The Muckrakers

August 01, 1994 19 min read
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It’s a perfect spring Saturday in Chicago, the kind of day that can fool you into thinking that winter never really happened. The sky is a brilliant blue, and the air is fresh. It’s a good day to play baseball, mow the lawn, or go to the zoo. It’s not a good day to sit in a cramped, dingy downtown office drinking coffee and Diet Cokes and eating hot dogs and Dunkin’ Donuts.

Yet that is precisely what 10 middle-age Chicago public schoolteachers are doing today. And, oddly enough, they seem to be having a good time. They’ve come to the Patten Building--an ancient, red-brick structure that sits in an area known as the South Loop--to produce the latest issue of Substance, a 3,000-circulation monthly muckraking newspaper that keeps tabs on the massive Chicago public school system.

One look at the surroundings and you know this is a labor of love. There’s a saggy thrift-store couch, an odd assortment of metal chairs and tables, and stacks of yellowed back issues of the newspaper. The smell of strong coffee fills the room. Two old-fashioned mimeograph machines sit on top of a wooden desk, gathering dust; they’ve long been replaced by a handful of Apple computers. Perched high on a shelf in a closet-sized office are empty bottles of Jack Daniel’s and Wild Turkey, the remains of too many bleary-eyed deadlines.

Founded in 1975 by a group of disgruntled substitute teachers, Substance began as a one-page mimeographed newsletter of the now-defunct organization Substitutes United for Better Schools, or SUBS. The group’s members were angry at the Chicago Teachers Union for allowing their pay to remain at $40 a day, as it had been since 1969, without benefits.

Eventually, as staff members began to get full-time teaching jobs, the newspaper’s focus widened, and Substance developed a reputation for exposing waste, malfeasance, and injustice in the Chicago school system. Its crusading editors and writers, all volunteers, see themselves as fulfilling the classic mission of journalism: “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.’'

Substance is a throwback to the in-your-face underground newspapers of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Selling for a dollar a copy, the paper just barely breaks even. Typos abound, and layout and design rules are practically nonexistent. Headlines scream: “High Schools In Chaos Due To Bureaucratic Sabotage’’ or “Union Officials’ Pay Goes Through The Roof.’' Teachers are implored to “subscribe to Substance and join in a subversive activity!’' The newspaper’s logo is a clenched fist inside an apple.

Critics of the paper, particularly those who have been subject to its vitriolic attacks, dismiss Substance as an amateurish rag published by a small but vocal group of aging radicals. “It is the voice of the perpetually unhappy,’' says Jackie Gallagher, spokeswoman for the Chicago Teachers Union, whose leadership is frequently assailed by the newspaper. (Even some staff members admit that Substance largely “preaches to the choir.’')

Still, it has become must reading for those who want the inside scoop on Chicago’s schools. “They’ve been responsible for unearthing some big stories,’' says Chicago Tribune education reporter Jacqueline Heard. “You have to be skeptical when reading it, but sometimes they hit the nail on the head.’' Adds Maribeth Vander Weele, Heard’s counterpart at The Chicago Sun-Times: “They’re not exactly objective, and they don’t always get the other side of the story, but I’m glad they exist. Many times, I read one of their stories and think, ‘I wish I’d gotten that first.’ ''

Substance has never been afraid to take on the sacred cows. In 1982, for instance, when much of the media were still gushing over Chicago “superteacher’’ Marva Collins and her West Side Preparatory School, the newspaper reported that the celebrated educator had received thousands of dollars in federal funds, despite her claims to the contrary.

The article--written by George Schmidt, one of the paper’s founders and for many years its star reporter--asserted: “The failure of the news media has led to the Marva Collins hoax. Politicians and public figures opposed to public education have fed on the hoax and developed it. But a close examination of the protagonist’s teaching career, the school itself, its actual history, and the now-famous ‘Marva Collins Method’ of teaching reveals that there is nothing more there than an average, very expensive alternative school with an average classroom teacher who, at best, is successful using a particular method of drill-based instruction with small, select groups of children.’'

