Positive Developments for Public Education in Tuesday’s Election

Here are some Tuesday election results which will make a difference for public schools. Look at yesterday’s POLITICO Morning Education for a more complete summary of the election results for candidates who had made public education a priority and for the results of a broad array of education-related ballot issues.

Ballot Issues

Arizona Proposition 305, which would have expanded participation in a controversial Education Savings Account voucher program, failed by a 2:1 margin. The failure of Proposition 305 means that the enrollment cap on Arizona’s controversial neo-vouchers will not be lifted; the program will not be expanding. The Associated Press reports: “Arizona voters have rejected a massive expansion of the state’s private school voucher program criticized as a move to drain money from public schools and give it to rich parents to fund their kids’ private school tuition.  Proposition 305 was placed on Tuesday’s ballot after educators collected enough signatures to block the 2017 expansion championed by Republican Gov. Doug Ducey.”

Proposition 305 was designed to block Governor Ducey’s 2017 expansion of a much smaller program.  Ducey’s plan—blocked when Proposition 305 was defeated—would have made all Arizona students eligible for the education debit-card program, but would have capped participation at 30,000.  Even with the cap, public school supporters explained, the vouchers would have further collapsed an already meager state education budget.

Kudos to Save Our Schools Arizona, the grassroots coalition of educators and parents who collected enough signatures to get Proposition 305 on the ballot and who beat an Americans for Prosperity-funded court challenge to block the measure. A recent state audit confirmed that the program Ducey was trying to expand has been almost a joke. The state’s education department uncovered that the state has been unable to impose even minimal regulation over the supposed “educational” services parents purchased or tried to purchase with their Education Savings Account debit cards.  The Arizona Republic explains: “The Auditor General found some parents used the ESA cards for transactions at beauty supply retailers, sports apparel shops and computer technical support providers.  Auditors also found repeated attempts by some parents to withdraw cash from the cards, which is not allowed and can result in getting kicked off the program.  The audit also concluded education officials did not properly monitor parents’ spending, even after questionable purchases were denied, including on music albums deemed noneducational, Blu-ray movies, cosmetics, and a transaction at a seasonal haunted house.”

In Maryland, Education Dive reports that voters approved a constitutional amendment to use casino revenue to create a supplemental education fund which is projected to grow to over $500 million by 2023.

In a more discouraging turn of events, however, Education Dive adds that voters in Colorado turned down Initiative 73, which, “would have raised $1.6 billion for a Quality Public Education Fund. The funds would have gone toward teacher salary increases and funding for preschoolers, gifted and talented students, and English learners.”  The measure would have amended the Colorado constitution to increase income taxes for households and corporations.

Education and Governors’ Races

In Wisconsin, after a governor’s race focused on education, the state’s current Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tony Evers beat incumbent Scott Walker, who cut taxes and the public education budget in 2011 and who passed a public sector right-to-work law in an effort to undermine teachers’ unions. The Madison Capital Times summarizes Evers’ resume: “Before he was elected to head the state Department of Public Instruction, Evers served for eight years as deputy superintendent of schools.  He grew up in Plymouth, and worked as a science teacher, high school principal and district superintendent in Baraboo, Tomah, Oakfield, and Verona.”

For several years, parents and educators have been organizing across Wisconsin to condemn cuts in public education funding and the diversion of state education dollars to the nation’s oldest private school tuition voucher program.  What began in the 1990s as the Milwaukee Voucher Program has now grown statewide. The Wisconsin Public Education Network has been mobilizing citizens and pulling together a mass of local parent and advocacy groups around a unified, pro-public school agenda. The organization’s website displays a map of the Coalition’s partner organizations—at least 39 of them across Wisconsin.  In recent months activists mounted a nonpartisan campaign that plastered the state with signs that said: “I Love My Public Schools… And I Vote.”

Public education loomed as a central issue in a number of other governors’ races.  In Illinois, J.B. Pritzker triumphed over incumbent Governor Bruce Rauner, the driving force behind the lawsuit that launched the Janus case, aimed at undermining the fiscal capacity of public sector unions—including teachers unions—and recently decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.   Rauner has never been a supporter of fair or adequate funding of public schools. In 2017, he vetoed the state budget only to have his veto overridden by the legislature.  Weeks later, he created a crisis at the beginning of the school year by vetoing the school funding formula, again overridden by the legislature.

