Matt Farmer

Portrait Image

location

Chicago, IL

age

47

occupation

Attorney, Activist, Musician, Huffington Post Contributor

interview date

06/06/2012

“We raised hell. We fought a good fight.”

INTRO

Matt tells me about his efforts as a concerned Chicago Public Schools parent and a lawyer to address what he sees as significant inequities in system. He also talks what he is trying to teach his young daughter about the issues and how to fight back.

PROLOGUE

Born in Chicago, I spent most of my childhood in the Chicagoland area. I’m the oldest of five boys. My dad dropped dead when I was 14, left a widowed mom who was 37. So we had our challenges growing up. I earned a college scholarship to Northwestern University as a golf caddy, as did two of my brothers.

I play music in my spare time, and I write frequently about education related issues in my spare time as well. I’ve been writing for Huffington Post for about three years. I’ve practiced law for about 20 years. Based in Chicago, I litigate all over the country.

I’ve got two daughters, both of whom attended Chicago Public Schools[CPS]. The oldest is 20 years old, and she’s in college now. The youngest, Samantha, is finishing fourth grade; she’s ten. She’s at a school called Edison Regional Gifted Center in Chicago. She took a test when she was four years old, went down to IIT. It’s just an absolutely absurd process.

So they decide within a matter of about 20 minutes, with your kid in a room somewhere, whether she’s going to score well enough to essentially be placed into a jewel of a school for the next nine years. It’s a completely aberrational experience with respect to Chicago Public Schools. Both of my kids were lucky enough to have those types of experiences. We have very little to worry about.

I

I think I started getting my hands dirty with the folks downtown in Chicago Public Schools when my youngest kid’s school was at issue. Back in January 2008, I started hearing rumors that my daughter, who was in kindergarten, was going to have her school moved across town by Arne Duncan, who was then running Chicago Public Schools.

Being the polite, good lawyer I was and the father I was, I called up Mr. Duncan’s office and said, “I’ve heard these rumors. Is this true?” Nobody returned my calls. I emailed polite emails, nobody returned my emails. So then I started writing some more stinging pieces and copying members of the media that I didn’t know, but people I respected as writers and troublemakers, folks like Ben Joravsky [Chicago Reader].

I started trying to get them interested in this story about whether Duncan could just up and move a school without really giving notice to parents and do it after a time when a deadline for kids taking tests in Chicago to move to another school has already passed, essentially ensuring a captive audience for his move next year. Couple of the reporters got interested in the story, and then, lo and behold, one of them called me and said, “Yeah. We’re down in CPS, and he [Duncan] says there are plans to move the kids’ school.

So I marshaled a bunch of parents who I didn’t even know — about 150 parents — and went to the board of ed meeting. We brought about five TV crews with us, and I got a story placed in the Tribune and a story on public radio. We raised hell. We fought a good fight.

We knew it was a done deal, though. We figured out that with Chicago Public Schools, when they decide to do something, it generally happens. What I learned in that process was that these folks didn’t really have any idea what was involved in moving this particular school. I mean, to them it was like moving Monopoly properties on a Monopoly board.

So I sat in meetings with the general counsel of CPS and some of his advisors. We brought in aerial photographs and said, “Have you ever looked, for example, at the traffic patterns around this school at 3:00 in the afternoon or 8:00 in the morning? Because you’re going to need to get 11 busloads of kids into this school, and by the way, there’s a school with 1,200 students right across the street. Where are you going to put the buses?”

These are things they hadn’t given any thought to, but they were just going to plow ahead and do their thing. So it dawned on me that we have a very educated, sharp group of parents who are fighting a real fight. Media savvy folks. Even so, we got steamrolled, and I thought, my God. This has got to be happening all over the city, particularly with some of these schools where the parent base is not as involved, maybe not as media savvy, and so I started paying attention to issues that were happening around the city.

Just meeting folks who started fighting their own fights. I was trying to get involved either as a supporter or I would write about what they were doing for Huffington Post or some other publications. And at some point, I thought, folks would learn to trust me, realize I was on their side and I could work with them, maybe be of some help, maybe be able to bring some of my lawyer skills. Not formally, not in terms of filing court papers, but just being able to get into meetings and interrogate people to frame arguments. I’ve met a lot of interesting people around the city doing that.

II

So framing the arguments is a really important part of this. You’re saying, we are going to frame the argument.

Right. Let me give you an example. There was a group of mothers in, I want to say fall of 2010, in the Pilsen neighborhood. Mexican-American mothers, primarily. They had a school called Whittier, probably 95% low income students. The moms had been fighting for basic resources for their kids’ school for years and getting the runaround from all the local officials. At some point they decided they’d had it, so they started a sit-in in a field house that was on school property, adjacent to the school.

The purpose of the sit-in was to get a library for their kids’ school. The sit-in lasted about seven weeks the first go around. They slept there, slept in the field house. A couple of weeks into it, I had read about it in the paper. I took my then eight-year-old daughter down there on a Sunday afternoon, and we brought a couple bags of books, because they were forming a makeshift library inside of this field house. We brought some food down for them, too.

My point to my daughter was, “I want you to see how most of the kids in this city get educated. You’ve got a jewel of a school, and I want you to see that the rest of the folks are having to fight to get things that should be in every school.” It made quite an impression on her.

