Chicago teachers are voting this week to authorize a strike, though it wouldn’t occur any time prior to March 2016. Catalyst Chicago quotes Karen Lewis, President of the Chicago Teachers Union, explaining, “We don’t want a strike; we’d like to have a settled contract.” But the contract negotiations have dragged on and on and have been complicated by the budget crisis in Illinois, one of two states that, by mid-December, lacks a state budget.
Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post reports: “The union’s contract with the city expired last summer, and talks have been deadlocked.” Here is how Catalyst describes some of the impasse: “The district says the CTU is asking for an additional $1.3 billion in spending it can’t afford.” “Among the union’s contract proposals: enforceable lower class sizes; full-day free preschool for low-income 3-and 4-year-olds; more community schools; fewer standardized tests; an end to school closings and charter expansions; and a minimum $15 hourly salary for all CPS employees.”
The Chicago Tribune presents the demands from the school district’s point of view: “According to the district, CTU wants more than 1,000 new school nurses, psychologists and social workers; hundreds of counselors and case managers; a 3 percent salary increase; and pay for snow days. The district also asserts it would have to hire more than 5,000 teachers to accommodate a union demand to shrink classroom sizes.” Jesse Sharkey, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union responds that the board of education, “has rejected every demand to improve conditions in our schools and asked for a contract that amounts to $653 million in cuts, not counting the staff cuts.”
This is not merely a teachers’ contract dispute. Underneath the financial problems in Chicago’s public schools is Illinois’ state budget crisis which threatens $480 in anticipated state funding. Chicago’s DNAInfo describes plans by Chicago Public Schools, “to lay off 5,000 teachers if state lawmakers don’t give the district $480 million that has been budgeted by Chicago Public Schools, but not yet authorized by the General Assembly.” An elementary school profiled in the article is reported to be in danger of losing 10 teachers and watching its classes balloon to 45 students. The threat is that Chicago Public Schools will need to slash $480 million mid-school-year.
Last week 167 school principals in Chicago released a letter to protest threatened mid-year cuts: “All principals agree on one thing—students suffer when they lose teachers. Budget cuts to schools will result in many teachers losing their jobs… Imagine a 20 percent cut at a high school of 1,000 children: 10-12 positions—the entire math and foreign language departments. Cuts made during the year impact student schedules and classroom assignments. Changes like these negatively affect a school’s culture and climate which our communities have worked so hard to build.” In their letter, the school principals recommend concrete ideas to resolve the budget impasse between Illinois’ Democratic legislature and the fiscal conservative, Governor Bruce Rauner. Fix the pension crisis. Expand the sales tax to cover consumer services. Raise personal income tax rates that were rolled back last January. And if the crisis continues at the state level, the City of Chicago should divert funds from Tax Increment Financing to the schools, halt any construction of new buildings and divert the money to operations, and slash central office positions rather than teachers and support staff in the schools.
Reuters summarizes the conclusions of a more technical report just released by the Fiscal Futures Project at the University of Illinois: “Illinois has bent or broken every sound budgeting practice and should adopt reforms to help dig its way out of a huge pile of debt… Illinois has the lowest credit ratings and worst-funded pensions among all 50 states. An impasse between the Republican governor and Democrats who control the legislature has left Illinois without a budget halfway through fiscal 2016. The state’s unpaid bill backlog, a barometer of its chronic structural budget deficit, is projected to hit $8.5 billion by the end of the month… The state has… borrowed, delayed bill payments and relied on nonrecurring revenue to cover operating costs, as well as neglecting its aging infrastructure, according to the study.”
It is easy to think about structural deficits in technical terms defined by dry numbers. Chicago’s teachers and school principals are asking lawmakers to think about threatened cuts by imagining the impact of losing many needed teachers and support staff in an elementary school or a high school—the effect on children, the effect on school culture, the threat to a supportive school climate that ensures respect and safety.