In Kansas, Democrat Laura Kelly defeated Kris Kobach, whose education ideas closely match what have been the disastrous tax-cutting, school-starving policies of the previous governor, Sam Brownback.

And in Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, was elected governor. A member of the American Federation of Teachers and a public school parent, Whitmer opposes the DeVos ideology that has dominated Michigan for too long. Her platform is built on undoing the policies of DeVos-funded Republican administrations.

National Teacher of the Year Elected to Congress

Education Week reports that Jahana Hayes, the 2016 National Teacher of the Year, was elected to Congress, representing Connecticut’s 5th Congressional District.  Her district encompasses Newtown, the site of the 2012 school shooting.  Hayes has deplored the idea of arming teachers: “I worked in a high school with 1,300 children.  I would never want the responsibility of securing a firearm in that building.  I would never want to have to explain to a parent that I did not lock my desk… or ‘I’m not sure how your child got ahold of my gun.’ ”  Hayes also understands the needs of school districts serving concentrations of children in poverty.  She was raised by her grandmother in public housing and was herself a teen mother: “Teachers exposed me to a different world by letting me borrow books to read at home and sharing stories about their college experiences… They challenged me to dream bigger and imagine myself in a different set of circumstances.”

What We’ll Need to Watch in Upcoming Months

This post covers only a limited number of major statewide offices.  It will be important to watch what happens across the 50 state legislatures, which were at the center of educators’ efforts to involve themselves in policy making after teachers’ walkouts across several states last spring to protest the collapse of their states’ education budgets. The National Education Association’s Education Votes website reports on the scope of these efforts across state governments: “An analysis by NEA revealed nearly 1,800 current or former teachers and other education professionals ran for state legislative seats, and an additional 100 educators ran for top state or federal seats in Election 2018.  A bulk of educators come from states that experienced historic #RedForEd walkouts this spring: West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado and North Carolina. In fact, Oklahoma led the charge with more than 62 educators who were on the general election ballot… The primary focus of NEA’s electoral efforts this election cycle was on state races because education policy is decided by state legislatures and public education funding is a primary responsibility of the state.”

Rick Perlstein on the Birth of Portfolio School Reform: Chicago—2003

There is nothing linear or didactic about historian-journalist, Rick Perlstein’s new piece in Jacobin Magazine, The Chicago School.  This is the story of a school district being ruined, and it doesn’t even touch on today’s financial mess—the failure of Illinois to distribute funds fairly—the risky bond investments that indebted the district in the financial collapse of 2008—the failures to pay into the pension funds and subsequent borrowing out of those same funds.  This is about a much broader topic, though Perlstein never uses today’s name—portfolio school reform.  Portfolio school reform—managed through mayoral governance and an appointed school board—is what has happened in Chicago and what has been copied across many of America’s biggest school districts. (It was later branded by the Center on Reinventing Public Education.) Portfolio school districts are places where school choice is expanded as an ongoing policy, with lots of charter schools and all schools—neighborhood schools as well as charters—managed like a stock portfolio—opening new schools all the time and shedding the schools that seem to be failing.

In Chicago, business and civic elites came up with the idea, and they called it Renaissance 2010: “Travel back with me… to July of 2003, when the Education Committee of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago—comprised of the chairman of the board of McDonald’s, the CEO of Exelon Energy and the Chicago Board Options Exchange, two top executives of the same Fortune 500 manufacturing firm, two partners at top-international corporate law firms, one founder of an investment bank, one of a mutual fund, and the CEO of a $220.1 billion asset-management fund: twelve men, all but one of them white—published Left Behind: Student Achievement in Chicago’s Public Schools… They found hope… in a new kind of educational institution called a ‘charter school’—‘publicly-funded but independent, innovative schools that operate with greater flexibility and give parents whose children attend failing schools an option they do not have.’… ‘Chicago should have at least 100 charter schools,’ the Education Committee concluded.  ‘These would be new schools, operating outside the established school system and free of many of the bureaucratic or union-imposed constraints that now limit the flexibility of regular public schools.’ ”  The plan was based on competition: “The 103-page report thus deployed the word ‘data’ forty-five times, ‘score,’ ‘scored,’ or ‘scoring’ 60 times—and ‘test,’ ‘tested,’ and ‘testing,’ or ‘exam’ and ‘examination,’ some 1.47573 times per page.”

