An estimated 26,000 public school teachers are on strike in Chicago – the first such action in the city for 25 years.

In Chicago and beyond, public school teachers say they are being attacked by the policies of both of the main political parties.

"When you look at the [various foundations] it's clear that there is a very explicit agenda driven by a lot of very wealthy people often from the hedge fund and tech industries …there is probably a lot of good intent but also a very narrow worldview..."

- Robin Rogers, an associate professor of sociology

They are locked in a dispute with administrators over issues that include pay, work conditions, job security and teacher evaluations.

The action represents a challenge for Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago and former chief of staff to Barack Obama, the US president. He has made changing the city's school system a top priority of his time in office, wanting more private sector involvement.

But the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) says Emanuel's policies have led to job losses and "the destruction of neighbourhood schools". It also accuses him of vilifying teachers.

At a CTU rally in May, Karen Lewis, the union's president, explained how she views the issue of school reform: "Some people don't believe me that this is a national fight. All across this country teachers, commissions and para-professionals are fighting failed, status-quo reforms.

"School districts have become emboldened, and what have they done? They have been emboldened because rich people are now writing the laws, rich people who never send their children to public schools are making the policies."

"The teaching evaluation question is tied very much to this tremendous and destructive emphasis that is put on standardised tests …[these] are very poorly designed, they really don't measure value of learning and now [they] are being used for closing schools, for evaluating teachers."

- Joanne Barkan, a writer for Dissent magazine

The drive to privatise public schools is not confined to Chicago, it is happening across the US. And what was once a firmly Republican policy is now championed by Democrats all the way up to the president.

It is also being pushed by billionaire philanthropist groups such as the Bill Gates Foundation, who believe schools should be run more like businesses.

Wealthy donors are also channelling funds to Hollywood, which has produced several films including the soon-to-be-released Won't Back Down, which teachers accuse of demonising their profession and union.

In this episode of Inside Story: US 2012 we ask: Should US schools be run like businesses?

Joining the discussion with presenter Shihab Rattansi are guests: Joanne Barkan, a writer on education for Dissent magazine, Robin Rogers, an associate professor of sociology at the City University of New York and an expert on the role of billionaire philanthropy in shaping public policy; and Matthew Chingos, a fellow at the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC.

"There's legitimate debates to be had around how to [evaluate teachers]…[but] it's progress to go from a time when basically schools did what they wanted, how to guarantee customer base, to go towards something where the system has to pay some attention to quality."

Matthew Chingos, a fellow at the Brookings Institution


  • A Charter school is a publicly-funded school that is established independently of a local school board by teachers, community groups or private companies, and because they receive taxpayer funding they must comply with certain state and local regulations.
  • But they have more freedom over curriculum and hiring practices, and are not required to join existing union collective bargaining agreements.
  • The first Charter school opened in 1991, and now there are an estimated 5,600 across the US, educating more than two million students.
  • A study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University found that 17 per cent of Charter schools outperformed their public school equivalents, 37 per cent performed worse and 46 per cent were about the same.
  • In addition, 10 states and the District of Columbia operate school voucher schemes where about 170,000 low-income children are given vouchers which give them the option to receive their education outside the public school system.
  • US President Barack Obama has not expanded the voucher programme but Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has made it an important plank of his education policy.

Source: Al Jazeera