October 7, 2015; Chicago Reader

The essence of an effective civil society in the U.S. is so much more than people working in 501(c)(3) organizations. It also takes individuals of courage willing to stand up to institutions of power and tell them the truth about the way things are.

In Chicago, an award-winning retiring school principal did just that. Elizabeth Heurtefeu, the principal of the LaSalle Language Academy, a magnet school on Chicago’s North Side, gave a speech at a ceremony in honor of the school’s winning a National Blue Ribbon Schools Program award from the U.S. Department of Education. In the ceremony were Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the new CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, Forrest Claypool. Heurtefeu’s speech was apparently a gem of a political flea-flicker as she unexpectedly upbraided the Emanuel/Claypool political agenda with a gracious manner and charming smile.

A language teacher, Heurtefeu opened her speech with greetings in six languages, but then she turned to Claypool: “I’m going to make a plea not to cut any more language positions in the future,” she said. “Mr. Claypool—deal?” What a move! She extended her hand to Claypool, and Claypool, sort of stuck for what to do, took it. “That’s a deal,” she said as the cameras captured the moment. “And we have seen it.” So now Claypool, who has threatened to fire 5,000 teachers if the teacher’s union doesn’t accept a new contract with a seven percent pay cut, has been put in the awkward position of promising, at least for language teaching positions, no additional cuts.

“I wanted to be a little political,” she explained to the Chicago Reader’s Ben Joravsky later. “I think I was speaking for many principals who can’t speak up.”

Later in the talk, Joravsky reported, Heurtefeu denounced school privatization, which in Chicago at this moment is manifest in the issue of charter schools. The CPS website identifies 60 charter elementary schools and 70 charter high schools in addition to 11 “contract schools” operated by private entities currently within the school system. It seems that most members of the Chicago City Council are in favor of a one-year moratorium on the establishment of new charter schools, but Joravsky reports that Alderman Will Burns, the chair of the Council’s education committee, didn’t put the resolution on the committee agenda earlier this week. Burns, Joravsky notes, is an ally of Mayor Emanuel, the implication being that the mayor may not be supportive of the notion of a charter school moratorium. An article in Progress Illinois indicates that Burns himself is a charter school advocate and has received campaign donations from charter supporters.

Unlike the attendees at the NCRP debate on market approaches to school reform, Chicago schools’ advocates are hardly agnostic on the issue. A recent CPS hearing on the possibility of a KIPP charter school in West Garfield Park produced strong feelings from supporters and opponents, including charges that charters siphon off resources from traditional schools and contentions that a public school (Orr Academy) that was being asked to share space with KIPP’s program (the Noble Street Academy) should not co-locate with “a school that will aid in the shutdown of another.” It is no surprise that the Chicago Teachers Union is a supporter of the moratorium proposal and working with the Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education coalition on education policy issues.

Heurtefeu may have taken her oratorical stroll across the landscape of Rahm Emanuel’s school privatization and teacher layoff policies of her own accord. In many instances, civic activism doesn’t need to be scripted by the organizing experts. Sometimes, expressing ideas from the heart, as Heurtefeu did, is immensely powerful, especially when powerbrokers like Emanuel and Claypool have to grimly sit and listen—or, like Claypool, shake their critic’s hand.—Rick Cohen