Power has always been at the heart of this kind of school reform: “And since these were the behind-the-scenes barons who veritably ran the city, it wasn’t even a year before the Chicago Public Schools headquarters on 125 S. Clark St. announced the ‘Renaissance 2010’ initiative to close eighty traditional public schools and open precisely one hundred charters by 2010.  Lo, like pedagogical kudzu, the charters came forth: forty-six of them, with names like ‘Infinity Math, Science, and Technology High School,’ ‘Rickover Naval Academy High School,’ ‘Aspira Charter School,’ and ‘DuSable Leadership Academy of Betty Shabazz International Charter School.’  Although, funny thing, rather than resembling the plucky, innovative—‘flexible’—startups the rhetoric promised, the schools that flourished looked like factories stamped out by central planning.  The skills most rewarded by Chicago’s charter boom became corporate marketing, regulatory capture, and outright graft.”

The Noble network opened 16 charter schools.  “Indeed, Noble runs just the kind of schools you’d expect to be sponsored by industrialists: their students are underprivileged waifs in uniform who are fined for minor disciplinary infractions,” and the school’s philosophy describes “strong leadership, meaningful use of data, and a high degree of accountability.  Other new schools, like the Young Women’s Leadership Academy, were subsidiaries of national for-profit companies like Edison Learning.  And, finally, there were three campuses—eventually ballooning to sixteen—run by the ‘neighborhood organization’ UNO.  UNO was basically an old-school machine organization, rife with padded contracts, nepotistic hires, and graft. Its CEO, Juan Rangel, was Emanuel’s 2011 campaign chairman.  In 2014, the network was charged with securities fraud.”

Business, civic leadership, and local philanthropy came together to raise money to enhance the new school reform venture. Back in 2000, before it all began, came the Chicago Public Education Fund, which calls itself  “one of the first city-based philanthropic venture funds in the nation.” 2004 brought the Renaissance Schools Fund which rebranded itself as New Schools for Chicago in 2011.  The financial and thought leadership of the new Chicago schools venture has been provided by many people whose names are well known—Bruce Rauner; Arne Duncan; and local leaders like Terry Mazany of the Chicago Community Trust; Helen Zell, whose husband owns the Chicago Tribune; Kenneth Griffith, billionaire hedge fund manager; Marty Nesbitt, friend of Barack Obama and head of a firm that acquires companies; Penny Pritzker; and Deborah Quazzo of GSV Capital Management, who later served on Chicago’s appointed school board and who has also been accused of shady dealings around educational technology and the Chicago schools.

Perlstein fills in years’ of details about interwoven spheres of influence and policies instituted to enhance competition in a school district managed as though it were a stock portfolio: “Last year, the CPS shifted to something called ‘school based budgeting’… Where previously a principal could choose his or her teachers based on qualifications and experience, since personnel costs were charged to the entire school system, now principals have to cut personnel expenditures to the bone.  Say, by hiring three recent college grads, or six Teach for America kids, for the cost of a nationally-board-certified teacher with decades paying classroom dues.  Budgets are based on attendance.  Attendance is calculated on an ongoing basis.  In a system in which ‘neighborhood schools’ are vulnerable to losing students to ‘selective enrollment’ schools, this turns every school against each other… Although, in an irony, charter schools are often protected from this ruthless market dynamic.  Because, more and more, they are part of ‘networks”: miniature school districts that can shift burdens from one school to another….”

I urge you to explore more of the details in Perlstein’s story of Chicago—a microcosm of today’s school reform across America’s big cities—and to enjoy the intricate comparison of Chicago school reform to Charles Dickens’ heartless, utilitarian academy run by Thomas Gradgrind in the 1854 novel Hard Times.

