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?
David Sirota of Pando Daily has written an excellent article on Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel and his plan to “reform” pensions for public workers. According to Sirota, the city has not made its share of contributions to pension funds for the last 14 years. At the same time it has built up TIF (Sirota calls them “slush”) funds that could have covered a good part or all of the missing pension contributions. I urge you to read this article because, as Sirota says, this is not a problem unique to Chicago. Across the U.S., political leaders of both parties are claiming pension funds are in crisis. What they almost never discuss is how the crisis came to be and who should be responsible. The rule of our time seems to be: Workers must pay, so the rich and their government representatives can play.
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.
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.
[“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.
Writing in Common Dreams (from the Guardian), Michael Paarlberg outlines the clichés and talking points that the right wing media (which is most of the media) uses to demonize some of our most dedicated public servants – teachers. Politicians claim to honor teachers while they bash “teachers’ unions.” Chicago’s teachers are standing up, which is a good thing.
We need to think about this issue in its broadest terms. Most “reformers” want to create education models that free teachers from the wicked unions. When this utopia comes to be, who in their right mind will want to teach for a low paid job with bad benefits and no protection?
It almost makes one think that education reform is about something other than education. To those of us who live in Chicago, we know what that means. We’ve all seen the parking meter game and who won. The same game is being played in education. It’s not about the kids. It’s about the money.
CTU teachers are fighting for the kids and their future. The reformers are fighting for – a place at the trough.
P.S. Aljazeera links the teachers' strike in Chicago to the national movement to privatize education. It's clear that the people funding the movement don't send their kids to public schools.
I want to like Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to open/convert 5 high schools into 6 year technical schools, which will focus on skills needed for high tech jobs. At the end of their education, students would have an associates degree and training for jobs that currently are unfilled. Corporate partners including IBM, Cisco, and Microsoft are developing educational programs and providing summer internships. They also promise to give students “first-in-line interviews” after graduation.
That’s my first question: What is really being promised? If the internships are paid, that’s a good thing. If not, it seems like some of America’s biggest, most profitable companies would be getting free labor. We also need to study what comes of the interviews. You can give 100 people a “first-in-line” interview without hiring one candidate. Time will tell if these acts of corporate citizenship are real.
I also want to know: How will these schools impact existing programs at City Colleges? The mayor has made some interesting proposals about having Chicago’s City Colleges offer programs that are aligned with employers’ needs. That’s a good thing. However, will these high school based programs complete or overlap the CCC programs? Could this be an excuse to cut existing programs that have helped Chicagoans for decades?
I hope this education reform is a sincere attempt to help young people and bring more jobs to the city. If it is, three cheers for Mayor Emanuel. However, I want to wait a few years before calling it a success. Let’s ask some critical questions and see what kind of answers the program delivers.