Bud Billiken is a fictional character from the creative minds at the Chicago Defender newspaper. As a way to thank its delivery boys, the prestigious Black newspaper founded the Bud Billiken Day Parade and Picnic in the early part of the 20th century. Over the many years the parade has evolved into the largest African American parade in the country, a salute to the youth, a symbol of pride, and a community-wide “back to school” rally.

Bud’s last name probably comes from the name of a toy figure popular at the beginning of the 1900s, called a “billiken,” modeled after a Chinese god. There are two interpretations of its symbolism. One sees it as the guardian of children and the other as the god of “things as they ought to be.”

I like both versions: Things as they ought to be, especially for children. That makes you start thinking. How should things be for children? How should the schools be? What would Bud Billiken say about Mayor Richard M. Daley’s “Renaissance 2010” plan for Chicago’s schools?

Daley recently announced plans to shut down 100 schools and to reopen two-thirds of them under private control. The other 30 or so would be run by the city. The privately-run schools would get public funding but would not be held to the same standards as the public schools. Nor would these privately-run schools have to recognize workers’ and union rights.

The mayor’s plan starts with a faulty assumption that private interests can do things more efficiently and get better results. Billiken might remind us of the words from Odd Couple’s Felix Unger: “You know what happens when you assume. You make an ass out of u and me.” Business under capitalism is about maximizing profit, institutional racism and expanding markets — not learning. After all these are the folks that brought us Enron — the corporate name synonymous with corruption, lies and rip-offs. Or how about those efficient businesses that have declared bankruptcy and get government handouts to pay for their debts — like United Airlines. Oh yeah. What are the results? Workers out of a job, pension and health care. No thanks — this model is not for my kids.

Billiken might also call the mayor’s plan a product of “group think,” lacking imagination. Business and conservative religious interests are driving a forced march to privatize our nation’s schools. George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law put this privatization trend on steroids. The Bush administration wrote in regulations allowing for vouchers and shutting down schools if they don’t meet the government’s quotas for standardized testing pass rates. These schools could then be reopened with a for-profit, private management firm at the helm, using public monies without public accountability.

Do public schools need reform? Of course. Am I against business playing a role? No. But the public has to be in the driver’s seat. You would be hard put to find a parent, student, principal or teacher who wouldn’t be for major changes.

I’m a mom of two public school children and two major needed reforms come to mind: funding and class size. Frankly, Daley’s plan doesn’t address either of these issues. Chicago’s schools need more funding. The unequal funding formula in Illinois needs to be changed. This formula penalizes poor students — mainly Black and Latino — with less funding than well-off, mainly white, school districts. With more funding Chicago could take a serious approach to cutting class size. Teachers could give more individualized attention with, say, 15 students rather than the average 32 now. Think of the jobs it would create as well: the schools that would have to be built, more teachers that would have to be trained, more school staff that would have to be hired … that would be a real Renaissance.

Billiken — a symbol of “things that ought to be” — would tell the mayor to use his imagination. Take a stand and demand more and equitable funding. Public schools ought to remain in the public realm with children’s educational interests in mind, not business’ bottom line.

Terrie Albano is the editor of the People’s Weekly World and can be reached at talbano@pww.org.

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