Perlstein concludes with a story of the closure of a small, stand-alone charter—the kind that Albert Shanker first imagined when he thought about the idea of charter schools.  In Chicago’s competitive school marketplace, this small charter is being shuttered for lagging test scores, but tearful students and their families pack the auditorium to testify at the hearing preceding the closure: “The tears attest to a fact the school reformers are constitutionally incapable of understanding: schools are not like convenience stores.  They are living, breathing communities, congeries of qualitative values and human interrelationships, storehouses of trust, friendship, heritage, and other such difficult-to-quantify characteristics that can only but accrue over time, and which, once severed, can never be replaced.  The tears are products of the incredulity that grown men and women in positions of authority cannot grasp this simple human fact.”  “On the dias were a half dozen or so board members in bankers’ casual-Friday togs: people like a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers L.L.P. .., a municipal bond specialist, a lawyer, a practitioner of ‘tax planning and corporate creation,’ the president of a curriculum development company.”

Just to clarify, Perlstein adds: “It’s not that schools never fail, should never close.  It’s that they should not close without due consideration that a school is also a human institution, with its own interconnected ecology.  Keeping that community together has value in itself, and adds value.  When you shutter a school, you kill something: a network of trust, a web of relationships.  You have to start again from scratch.”

Here is a timely and very sad irony: Perlstein begins his article by quoting a post from the blog of beloved, Blaine Elementary Principal and long critic of portfolio school reform in Chicago, Troy LaRaviere: “Whenever I try to take a break from writing about CPS to focus on other aspects of my professional and personal life, CPS officials do something so profoundly unethical, incompetent, and/or corrupt that my conscience calls me to pick up the pen once more.”  On April 20, the date Perlstein’s article went to press, the Chicago Public Schools terminated Troy LaRaviere’s tenure as principal at Blaine Elementary School.  DNA Info, Chicago, reports: “Parents were notified late Wednesday of the abrupt change in leadership in an e-mail from Elizabeth Kirby, chief of schools strategy and planning for Chicago Public Schools.” LaRaviere has won awards for his school leadership and he has been nominated to run for president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association.  He is quoted by DNA Info  in a post from March about the current financial crisis in the Chicago schools and the ongoing negotiations with the teachers union: “Our teachers have been battered by this administration’s attacks and forced to live with the blatant hypocrisy behind the calls for teacher financial sacrifices while the district continues to engage in wasteful spending, reckless borrowing and their steadfast commitment to steering CPS dollars to banks and investors that profit from our schools’ losses.”

Teachers Union Prevails at Supreme Court; Tomorrow CTU Will Show Why Unions Matter

On Tuesday, in the teachers’ union case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, in a 4-4 split decision, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of public sector unions to charge fees to non-members for the unions’ protection of all teachers in collective bargaining. The case intended to undermine the power of unions was brought by a libertarian organization, the Center for Individual Rights.  Ten California teachers had agreed to sue to eliminate the membership fees they are required to pay to their local teachers’ unions even though they are not members.  Tuesday’s split decision by the Court upholds a 1977 Supreme Court decision that divided union dues into two categories—establishing that non-members must pay their teachers’ unions for representing them in collective bargaining but that union members must also pay a second fee to support the unions’ political activities.

Lyle Denniston, writing for Scotus Blog, explains the significance of Court’s decision on Tuesday: “The most important labor union controversy to reach the Supreme Court in years sputtered to an end on Tuesday, with a four-to-four split, no explanation, and nothing settled definitely.  The one-sentence result in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association will leave intact, but on an uncertain legal foundation, a system of ‘agency fees’ for non-union teachers in California—with the legal doubts for public workers’ unions across the nation probably lingering until a ninth Justice joins the Court at some point in the future… The Court had heard the Friedrichs case on January 11 and, from all appearances then, it seemed to be on its way toward a five-to-four decision to declare that it would be unconstitutional for unions representing government employees to charge fees to workers they represent but who are not among its members, even when the fees cover the costs of normal union bargaining over working conditions, and not lobbying or outright political advocacy.  But the death of Justice Antonin Scalia last month left the Court to either find a way still to decide the case, or to end it with an even split.”