Her image tarnished, Collins hinted that she might sue, but she never did. She continues to operate West Side Preparatory School.

Schmidt, a chain-smoking, 48-year-old high school teacher who has long been a thorn in the side of Chicago’s education establishment, says it was the Marva Collins story that first put Substance on the map. “We debunked 60 Minutes,’' he says. “We proved that they had been shoddy in their reporting, and they bought a lot of racist bullshit from a hustler. If our credibility had not yet been established among serious reporters in this town, it was from that point on.’'

Three years later, Substance’s reputation was further cemented when it reported that James Moffat, a high school principal who had once been deputy superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools, was being investigated for allegedly sexually molesting students. Fearing a coverup, Marsha Niazmand--a social worker at the school who had been told by two female students that Moffat had propositioned them-- had turned to Substance after administrators urged her not to pursue the matter. The newspaper covered the story relentlessly; Schmidt himself wrote nearly 70 stories about the investigation and Moffat’s subsequent trial. Finally, in 1987, the principal was sentenced to 15 years in prison for pressuring five male and female students into having sex.

Many now agree that the Moffat story was Substance’s shining moment. The feisty little paper had taken on one of the big boys in the powerful school bureaucracy, and it had won. In 1989, Niazmand told the Tribune that Moffat might never have been prosecuted if the newspaper hadn’t been willing to listen to her story. “I would have been like a flea swatting an elephant,’' she said.

Last October, the paper reported that “major repairs’’ had been made on a building owned by the Chicago Board of Education and leased to a nonprofit organization headed by the mother of board president D. Sharon Grant. The SunTimes picked up on the story and reported that the board had spent $364,914 on board labor and outside contractors to repair the building, even though the organization fell “chronically behind’’ in its rent and despite the fact that the organization’s lease “required it to pay for all building upkeep and improvements.’' The issue was whether Grant, whose mother has been in a coma since 1990, exerted her influence to obtain the repairs. She denied the charges.

“We definitely take on the powers that be,’' says Leo Gorenstein, Substance’s 50-year-old editor. Dressed casually in faded blue jeans, T-shirt, and running shoes, Gorenstein looks younger than his age. He’s got an athletic build, an affable demeanor, and a definite Chicago twang. “There’s been a lot of serious muck to rake here in Chicago,’' he says, sipping black coffee from a plastic cup. “The school system has a $3 billion budget. I think New York has about a $7 billion budget. Budgets like that are going to attract a lot of thieves.’'

Gorenstein, who teaches math at Foreman High School, on the city’s North Side, first started writing for the paper in 1978. Soon he was carving out a niche for himself by chasing down stories about phony budgets, dubious pay raises, and bloated pensions. A 1987 article, for example, questioned the Chicago School Board’s policy of allowing certain administrators to cash in unused vacation days, to the tune of $878,474. The piece was accompanied by a chart, headlined “Bureaucrats Receiving Highest $$ In Vacation Pay,’' listing the top five offenders. (In the Substance lexicon, few words bite as hard as “bureaucrat.’')

Since becoming editor in November 1989, Gorenstein has kept close tabs on both the school board and the Chicago Teachers Union, which he characterizes as a bloated, entrenched bureaucracy out of touch with its constituency. “We’re totally for the union,’' he says, “but we’re opposed to the leadership that’s been in place for the last 25 years.’'

“We’re strong unionists,’' adds production editor Gerald Rudnick, a special education teacher at Jacob A. Riis Elementary School. “We feel that the union is important, no matter how much we dislike the leadership, and no matter how much trouble we have getting them to protect us. Many of us know what it used to be like in Chicago, where the principal had complete authority to get rid of a teacher if he didn’t like him. So the union is important.’'

