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Freakonomics Author Steven Levitt: Enemy of Chicago School Teachers

On Monday, September 10, the Chicago Teachers Union—the oldest teachers union in America—went on strike. Teachers are striking for better pay, smaller class sizes and more job security. They are striking against school privatizations, teaching to standardized testing and the general "corporate reform agenda" of Chicago city officials.  The list of enemies aligned against the teachers is long and intimidating: Billionaire hotel heiress Penny Pritzker, Charles Koch, Art Pope, Rahm Emanuel, President Obama and . . . Steven Levitt. Yes, Steven Levitt, University of Chicago economist and author of the wildly successful book Freakonomics.

Levitt might come off as just a harmless and off-beat academic—a sort of Wes Anderson pop-economics guru who studies whacky stuff like why drug dealers live with their moms. But underneath that quirky facade, Levitt is a dyed-in-the-wool Milton Friedman neoliberal from the same “Chicago Boys” network that brought you the "shock doctrine." When he isn't pursing research into borderline eugenicist policies or studying the benefits of privatized prison labor on GDP, he's hard at work doing his part helping the oligarchy put unionized Chicago school teachers up against the wall.

Specifically, Levitt has worked with Chicago's notorious union-buster Arne Duncan, who was the CEO of Chicago public schools until Obama tapped Duncan to be the U.S. Education Secretary in 2008. Duncan has been credited with doing more than anyone else to help bring the neoliberal nightmare to Chicago’s impoverished and mostly nonwhite public schools, funnelling public funds to dysfunctional private voucher schools, terrorizing unionized teachers, closing schools and turning public education into feeder tube for the prison-industrial complex. And Levitt, a tenured professor at the University of Chicago, was right there along with Duncan.

Levitt, together with other University of Chicago economists, was given access to the city's public school system and turned it into a neoliberal R&D lab for high-tech union-busting.

Teacher bashers Steven Levitt and Arne Duncan 

Under the guise of objective economic science, Levitt helped develop various ways to weaponize standardized testing and use it to bully and intimidate unionized teachers. Among them was a statistical method that allowed the anti-union school bureaucracy to catch and fire public-school teachers who supposedly cheated on standardized tests. Firing and terrorizing public-school teachers was clearly a point of pride for Levitt, and he took personal credit and boasted about sacking at least a dozen teachers, gloating in his book Freakonomics that, as a result of his method, “Chicago Public School system began to fire its cheating teachers. The evidence was only strong enough to get rid of a dozen of them, but the many other cheaters had been duly warned.”

Most recently, Levitt has been experimenting with a new way of making life miserable for underpaid public school teachers: an experimental program that provides teachers with a cash bonus up front at the beginning of an academic year and then forces teachers to give the money back if their students fail to test above a certain threshold. Cash-strapped teachers are horrified, wondering how they will be able to give back the money if their students didn't test well:

For one school year, the research project by heavyweight economists from the University of Chicago and Harvard University — including the author of the best-seller Freakonomics — turned nine elementary schools in Chicago Heights School District 170 into a teacher testing ground of a behavioral phenomenon called “loss aversion.’’

Of course, neither Levitt nor any other school "reformer" would ever think that we should hold Wall Street fraudsters to the same standard of accountability. So while the financial-management class pays itself record bonuses for record failure, teachers are being tested for their ability to respond to "loss aversion." Just how much impoverishment, financial degradation and abuse will teachers take before they are willing to lie, cheat and steal their way into keeping that $4,000 "bonus"? What will they do if they have to pay it back? Will they take a loan? What if they are ineligible? Will they sell a kidney or liver on the black market?

Levitt would definitely approve of the latter. After all, his economic hero and mentor Gary Becker is a huge fan of setting up a free-market for human organs. The free market always finds a solution!

Despite his extremist anti-worker ideology, Levitt isn't published by Cato or the American Enterprise Institute. He's better than that: he's been blessed with a Freakonomics blog on the New York Times website and Freakonomics radio segment on NPR. The New York Times has of course officially come out against the Chicago teachers strike.

Levitt shows just how hard Chicago teachers have it. They aren't just fighting Chicago's city officials such as Mayor Rahm Emanuel, but are doing battle with the entire corrupt intellectual apparatus of the United States.

Want to know more? Check out Steven Levitt's S.H.A.M.E. profile.


Yasha Levine is co-founder the S.H.A.M.E. Project and author of The Corruption of Malcolm Gladwell

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