Denniston continues by explaining what is likely to happen following the Court’s split decision this week: “Shortly after Justice Scalia died, the Center for Individual Rights, a conservative legal advocacy group involved in the Friedrichs case, announced that it would ask the Justices to schedule a rehearing on the case if it were to split four to four.  The Center said at the time that it expected such a request would put the case off until the Court’s new Term, which is slated to begin on October 3.  Under the Court’s rules, a rehearing request in the Friedrichs case would have to be filed within twenty-five days following Tuesday’s ruling.  It would require the votes of five Justices to order such a reconsideration, and one of the five must have been one who had joined in the decision.  It is unclear how that rule would work when the judgment had been reached by an evenly divided Court.”

Why is the Friedrichs case so very important?  A decision against public sector unions’ collection of what are called “fair share” fees would have financially weakened unions.  Hannah Halbert of Policy Matters Ohio explains: “Fair share covers the administrative costs of bargaining and administering the contract.”  Strong unions matter in our society where the power of the top One Percent grows increasingly dominant. Unions are among the few powerful voices that challenge the growing influence of money through the super PACs. As unions representing industrial workers have faded, powerful public sector unions have become a target of the far-right. The National Education Association with 3.2 million members is the nation’s largest union.

Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation commented on the broader significance of Friedrichs case in January during the oral arguments at the Supreme Court: “All unions—including, and perhaps especially public sector unions—also contribute to one of the most important foundational interests of the state: democracy.  And they do this in many different ways.  Unions are critical civic organizations that serve as a check on government power.  They are important players in promoting a strong middle class, upon which democracy depends.  They serve as schools of democracy for workers.  And teacher unions, in particular, help ensure that our educational system is sufficiently funded to teach children to become thoughtful and enlightened citizens in our self-governing democracy.”

No place is the important role of a public sector union more visible this week than Chicago, where the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has scheduled a one-day “action” tomorrow, April 1, to protest a budget morass across the state of Illinois and the city of Chicago that threatens not only the city’s K-12 public schools but also higher education and the health and social service sectors.  The school funding crisis in Illinois, complicated by the states’ failure to approve a budget for last year, is very real. The Education Law Center rates Illinois’ school funding distribution with a grade of “F” as being among the most inequitable across the states.  The Chicago school district which has been under mayoral control since 1995, is also trapped by massive long-term debt resulting from risky borrowing strategies that culminated in huge losses during the 2008 Recession, losses that Mayor Emanuel delays dealing with.  The Chicago Public Schools sold $725 million in bonds two months ago just to try to make it through the school year, but in early March, according to the Sun-Times, “Chicago Public School principals were being instructed… to stop spending money because the broke school district that has already imposed budget cuts, layoffs and unpaid furlough days is running out of cash to make a giant pension payment on June 30.” Governor Bruce Rauner’s failure to sign a budget for last fiscal year has also resulted in the threatened closure of Chicago State University.

Tomorrow’s protests will also target the governance of increasingly unpopular Rahm Emanuel. The Chicago Teachers Union’s day of action will demonstrate the needs of Chicago’s children in public schools, and it will also provide a voice for others who are being left behind in the state and city budget crises. Here, according to Chicago’s DNA Info, is how CTU spokesperson Stephanie Gadlin describes the purpose of tomorrow’s one-day city shutdown: “Mayor Emanuel is tone deaf and blind to what is happening to the people of this city.  On April 1, we expect to be joined by a number of sectors facing budget cuts, layoffs, social-service cuts, university closure and people seeing a reduction of health-care benefits for low-income, immigrant and working-class people.”

DNA Info quotes the Service Employees International Union’s statement supporting the day-long action of the teachers: “SEIU Healthcare Illinois is proud to stand in solidarity with the Chicago Teachers Union and the April 1 day of action. Just like the teachers, the tens of thousands of nursing-home workers, home health-care workers and child-care workers whom we represent find themselves under attack at the bargaining table by Gov. Bruce Rauner and greedy nursing-home owners who refuse to honor their dignity.”

School Teachers and Union Unfairly Blamed for Financial Mess in Chicago Public Schools

Here are just some of the details of the financial morass in the Chicago Public Schools.