Today, the union is very much on the mind of Gorenstein and his colleagues as they prepare a special June “bonus’’ issue of Substance. That’s because the day before, an election was held to determine who will lead the 31,000-member union: incumbent Thomas Reece or George Schmidt, who has organized a slate of opposition candidates to run for union board positions and delegate slots. Substance has become, in effect, the voice of Schmidt’s Caucus for a Democratic Union, the name he has given to his maverick party. The CDU has gone so far as to distribute 40,000 copies of the May issue of the paper, which alleged that 21 of the union’s top leaders receive more than $100,000 in salaries, benefits, and perks. “We need leaders,’' the paper editorialized, “who want only the pay and benefits that all teachers earn, not a fat cat salary with perks and expense accounts which forever set them apart from the members in the classrooms, offices, and corridors of our schools.’'

Schmidt, on the other hand, has been portrayed by his opponents as a strike-happy rabble-rouser who is out of the mainstream. “George and his team,’' Jackie Gallagher told the Chicago Reader, a weekly alternative newspaper, “don’t understand most of the members. Most of [them] are not radicals. They just want to do their jobs without getting enmeshed in controversy. They don’t want to be treated as second-class citizens, but they didn’t get into teaching because they wanted to march in demonstrations.’' (Gallagher’s comments are somewhat disingenuous; after all, the Chicago Teachers Union isn’t exactly shy about going on strike, having led its members on nine walkouts in the last two decades. Last fall, however, while negotiating for a new contract, the union agreed to make $60 million in concessions rather than go on strike. Schmidt and Substance opposed the contract.)

Because results of the election won’t be made public until Tuesday, at this point Gorenstein has two options for the headline of the June cover story: “CDU Wins’’ or “CDU Loses.’' He’d like to think that it will be the former, but he’s been around the block long enough to know that it could easily be the latter. He decides, for the time being, to leave an open block of space on the front page. He’ll write the story later.

Substance has been an opposition paper for so long that it’s hard to imagine what its pages would be like were Schmidt to win the election. Rudnick raises the issue with a joke at this morning’s staff meeting: If the CDU wins, he tells his cohorts, the headline should say, “Congratulations--Now We’re Watching You!’' Later, Rudnick explains that he was half-serious. “If they do things that are fine,’' he says, “then we won’t have anything to say about them. But they’re human; they’re going to make mistakes.’' Besides, he adds, “There’s a lot of things to write about, even if we don’t write about the union.’'

(As it turns out, Schmidt and his caucus will lose the election soundly. Reece will garner 71 percent of the vote, and his United Progressive Caucus candidates will sweep all of the 150 delegate seats at stake. Schmidt, dubbed a “perennial outsider’’ by the local media, will remain just a gadfly.)

Gorenstein and his staff don’t like being called “aging radicals,’' but the description isn’t so far off the mark. “A lot of us,’' says Rudnick, 49, “were involved in the movement in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement. So Substance is just an extension of that. We’re the type of people who don’t like to sit around and let things happen.’'

Like most of the 20 or so teachers whose names appear on Substance’s masthead, Rudnick, a 27-year veteran of the Chicago Public Schools, is devoted to the newspaper. He comes into the office nearly every Saturday, often arriving before 8 a.m. and staying until 2 p.m., sometimes longer. And while he’s no doubt driven by his political beliefs (“We’re for the children of Chicago getting a fair shake, and for the teachers of Chicago getting a fair shake. We’re against anything that’s against that’’), he’s the first to admit that working on the paper fulfills certain social needs. “We have fun while we’re doing this,’' he says. “It’s not all serious.’'

A tightknit group, the Substance crowd is almost equally divided among men and women. But the diversity ends there; all of them are white, and many of them are part of the first wave of baby boomers, the generation that came of age in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. “Most of us have been here for a long time,’' Rudnick says. “And maybe that’s a problem. We try to go out of our way to make people feel comfortable. But when you’re together with people for so long...’' He hopes the paper can find a way to attract some younger writers.

“One of our weaknesses,’' adds Gorenstein, “is that we’ve been unable to attract black teachers to work with us. We’ve had a few, but the numbers have dwindled over the past few years. But even though we’re all white middle-class, I think our readership pretty well reflects the teachers of the city of Chicago. And I know there are more black teachers than white teachers.’' (According to board of education statistics, approximately 46 percent of Chicago teachers are African-American, 44 percent are white, 8 percent are Hispanic, and 2 percent are Asian.)