At first I started writing about the moms and their cause, and I went back almost every night for many, many weeks and on the weekends and brought one of my musician buddies down there. We played a three-set party, I think, on Columbus Day weekend. And ultimately they said “Hey, will you come with us? We’ve got a meeting with the CEO of CPS to negotiate this; will you sit at the table with us?” So I cleared it with my boss and went down there with them. We thought we had brokered a deal. We did a press conference with Ron Huberman, who was then running CPS, announcing what we thought there was going to be a library for that school, but it didn’t happen.

So to get back to your question about framing arguments, one of the things we heard when the moms were making their case to the press was from the CPS spokeswoman. She essentially said, “Why do you think you’re so special? We’ve got 160 schools in this district without libraries.” What? I thought that was an outrageous response!

We had nothing but time to kill with this lengthy sit-in, so a few of us said, “Well, let’s send a freedom of information request to CPS and find out where all those schools are located.” And sure enough, once we plotted them all out on a map, we found that they were concentrated, as you might suspect, in the south and west sides of Chicago.

In fact, I believe only 18 of the 160 library-free schools were located north of North Avenue. I was excited to see that point, which I had written about in a couple of different pieces, raised this year by Reverend Jesse Jackson at a board of education meeting. I thought, Well, that was good that we dug that out and discovered it. And it’s still kicking around. It’s an important fact, and it’s something the teacher’s union raises right now when they’re talking about facilities.

And rest assured, this wasn’t just me doing this by any stretch. I was there as a supporter. We were able to get folks from Democracy Now interested. It had some national legs. Problem with something like a lengthy sit-in is that, particularly when you’re dealing with local media, they don’t want to cover day 23 or day 29 or day 35, because nothing’s happening.

So they want to wear you out, they want to hope you go away when the weather gets cold. In fact, during this particular sit-in, Ron Huberman [then CPS CEO] decided it would be a bright move to turn off the heat and power in the field house on a cold October night. No less a supporter of public education than Alderman Ed Burke called him out on the city council, essentially saying, “I don’t know what in God’s name you folks were thinking of. Get that power back on.” He was at least smart enough to realize the last thing we need is some kid freezing to death in a field house.

III

During a Chicago Teacher’s Union STANDS STRONG RALLY on May 30, 2012, Matt addressed some 4,000 CTU members in Chicago’s Auditorium Theater. In a fiery, 6 minute 17 second talk, he conducted a mock trial in which he “cross examined” billionaire Board of Education member Penny Pritzker. The focus of his criticism was that she, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and others, don’t show evidence that they believe it is necessary to provide other people’s children with the same educational experience as theirs. http://youtu.be/IMUboOIQT48

I think it resonated with teachers. We’ve got folks who are making education policy in our city for our kids who, when it comes to their own kids, know what a world class education is. And they decide, here’s how we’re going to educate our own kids, but for the rest of you? Here’s how it’s going to be. Here’s what you’re entitled to. My kids: art, music, gym, libraries. Your kids will have weeks of standardized testing. You may be lucky if you see a music teacher once a week. Art teacher? Forget it. There’s just something wrong with that.

What’s your best guess about why it’s happening this way, why this stubborn disparity?

I think we’re afraid to have an honest discussion about why we are where we are today, because to do so, we would have to acknowledge the high cost of decades, decades of segregation in our city for example. Segregation by design.

We would have to have had, in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, young Mayor Daley say, “You know what? We’re here where we are today in part because of things my dad and his friends did. Their decision to build expressways through certain parts of town so that black folks would be on one side and white folks would be on the other. They built separate cities. By design. We allowed a lot of the black and brown neighborhoods and low income neighborhoods to just go to hell, and send kids to schools that neither you nor I would find acceptable for our own kids.”

But we’re not having that discussion I believe, in large part, because it’s easier to dump on teachers than it is to address poverty, to address racism. One of the things I’ve found interesting in my limited work around the city is, as I get to meet people from lots of different neighborhoods, whether they’re community organizers, parents, LSC members, or teachers,

I think there’s one thing politicians and folks down at CPS fear. It’s folks from around the city, white, black, brown, less affluent, more affluent, finding common cause and coming together on some of these issues. I think that scares them. You know, the more we all start talking in different neighborhoods and having meetings and getting together and showing up for events together and building something, some vehicle of change, I just think that’s a force that these folks don’t want to deal with.

EPILOGUE

You seem to take pleasure in the struggle. Am I wrong?

Pleasure. I don’t know that it’s pleasure. I do think it’s a fight worth fighting. I tell my ten-year-old when she asks why there’s still no library in Whittier, I say, there will be one of these days. It was a fight worth fighting, and it’s a fight that continues to be worth fighting, and if you don’t fight …. You know? What’s the point?

POST-SCRIPT

During the spring and summer of 2013, Matt was one of many Chicagoans who pushed back against Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to close more than fifty neighborhood public schools. Matt served as part of the trial team that attempted to block the closings through federal court litigation. He also wrote and recorded a song about the mass Chicago Public School closings.

Check out Matt’s song against the school closings, “It’s Time to Fight Back”, in the sidebar.