I've blogged in the past about how politicians in both parties say they want good teachers and then do everything possible to drive educators to change careers. The latest example of this trend is found in my sweet hometown of Chicago. Chicago Public Schools (CPS) have opted not to extend a contract with its teachers that would have given them a raise of 3%. Instead, CPS has said it will ask teachers to take a 7% cut in pay. Mayor Emanuel is quoted in today's Chicago Sun-Times that teachers are "working hard" and that schools are achieving "incredible results." At the same time, the mayor cites "serious fiscal challenges" as a reason for CPS' actions. Teacher's union president Karen Lewis call this action an "insult." There is good chance that the teachers could be forced to go on strike again.
For me, the real problem in this story is how it will affect teaching in the future. If we really want the best and brightest students to go into teaching, we need to think about how they react to stories like this. What intelligent, ambitious student would pursue a career that would cut the pay of people the mayor calls hard working and successful? Politicians and citizen need to ask themselves a difficult question: Do we care about saving a few dollars in taxes or educating children?
Today’s Chicago Sun-Times reports that Governor Bruce Rauner is recommending that Chicago Public Schools (CPS) use bankruptcy as a way to solve a $1.1 billion debt. If we only look at the debt, this solution might seem logical. It’s done all the time in business. No one seems to care when retired employees lose part of their pension. I hate this solution because it is a form of wage theft. In this case, I’m outraged by what the governor’s real motive seems to be.
Bankruptcy would let CPS terminate its contract with teachers. It might even let school administrators and the mayor avoid negotiating a new contract. Rauner claims to be a man of the people in saying that the people should decide if teachers have collective bargaining rights. His real goal seems to crushing one of the city’s strongest, most prominent unions.
What didn’t the governor say? He never addressed the question of recruiting and retaining good teachers. Conservatives often point to “bad teachers” as the cause of poor student performance. If that is true, the governor’s solution would seem to a blueprint for making education worse. Teaching is a very difficult job. Teachers’ salary is not that good given the pressures and hours that are required to do a good job. Take away the pension and union protections, who will want to pursue a career in teaching? We need to decide whether we are serious about having schools staffed by good, professional teachers. If we want good teachers, they need to paid well and treated as professionals.
I live in Chicago, a city where our Democratic mayor fights unions, especially the brave members of the Chicago Teachers Union. Writing in Daily Kos, Laura Clawson introduces us to another “tough love” Democrat, Rhode Island Treasuerer Gina Raimondo. This public servant has been attacking public work pensions in the name of “reform,” which really means screw the workers and pay the bankers. Raimondo is rumored to be a candidate for Governor. Hopefully Daily Kos and other liberal groups will educate workers about who this “Democrat” really is.
I just spent a couple of days in Springfield, Illinois, visiting many sites that honor one of America’s greatest heroes, Abraham Lincoln. People think of Lincoln as the President who fought the Civil War and ended slavery. We also marvel at his wisdom and morality. What we often forget that Lincoln was a worker who believed in the dignity of labor. As a young boy and man, he was a farm worker, rail splitter, boat worker, and surveyor – all before he was 30. After moving to Illinois, Lincoln became a lawyer and politician. He often argued that freedom depended on the ability to earn a fair living, and he compared kings to those who “live off the toil of others.”
After Lincoln’s death, American workers joined in labor unions that brought improved wages and working conditions. Labor Day was made a holiday not long after the Pullman Strike in the late 19th century. Many workers were jailed and died in the strikes and protests that brought change, including the ability to join unions. The influence of unions pushed politicians to build a social safety net with its base as Social Security and Medicare. Over the last 30 years, too many Americans took these advances for granted. They accepted anti-worker and anti-labor propaganda while more and more of wealth and income was transferred from working people to – in Lincoln’s words – “those who live off the toil of others,” wealthy investors and their bankers.
This Labor Day we might be seeing a change coming. Last year, the Chicago Teachers Union defied a Democratic mayor who hates labor almost as much as the most conservative Republican – and they beat him (at least until the school closings and budget cuts). Low wage workers in the retail and fast food sectors are starting to fight as miners and rail workers did more than 100 years ago. Like their great grandparents, they are engaging in direct action, risking arrest just to have the right to ask for a raise and join a union. Elsewhere in Chicago, I see signs in the windows of many homes and signs on the lawn: Proud Union Home. Working people are beginning to make their voices heard. Lincoln would approve.
Labor Day Extras
Senator Elizabeth Warren discusses the importance of unions and respecting labor.
President Obama praises labor and organizing without mentioning unions.
Neil Steinberg of the Chicago Sun-Times reflects on the day.
Amy Dean looks at the new face of labor – alt-labor – and the tactics it uses.
With little public notice, Chicago Public Schools has put out a call to open new charter schools. Recently the system closed 50 schools, which meant the loss of many teacher jobs. The system also cut school budgets, which led to more job loss.
Most charter schools are non-union (None are represented by CTU). While some of these schools do a good job educating students, they offer teachers little job security or respect. The highest paid people in the charter system tend to be chief administrators who often make as much or more than the head of CPS.