Even Substance’s admirers point out that the paper’s articles are filtered through a specific point of view. “It is published by a certain faction of teachers,’' says Heard of the Tribune, “and they express the views of their particular group.’' Linda Lenz, editor of the Catalyst, a monthly newsletter that reports on school reform in Chicago, characterizes the Substance group as “a militant minority faction in the teachers’ union.’' Nonetheless, she adds, “I believe it’s widely read. I believe people in the schools particularly appreciate it because it expresses the frustrations they often feel. But it’s usually on the attack and usually only against certain institutions and individuals.’' Those adversaries, she says, include the Chicago Board of Education, the Chicago Teachers Union, the School Finance Authority, and the mainstream press.

A look at some recent back issues bears this out. In June 1993, the paper lashed out against the Sun-Times for “increasing its teacher-bashing and suppressing stories about the scandals of school reform and the Pershing Road bureaucracy.’' (Pershing Road refers to the location of the school board’s office.) Three months later, Substance asserted that “anybody who still claims that the current Chicago Board of Education is supporting school reform in any real sense is smoking something most adults gave up years ago.’'

Given Substance’s many criticisms of the Chicago school system, one might expect the paper to support the reforms that have been implemented since 1989, when control of individual schools was turned over to local parent-led councils. But the newspaper has long regarded reform with suspicion. Last November, the paper lashed out against Chicago’s “so-called ‘School Reform Community,’ '' calling its members “the foundation-supported mouthpieces who claim to speak on behalf of Chicago’s schools. Their power comes from the corporate executives and foundation honchoes [sic] who sprinkle the money on them. The main customer has been a gullible public, lulled by compliant media heavyweights.’'

“We totally support what we call ‘real reform,’ '' Gorenstein points out. “Real reform has got to take place in the classroom. And real reform would take more money out of the bureaucracy and put it into the schools. And that has happened. But what also has happened is that you now have small bureaucracies being built up in the local schools.’' Gorenstein also accuses the school reformers and the school board of “banding together against the union.’'

To Linda Lenz, such views reveal a basic dichotomy: “In one respect,’' she says of the Substance crowd, “they’re sort of a radical group, but in other ways they’re kind of conservative.’'

Bill Watts, principal of William Howard Taft High School, goes even further: “They’re preservers of the status quo. They interpret anything new as a threat to teachers.’' Watts, considered one of the most reform-minded principals in the system (and called “notoriously anti-union’’ by Substance), was recently accused by the paper of paying a teacher an annual salary of $93,000. The article, by Gorenstein, pointed out that “top pay for 39-week teachers who hold a doctorate, have at least 12 years experience, and teach a regular 6-hour day is $50,349. According to sources at the school, the teacher, Paul Reibman, didn’t even teach any classes.’' The implication was clear: Until all teachers have a chance to earn $93,000 a year, no teacher should make that much money.

Watts says he hired Reibman specifically to help restructure Taft into four “schools within a school’’ and that the teacher’s annual salary is actually about $80,000. The $93,000 figure, he says, includes some back pay from the previous year. “The fact that he made as much money as I did didn’t make a bit of difference to me,’' says Watts, who is so fed up with the bureaucracy of the Chicago school system that he is leaving Taft to become principal of Morton East High School in suburban Cicero, Ill.

“They didn’t check the facts,’' he says of Substance. “They couldn’t care less about the facts. ... They go looking for trouble, looking for dirt.’'

At least Watts allows Substance to be distributed at his school. Last November, during a subscription drive at about 40 schools, Washington High School principal Reginald Brown refused to allow copies of the newspaper to be placed in teachers’ mailboxes. To Gorenstein, it was deja vu all over again. Back in the late ‘70s, the school board had attempted to ban the newspaper from being sold on school premises, and one teacher was actually arrested for trying to do so. Substance sued the board and won. When Brown was reminded of that ruling by a board of education lawyer, he backed down. “Here’s a guy who is, in our opinion, a total autocrat,’' Gorenstein says. “He wants everything done his way no matter what the rules are or what the laws are or what the Constitution says. And it’s important to stand up against people like that. And that’s something we’ve always done.’'

