he wants to sue them. It seems like a political stunt: Pay all the money first, then ask to sue, after being in office two years. I don’t accept anything he says [about suing banks] as being done with any kind of sincerity whatsoever. But I do support the idea itself.
You cut ads for Chicago mayoral candidate Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and Bernie Sanders. CPS cited this in its rationale for suspending you. Do you agree with Sanders that Emanuel has an “unhealthy obsession with revenge”?
Rahm Emanuel’s administration has an unhealthy obsession with redirecting our tax dollars toward people who don’t need them—the wealthy interests that support them. Anything that gets in the way of that—my work, the work of others—is a target.
Does Mayor Emanuel have a political future in Chicago?
No. I think he knows he has no future. More importantly, the people who support him and the institutions that undergird him—Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, real estate developers—know he has no future, which means they must begin to look elsewhere.
What kind of leadership does Chicago need?
I think we need someone who has a very clear sense of the problem and a very clear sense of how to solve it. Most importantly, we need someone who can communicate that to residents, to students, to parents, to community members. We need someone who can help raise the political IQ of the entire city, so that, when they’re gone, we’re left with a populace that can make better decisions.
Are you considering a run for mayor yourself?
I consider it every time someone asks me, but I have no plans to run, no exploratory committee, nobody looking into it.
What made you support Sanders?
Bernie Sanders woke me up from a deep sleep. I think he woke a lot of us up from a deep sleep. He woke us up the way Donald Trump woke up racists. Bernie has made it OK to believe. We had accepted the idea that a country that works for everybody is not possible, and kept our conversations aligned with the mainstream—“get what you can get,” “lesser of two evils.” All my life, that has been the conversation.
He just blew that out of the water: “We can have a system where everybody has access to healthcare, that everybody should have public college at no cost.” Wow, you can say that and not be ridiculed.
This campaign has brought out one absolutely horrid, racist subculture. It's also brought out this other, hopeful, democratic-leaning subculture.
What do you see as the legacy of Sanders’ campaign?
We can’t go back. The conversation in the American political landscape will never be the same. He has clearly identified, more than anyone else, the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few who use that wealth to corrupt our political system.
That message can manifest itself all across the county. It’s going to manifest itself in the next mayoral campaign. What Bernie has said is a word-for-word description of what ails Chicago. The mayor’s office is the embodiment, and now we have the language to talk about it. There’s groundwork you don’t have to do in this city because of Bernie.
The CTU has said it may strike early next year. If teachers do walk out, will you join them on the picket line as you’ve done in the past?
It depends on the issues they’re striking for. The last strike was about funding. This district is not doing what it needs to do to generate revenue. I support that, so I supported that strike. I would imagine that the goals and objectives of the union, should they strike, would be aligned with my beliefs. But I have to wait and see.
What is the biggest challenge facing urban education in America?
There’s a three-part answer to that. First is the national attempt to profit from public education. “Altruistic” capitalists have decided the trillions of dollars that governments spend on education are a source of great profit. They realized that in order to get access to that money you have to convince the population that schools are failing. Then you can come in with a solution that you can be paid for. Charters are a part of that. They see our schools as profit centers.
Part two is that the reforms they’ve implemented have no evidence base whatsoever. What other realm of human activity would accept that? If you go to a doctor and he tells you he wants to remove your appendix in the most original manner possible, I highly recommend you go to another doctor.
Part three is that the reforms don’t draw any attention to what happens to students before they reach school. If we want students to reach their full potential, the foundation of that potential is created from conception to 5 years old. A kid walks into kindergarten in a poor community four years behind peers in a high-income community. How the hell can it be the fault of the school that that gap exists on day one?
Most students were failed by the business and political community long before they ever reached a school, and the people in the political community want to blame the school for not compensating for their failure. We have to create a system that delivers children to the classroom ready to learn. That means—among other things—creating jobs that give parents the income and time off they need to make sure their kids are more academically prepared.
What advice would you give to educators nervous about speaking out?
Unite. I was out here on my own, I took a lot of risks on my own. I don’t know if I would recommend that to my colleagues. Unite and create a common voice. It’s easy to pick people off in isolation, but it’s damn near impossible to pick them off when they’re united.
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Miles Kampf-Lassin, a graduate of New York University's Gallatin School in Deliberative Democracy and Globalization, is a Web Editor at In These Times. He is a Chicago based writer. email@example.com @MilesKLassin