Back in 2003, David Vitale, a banker and then-CEO Arne Duncan’s recently appointed Chief Financial Officer, convinced the mayoral-appointed school board to begin using risky borrowing strategies.  The Chicago Tribune explains the results of a huge investigation it conducted in 2014: “Vitale, then the chief administrative officer at CPS, and other officials pushed forward with an extraordinary gamble.  From 2003 through 2007, the district issued $1 billion worth of auction-rate securities, nearly all of it paired with complex derivative contracts called interest-rate swaps, in a bid to lower borrowing costs.  No other school district in the country came close to CPS in relying so heavily on this exotic financial product. In fact, market data show the district issued more auction-rate bonds than most cities, more than the state of California… It involved issuing bonds at floating rates and entering into related interest rate swaps that could lessen the impact of cost fluctuations… By 2008 the district was carrying $1.8 billion in bonds that were subject to fluctuating rates, accounting for more than 40 percent of the district’s outstanding debt.”  Then, of course, came the 2008 financial collapse.  The Tribune updates the situation as of November 2014: “Over the life of the bonds, which won’t be fully paid off until 2034, the school district stands to spend $100 million making up the difference, according to the Tribune’s analysis. The extra costs add to the district’s crushing deb burden; last year, the school system’s debt payment was $338 million.”

Fast forward to 2016.  Facing crushing debt, the Chicago school district has unsuccessfully sought increased funding from Springfield, where Illinois’ new governor Bruce Rauner keeps threatening to take over Chicago Public Schools and force the district into bankruptcy, though Republican Rauner continues to be blocked by a super-majority Democratic legislature.

Last week, Chicago Public Schools borrowed again, selling $725 million in bonds to try to make it through this school year.  But with its bonds reduced by several rating agencies to junk status, the school district was forced to scale back its intended borrowing to $725 million from $875 million and forced to offer an 8.5 percent interest rate to buyers, rather than the 7.75 percent interest rate that would have been possible only weeks ago.  According to the Sun Times, Mayor Rahm Emanuel blames the diminished borrowing climate on Rauner’s threat to take over the system and force it into bankruptcy.

Chicago’s school district and its teachers’ union have been engaged in contract negotiations after the current contract expired last June.  Last week, the school district offered the teachers a contract, and the union rejected the offer.  The school district responded by blaming the teachers and announcing mid-year cuts of $100 million.  Later, Catalyst-Chicago explains, the district reduced the threatened cuts to $75 million.

Where will the cost reductions come from?  According to Catalyst, “CPS… announced that after 30 days have passed, the district would stop paying the so-called ‘pension pickup’ for teachers—a longstanding agreement in which CPS pays 7 percent of the 9 percent union members are required to pay into their pensions.  The district estimates this will save $65 million by the end of the school year.” According to Catalyst-Chicago, the district will also reduce immediately the funds awarded to schools on a per-student basis by 4.3 percent and also eliminate some programs funded through the federal Title I program. While the district has already begun cutting central office administrators and while the mayor and Forrest Claypool, the current CEO of Chicago Public Schools, claim they will protect cuts that will directly affect the classroom, it is clear that cuts will affect each school.

But the reason for the union’s rejection of the recent contract offer is more complicated.  Sarah Karp, long a highly regarded reporter at Catalyst-Chicago and now reporting for Chicago’s Better Government Association, explains: “(T)teachers were offered a pay raise, but there was a big catch: CPS educators would essentially be paying for the salary increase by sacrificing the most experienced members of their teaching force. An early-retirement buyout program was the linchpin of the Board of Education’s since-rejected offer—and it’s one of the main reasons why Chicago Teachers Union representatives voted down the deal, according to union officials. The board was offering $1,500 per year of service to teachers of retirement age and $750 to support staff to leave…. If at least 1,500 teachers and 700 other staffers took advantage of the buyout offer, the contract would stand…. But if not enough employees signed up for early retirement, then CPS could reopen the contract….” Karp interviews Robert Bruno, a professor of labor relations at the University of Illinois, who defends the union’s rejection of the contract because “taking a deal that would allow the district to crack back open the contract would be a huge risk for the union.”