Sometimes outspokenness has its price. More than a few Substance staffers, including Gorenstein and Schmidt, say they have been moved around from school to school for practicing their tell-it-like-it-is brand of journalism. Schmidt, in fact, has taught at 17 of Chicago’s public high schools. “Very few things are accidental in this town,’' he says. “If you look hard enough, you can see a cause.’'

Another common problem for Substance writers is getting their phone calls returned. Longtime staff member Rosemary Schacte, a retired teacher, recently attempted to find out how many students at a particular school were participating in the free-breakfast program. She called the school’s lunchroom manager, who was willing to give her the information. But when Schacte called back the next day, “The word had come down from the board not to talk to me. They were afraid we would reveal something about the lunchroom program that they didn’t want revealed. It was really a nothing thing that we were after, so we figured this was part of a larger coverup that they didn’t want us to know about.’' Substance often uses the Freedom of Information Act to get around such stonewalling.

It isn’t surprising to learn that George Schmidt’s numberone journalistic hero is the late I.F. Stone, a legendary investigative reporter who would pore over government documents and voting records in his quest for political wrongdoings. “Instead of getting sound bites from three politicians on three different sides of an inconsequential issue,’' says Schmidt, who still has copies of I.F. Stone’s Weekly stashed away, “he would ask, ‘How are they voting to spend the money?’ ''

Substance, too, tries to “follow the money’’ in much of its coverage. Last March, for instance, the newspaper reported that “280 administrators and other central and district office staff have been budgeted for additional raises this year on top of the 7 percent raises they were given in March 1993. At the same time, teachers received what amounted to a pay cut when they and other board employees began paying part of their health insurance coverage.’' The article was accompanied by a chart listing the names, positions, and salaries of many of the “bureaucrats.’'

The not-so-subtle question raised by most Substance articles is: How will this affect teachers? The newspaper wears its pro-teacher bias proudly. “Substance is not objective,’' declared a 1983 house advertisement. “Though we pride ourselves on accuracy, Substance won’t stand back and be ‘objective.’ When children, parents, and teachers are moused by fat cats on LaSalle St., we take sides!... Substance tells the truth! You may not always like what we say, but can you afford not to know it every month?’'

Pat Clinton, a professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and a former editor of the Reader, admires Substance precisely because it breaks all the rules they teach you in journalism school. “It’s amateurish in some ways,’' he says, “but what you get is that incredible clarity and focus.’'

By 5 o’clock, most of the articles for the June issue have been written and edited, and the staff has gone home for the day. But there’s still some more work to do, so Gorenstein and a few others will return on Wednesday afternoon, staying until 11 p.m. in order to meet the printing deadline.

The 12-page issue is a typical mix of Substance articles. There’s an editorial urging union members to demand that “all CTU officials receive salaries and benefits at the same rate as the members they represent.’' There’s a story accusing the School Finance Authority of releasing a “bogus’’ study about the cost of maintenance in the Chicago Public Schools. There’s a chart listing the average teachers’ salaries in Cook County Schools; Chicago, naturally, is at the bottom. And on the front page, above the fold, is an article about Friday’s election. The headline is simple and to the point: “UPC [United Progressive Caucus] Wins Teacher Union Election.’' But above the headline, in smaller type, is a characteristic Substance touch: “Apparently got 70 percent of vote.’'

When summer vacation comes to an end, Gorenstein and his crew will be back in the Patten Building, with the fluorescent lights buzzing and the air conditioner humming, churning out yet another issue of Substance. “Like I said,’' Gorenstein says, a smile on his face, “there’s a lot of muck to rake in Chicago.’'

A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1994 edition of Teacher as The Muckrakers


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