Renaissance 2010: From the Front Lines

A Film Review

Why are unions important anyway? 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 2010.

Produced from a desire to educate the general public on Ren 2010 and to motivate educators and citizens to get informed and to get 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, despite the suffocating sense of isolation and depoliticization that they often experience, can act as effective democratic agents. In this spirit, the film functions not only as a potent form of critical public pedagogy against the corporate domination of schools under Ren 2010, but also as an inspiring call to intervene and resist for those concerned with the struggle for democracy and equity in education.

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.

And 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. This is all made more urgent in an increasingly undemocratic climate where the push for deregulation and privatization is threatening not only hard fought union victories but the very future of unions.

From the Front Lines
then proceeds to outline the ideological and structural components of Renaissance 2010 and its impact on both the physical and social landscape of the schools and neighborhoods that it targets. Through interviews with educators, students, city officials, and community members interspersed with footage from around Chicago we are taken on an engaging educational journey to the front lines of the struggle to keep Chicago’s schools public, and its communities intact. The film vividly captures an urban mélange of school board meetings, union rally’s, school buildings both old and new, and the currently ubiquitous images of half finished high end condo’s 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.

For those not familiar with Renaissance 2010 the film does a superb job of elucidating the various strands of the policy. It skillfully locates the push for Renaissance 2010 in the desire of the cities elite class, spearheaded by Mayor Richard Daily 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, or to what some have referred to as “real estate anchors”.

From the Front Lines highlights that contrary to the slick obfuscating 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 which are primarily designed to inculcate the basic skills and the cultural codes necessary to become compliant labor in the new 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 reducing operating expenses 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 unionized, 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 in these schools 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 anyway? 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 in the city. 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 ineffectual over a policy direction that is a direct threat to the union itself, 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 present questions as to what kind of a role it will play as Ren 2010 alters the geography of education within the city. How long can teachers afford to wait to engage their union in order to steer it toward saving their schools and communities?

Renaissance 2010: From the Front Lines is a timely pedagogical intervention which provides an 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 through the hard work, energy, and vision it took to make this film. 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 and is currently a PhD student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. Read other articles by Alex, or visit Alex's website.

6 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. judith said on May 18th, 2007 at 11:06am #

    Where can I view this film? Is it available for loan or rent?

  2. George Schmidt said on May 21st, 2007 at 3:53am #

    We’re going to send a copy to everyone who subscribes to Substance newspaper for $25 or more. The money covers the cost of the movie and ten issues of Substance. Substance, 5132 W. Berteau, Chicago, IL 60641. No credit cards, checks only mail only.

  3. kelly said on May 21st, 2007 at 11:28am #

    I am ready to buy this. The union is the last option here.

  4. Erik Badger said on May 29th, 2007 at 7:21pm #

    We’ll be screening the film at the Ennui Cafe (6981 N. Sheridan Rd) on Thursday, June 14 at 7:30pm. Afterwards we’ll have a discussion with the filmmakers. Please come and bring your friends/colleagues/students. We hope to motivate people to become active about Ren2010.

    For more info, contact Erik at: moc.oohaynull@regdab_e.

  5. Monica said on June 3rd, 2007 at 11:29am #

    If (and this is a big if) I am allowed to post this review in my school do I have your permission to do so? I would also like to post the following:
    Screening of the film at the Ennui Cafe (6981 N. Sheridan Rd) on Thursday, June 14 at 7:30pm. Afterwards there will be a discussion with the filmmakers. Please come and bring your friends/colleagues/students. The hope is to motivate people to become active about Ren2010.
    By the way, have you informed the media about this event?

  6. Carrie said on September 9th, 2007 at 10:03pm #

    I’m a Seattle activist working on a campaign against privatization of public education and I’d like to buy a copy of this film asap. Would it be possible to get a copy by Friday Sept 14? I’ll pay for overnight shipping. Please help!! Thanks