There is also the matter of which teachers would be affected by such a buyout and the implications of their distribution across particular neighborhoods and schools. Karp quotes CTU President Karen Lewis: “No. 1 it would have pushed out 2,200 of our seasoned, experienced educators, disproportionately impacting African American and Latino educators.” Karp elaborates:  “Fifty-four percent of teachers with more than 20 years experience are black or Latino, whereas only 22 percent of new teachers are…. New teachers make about $48,000 a year, while those with 20 years or more experience make an average of $88,000.”  Karp reports that, according to Jim Cavallero, a special education teacher at Chicago Academy High School, a majority of the teachers qualifying for the buy-out work in schools on Chicago’s south and west sides in schools that serve black and Latino students.  Cavallero explains: “It would be problematic if these schools—many with poor students—were left with mostly new and inexperienced teachers. ‘Schools need a balance of experienced teachers and new ones… We cannot allow these teachers to be pushed out when they are needed most.'”

Although Chicago Public Schools blames the union for its members’ refusal to accept the proffered contract and failure to accept shared sacrifice, teachers view the financial crisis very differently.  Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey is reported by Progress Illinois to have “said the issue boils down to the school district needing new revenue. ‘Unpaid debt on pensions and unpaid debt on bondholders and charter schools are the three drivers’ of the district’s financial issues…  You’re not gonna solve that by cutting frontline educators.'”  Last week the teachers union launched a formal protest of banks’ taking advantage of the school district during the years’ of toxic interest rate swaps by closing the Chicago Teachers Union’s account at Bank of America and moving $726,000 to Amalgamated Bank, which never peddled risky financing practices to the school district in the years leading up to the 2008 collapse.

The Chicago Teachers Union has voted to strike if necessary, though teachers explain that a strike is definitely not something they want.  There is a financial crisis in the Chicago Public Schools, and also a lot of politics and a lot of blame.  What is clear is that there is no easy solution and that as usual in such situations, the teachers and the children will continue to try to conduct school in conditions that are far from ideal.

Our Fading Understanding of the Common Good

At the top of this blog is a quote from the late Senator Paul Wellstone, who describes our “nation of citizens called to a common purpose… tied to one another by a common bond.”  Wellstone is defining the idea of public responsibility—the common good.  A quaint notion these days. Think about the verbs in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution: “We the People… establish… insure… provide…promote… secure… to ourselves and our posterity.”

More and more often today we seem to accept a very different notion: that good people are the ones “who give back.”  They have done well, and so they contribute through their charitable foundations or donate to the many causes or services they choose to support.  Notice that the operative verbs in this transaction are “to give” and “to choose.” A gift is very different than an obligation because giving grants power to the donor who gets to choose the recipient the giver deems worthy.  People who present gifts also get to choose what to give and and how much. The Preamble to our U.S. Constitution defines the recipient a little differently: “ourselves”—all of us—and “our posterity”—all of our children their children.

In Monday’s NY Times, in response to the disaster of Flint, Michigan’s lead-poisoned drinking water, Paul Krugman distinguishes between government spending on social insurance programs, Medicaid and Social Security—topics he explains are of understandable public debate due to ideological conflicts about the philosophy of government—and public goods:

“There should, however, be much less debate about spending on what Econ 101 calls public goods—things that benefit everyone and can’t be provided by the private sector.  Yes, we can differ over exactly how big a military we need or how dense and well-maintained the road network should be, but you wouldn’t expect controversy about spending enough to provide key public goods like basic education or safe drinking water.  Yet a funny thing has happened as hard-line conservatives have taken over many U.S. state governments.  Or actually, it’s not funny at all.  Not surprisingly, they have sought to cut social insurance spending on the poor.  In fact, many state governments dislike spending on the poor so much that they are rejecting a Medicaid expansion that wouldn’t cost them anything because it’s federally financed.  But what we also see is extreme penny pinching on public goods. It’s easy to come up with examples, Kansas, which made headlines with its failed strategy of cutting taxes in the expectation of an economic miracle, has tried to close the resulting budget gap largely with cuts in education.  North Carolina has also imposed drastic cuts on schools.  And in New Jersey, Chris Christie famously canceled a desperately needed rail tunnel under the Hudson.”