My worry is that – over time – the quality of teaching will go down. It’s a difficult job in the best situation. If pay is cut and benefits are minimal, who will want to make the sacrifice needed to be a teacher? Why will the smartest people chose teaching if other professions offer more reward?
I’m on a mailing list from the Chicago Teachers Union, which is a great source of information not heard in the corporate media. Today, I received the following analysis by Kenzo Shibata, the union’s New Media Coordinator:
“Why do Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the Chicago Board of Education and Chicago Public Schools officials blame Springfield for the district’s budget woes? Why is the target of their concern being shifted to state legislators? It polls well but makes little sense. Let’s examine why.
FACT: The Illinois General Assembly has provided Chicago Public Schools with every opportunity to make their budget work by giving the district a 13-year break from paying pensions. FACT: The district has failed to lobby for a more equitable funding formula, search for new revenue streams or reform programs like TIF that could work better for school districts and redevelopment.
FACT: The city and the Chicago Board of Education’s answers to the revenue crisis have been to cut, and this year, the cuts will have a devastating impact on classrooms across the city.
FACT: Pensions are NOT the problem.
The problem is a pronounced lack of leadership from the mayor and his handpicked Board of Education.
The state legislature, beginning in 1995, provided CPS with the tools to plug its budget issues and time find new revenue streams and reform the TIF program. The timeline looks like this:
1995—The Illinois State Legislature gave then-Mayor Richard M. Daley the ability to use the once restricted pension levy for operating costs to ensure balanced district budgets. The school district enjoyed a 10-year “holiday” from making any payments into the pension fund. The fund prior to 1995 was funded above 100 percent. It wasn’t until 2005 when the fund dipped slightly below 90 percent that the district resumed payment.
2010—The Illinois State Legislature gave Chicago Public Schools a pension holiday that provided the district with more pension relief so the classrooms in Chicago would not feel any negative financial impact. CPS also was granted additional federal funding from a stimulus appropriation; the district still laid-off more than 1,300 teachers despite pension relief from the state and an infusion of money from the federal government.
2012—The Illinois State Legislature gave CPS an extension on the deadline to publicly announce which schools were slated for closure. CPS stated that schools needed to be closed because of a looming budget crisis and that closing schools would help stymie the deficit.
2013—The Illinois State Legislature did not move on the moratorium on school closings proposed by Chicago legislators, citing that the state wanted to provide newly minted CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett with the opportunity to govern the district. In short, the consensus was that the state legislature did NOT want to micromanage the school district.”
Shibata’s analysis leads us to ask again: Did teachers cause this problem? No. Why are they being asked to pay for it, to suffer during their retirement? We need to remember that Detroit is the blueprint. Chicago looks like it could be the next stop on the bankers-rip-off-workers express. We need to stop this train – now.
A group of parents in Chicago have filed a suit to stop Chicago Public Schools’ plan to close 54 schools. The suit argues that students in special education programs will be negatively affected in a way that violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
In reporting on the suit, The Chicago Sun-Times quotes CPS chief Barbara Byrd-Bennet, who said: “We have a shared responsibility to do everything we can to ensure a bright future for every child.” These words sound wonderful. However, they contradict the action being taken by CPS.
I live near Trumbull School, which is being closed because of alleged “underutilization.” The school’s problem is that it hosts several special education classes, which are capped at 14 students per class, half the expected number of a general education class. Several experts have said that the school is not underutilized if adjustments are made for special education classes
More importantly, CEO Byrd-Bennett claims that she wants a “bright future for every child.” If this is the case, why not bring students from neighboring schools (Chappell, McPherson) to Trumbull, which would lower class sizes at three schools, rather than packing classrooms at two schools? It’s no secret that students learn better in smaller classrooms. Empty seats at Trumbull would seem to give CPS a chance to give more students a chance to realize “a bright future.” Why close such a resource?
The only logical reason seems to that CPS wants to shed jobs. Is that what is best for the students and their future? I don’t think so. If the city can find money to build a new arena for DePaul near McCormick Place, it should be able to find money to keep schools like Trumbull open. Do what is best for students. Invest in schools and teachers.
[On Sundays, this blog explores diverse issues in Sabbath.”]
School Closings in Chicago – Reform or A Trojan Horse?
Today’s Chicago Sun-Times features a great analysis on school closings in Chicago. A chart that accompanies the article shows that students from over 1/3 of the will be moved to schools that are ranked no better or even worse than the ones they are leaving. The chart also indicates that several of the schools have met performance goals. Is this how education is “reformed”?
Mayor Rahm Emanuel is featured in a separate article in the paper. Unlike those officials who say the schools are being closed because they are “underutilized,” the mayor only talks about giving students more opportunity: “We look at it and viewed it as what we can do to have every child have a high-quality education regardless of their neighborhood, regardless of their circumstances, regardless of where they live.”
If the mayor is sincere in these words, he should be very troubled by the information put forth by the Sun-Times. While some students will be moving to much better schools, many more are moving to schools with similar performance ratings. There is also a question of cost. According to the mayor’s most vocal critic Karen Lewis, head of the Chicago Teacher’s Union, it will cost the system $1 billion dollars to close the schools, which is the same amount the system claims is its current deficit. Lewis and her colleagues contend that this round of school closing is a Trojan horse that the mayor and his allies are using to open even more non-union charter schools.