Michigan, where a state-appointed austerity fiscal manager sanctioned the cost cutting that has poisoned Flint’s children and where a series of fiscal managers have run up the long-term debts of Detroit’s public schools to a total of $3.5 billion, is this week’s poster child for slashing spending on public goods.  But there is another state that is currently very much in the news: Illinois, where conservative Republican governor, Bruce Rauner, is embroiled in a state budget fight with a super-majority Democratic legislature—a budget fight that has dragged the state through months without a budget.  In Illinois the political fighting is so ugly that it is hard to parse out exactly what what may be posturing, but it is evident that the students of the Chicago Public Schools and their teachers are the losers. Chicago Public Schools face a deficit that has accumulated over many years: “This year, the district has a $480 million hole to fill in its current budget.” Notice that our society’s sense of public obligation to our poorest children—in cities like Detroit and Chicago—seems to slip away pretty easily.

Last week, according to DNA Info, “The district said it was cutting 433 administrative positions, including laying off 227 employees Friday… ‘We are gonna make Central Office cuts and reforms so we don’t have to impact the classroom, where we’re making significant educational gains for children,’ (Mayor Rahm) Emanuel said.”  Through these and other cuts, CPS seeks to cut $45.1 million.  In the meantime, the school district will have to borrow, despite that its credit rating has been downgraded to “junk” status.

Chicago’s mayor and the CEO of the school system, Forrest Claypool, blame the state and a Chicago teachers’ pension system that has been underfunded by previous administrations and that, unlike the pension system for teachers in other Illinois school districts, receives no state contributions.  And they blame Illinois school finance: “‘The governor is defending a school funding system that is separate but unequal. Our children are facing systematic discrimination.  CPS represents 20 percent of state enrollment, but gets just 15 percent of state funding, even though 86 percent of our children live in poverty.”

Like many other states, Illinois is failing to drive state funding to the neediest school districts serving masses of children in poverty. The Education Law Center’s Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card awards the state of Illinois a grade of “F” for funding distribution.  The report explains, “The level of funding should increase relative to the level of concentrated student poverty—that is, state finance systems should provide more funding to districts serving larger shares of students in poverty… Student poverty—especially concentrated student poverty—is the most critical variable affecting funding levels.  Student and school poverty correlates with, and is a proxy for, a multitude of factors that increase the costs of providing equal educational opportunity…”

Of course, in Illinois as in lots of states, the school districts that are in trouble are those that serve masses of poor children.  This reality means that the debate about provision of public goods is affected by what Krugman calls the “values” debate about how much money ought to be spent on the poor:  “In the modern world, much government spending goes to social insurance programs—things like Social Security, Medicare and so on, that are supposed to protect citizens from the misfortunes of life. Such spending is the subject of fierce political debate, and understandably so. Liberals want to help the poor and unlucky, conservatives want to let people keep their hard-earned income, and there’s no right answer to this debate, because it’s a question of values.”

Krugman separates the issue of provision of public goods from the values question about whether and how we protect our most vulnerable citizens, but in real life, what he calls the “values question” gets mixed together with with the definition of what public goods we need to pay taxes to provide.  Our debate about the obligation to provide public schooling—a public good—is very often colored by the political debate about equity.  How much should the state have to add to help the children in Detroit and Chicago where the costs of educating masses of impoverished children are far greater than the costs in middle class school districts?

And in Chicago there is another ideological debate, this time about increased privatization as Mayor Rahm Emanuel and school CEO Forrest Claypool continue to post requests for proposals that offer charter school operators the chance to expand the number of charter schools, which then draw children and the state’s per-pupil funding from the city’s struggling public schools.

I worry, however, that underneath all the politics and underneath the clash of ideologies, the understanding of public obligation is fading.  Do we imagine that, like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, we all get to choose the way we give back?  Or are all of us—including Gates and Zuckerberg—expected to contribute through progressively assessed taxes for basic public goods?  Are we losing the understanding that the common good—represented in clean water, good schools, sound infrastructure, and good roads— is everybody’s responsibility?