No one wants children in poor performing schools. No one wants to waste money heating and maintaining schools that are half empty. However, it’s hard to trust politicians in any city when we see how charter schools can be new tools for the connected to wash each other’s hands. Over the past few months, the Sun-Times has published several articles about conflicts of interest at Uno, Chicago’s largest charter school organization. Uno’s head was a key player in Mayor Emanuel’s campaign. Will Uno benefit from the school closings? That would be an interesting question to have answered.
Here’s another question: Why can’t Chicago fund its schools? I grew up in Cleveland and saw that great city’s decline first hand. Over the last two years, I’ve been to Detroit twice and have experienced to a small degree that city’s challenges. Those cities have an excuse to close schools. They embody the rust belt and millions of lost jobs that have left northern industrial cities. Chicago doesn’t have that excuse.
I attended a production at Chicago Shakespeare Theater yesterday. Before going to the play, a friend and I rode Navy Pier’s Ferris wheel, which offers a magnificent view of the skyline, a panorama of skyscrapers that are filled with business that are making money. I could also see large condo developments in the south Loop, all of which were built in the last 10-15 years. How can schools be poor in a city that is so rich? Why can’t we have schools with small class sizes if our city has so much wealth circulating in it? We need to ask the mayor and his staff some of these questions. All children do deserve equal opportunity. Whacking at schools with an axe doesn’t seem to be the best answer, just the most simple answer.
Michigan’s governor and Republican state legislature have followed the Wisconsin model in trying to make the state “right to work.” They are fast-tracking legislature, ignoring large protests in the capital city Lansing. Governor Snyder and his allies claim that they need this law to be competitive with Indiana, which has similar anti-union work rules.
As John Nichols points out in The Nation, if this anti-union action can happen in Michigan, where are workers safe? Nichols quotes a union official who says that wages are $1,500 lower in right to work states. Too many people have forgotten how unions led the way to better wages, benefits, and security. Here in Chicago, our teachers union showed that a united group could win the day. We’ll see what happens in Michigan now, and what happens in two years when the governor and legislature have to go before the people. I don’t simply blame the politicians. They were elected. We who support union rights need to make a better case – and get to the polls.
Travis Waldron of Think Progress breaks down what is happening in Michigan and the consequences for working people. Beyond the immediate set back, one positive I see is a new vitality in the labor movement. Labor is fighting for its life. The politicians are only doing the bidding of masters like the Koch Brothers and Rupert Murdoch, rich men hungry for a few (billion) dollars more. It may take a while, but labor will triumph, and the bigger winner will be democracy in America.
[“Sabbath” is the blog’s Sunday feature that looks beyond career to broader issues that affect our lives.]
Good People and a Bad Fight
I took a great walking tour of the Six Corners neighborhood today. It was hosted by Forgotten Chicago, a group of young people who are passionate about the city, its history, and neighborhoods. That’s what I wanted to write about today until I got home and learned the Chicago teachers strike was not settled, until I read comments on Facebook that first made me mad and then frustrated.
One of my friends blasted the union. Another said no charter school teacher is qualified. Both of these positions are wrong. Yes, the union might be faulted for some things, but the Mayor’s team must be put into the equation (something Chicago’s corporate media usually fails to do). On the other hand, some charter school teachers are as qualified as anyone in CPS. The problem is that the charter system pays teacher less and provides them no protection. If teachers aren’t treated as professionals and paid a good wage, what qualified person will want all of challenges that go with the job? How can we have good schools if we don’t have qualified teachers?
Both of the people I cite above are parents, good people frustrated with a situation that is very complicated. I can’t imagine what it’s like for parents to scramble to find day care for their children. Add to that problem the cost, and there is cause for some parents to be very anti-union. It’s important to remember that the Chicago Teachers Union is not acting in a vacuum. The mayor and his school board have not shown a true sense of urgency in solving this problem. They blame the teacher and call the strike a “choice.” However, their actions are also driven by choices. As Ben Joravsky of the Reader outlines in his latest column, the mayor and others in the system have not treated the teachers with respect.
I went to public schools in Cleveland for six years. Most of my teachers were highly dedicated and taught us lessons that went beyond testable facts: how to think, how to act morally, and how to respect other people and ourselves. Good public schools are essential to real democracy because they are the place where young people from all backgrounds learn to live together and gain the skills that will enable them to compete in the world, which is the essence of democracy.
No one wants bad schools or incapable teachers. That’s not what this bad fight in Chicago or national education “reform” is about. Some people – powerful people – want to bust unions and replace public schools with charter schools and vouchers. They claim the system is broken and only they can fix it – like the Wizard of Oz. I’ll put my faith in dedicated educators like the public school teachers of Chicago. They are fighting for their professional rights. More importantly, they are fighting to preserve the kind of education we need to maintain our values of equal opportunity and democracy.
P.S. David Sirota poses 4 questions that should be considered in evaluating the strike.
- 1 of 2
- next ›