Enough Basic Staffing and More Community Schools: Two Important but Different Issues

The NY TimesDana Goldstein published a story last week about the Chicago teachers’ strike. While Goldstein should be commended for supporting the efforts of the teachers in the nation’s third largest school district to bargain around their students’ needs for smaller classes, more counselors, school psychologists, nurses, and librarians, her article is misleading.

Goldstein conflates two important but separate issues when she writes: “These demands have risen as activists promote a broader mission for educators: a vision of schools as community centers that offer an array of health and social services to children, especially those from low income families. In Chicago, it has become clear that teacher pay is not the primary sticking point in the negotiations; after all, the city has already agreed to a raise. The Chicago Teachers Union is asking that the district enshrine in its contract a promise to hire more counselors, health workers and librarians, and to free them from tasks outside of their core duties.”

Yes, the Chicago Teachers Union has demanded that the union contract cover students’ learning conditions.  But the teachers’ primary goal in Chicago has been to rectify years of neglect for their students’ basic needs.  The union’s central focus was not for a newer—and also very important—idea for wraparound Community Schools.

Here are the two issues Goldstein conflates:

  • First, in many underfunded public school districts today—especially in urban school districts with extreme concentrations of student poverty and in isolated rural school districts without significant local taxing capacity—there is an acute shortage of he most basic services needed for schools to operate smoothly. Staffing and services in many public schools have been seriously curtailed since, decades ago, many of us attended schools where we took for granted the presence of the librarian or the school nurse, or enough counselors to serve the hundreds of adolescents in most any high school. Financial shortages were exacerbated during the 2008 recession when state and local tax revenues dropped precipitously in many places. And these problems have intensified in states where tax cuts have been the policy of choice.
  • Second, in an important development, in communities where family poverty is concentrated, pressure has been growing over the past decade to turn schools into community centers where families can access necessary social services and medical services and other supports. The movement to turn public schools into what have been termed “Community Schools” has been building up steam.

Teachers and their students need basic support staff.

Restoring funding for the most basic services—the kind of staffing by nurses, certified school librarians, certified school counselors, and school psychologists is essential, along with the restoration of manageable class size. The restoration of essential school services has been at the heart of the teachers’ strikes in the past couple of years in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Los Angeles, Oakland, and most recently Chicago. The teachers in these strikes have been demanding a basic level of the kind of public school support staffing students simply take for granted in more affluent communities.

In Chicago, the site of the most recent teachers’ strike, the problem has been made worse by more than two decades of disruptive reform.  The district operates with widespread public school choice along with the expansion of charter schools.  School choice in Chicago operates in combination with student-based budgeting, whose damaging consequences were recently documented by researchers at Roosevelt University. It is a toxic combination, because students exiting to another public school or a charter school carry away funding.  At a school, for example, where two classes of second graders fall from 25 students to 23, the principal might possibly create one class of 46, or perhaps the principal could keep two second grades at 23 students if the librarian or the nurse or a counselor were let go. As services diminish due to the loss of funding, the school becomes less and less attractive to school choosers, thereby establishing a downward spiral, until, in Chicago, the school would close because it would be identified as “under-utilized.”

What does it mean for a school when essential staff are eliminated?  When a counselor must serve hundreds of students, the counselor’s work may be reduced to making presentations about college applications, or in a district like Chicago, explaining high school choice options to hundreds of students or simply handling students’ requests for schedule changes and other necessary but routine functions. When there are too few school psychologists, the job becomes reduced to testing students who are being referred for special education, sitting on on committees making Individual Education Plans for special education students, and handling a few crisis situations when students act out.

It is common these days for school nurses to rotate across several schools despite that school nurses are needed to administer injections, to help with diabetic and chronically ill students, and to deal with a wide range of medical issues too frequently handled these days by the office secretary.

Chicago teachers also made school libraries and the presence of school librarians an issue in their contract negotiations. In many schools, the library door has been locked or if the library is open, it is staffed by volunteers.  The presence of a certified school librarian can be transformative for a school’s literacy program and can infuse the best children’s literature into the lives of all the children in a school.  Last year, for Education Week, Sara Sparks and Alex Harwin reported: “Chicago public schools have gone from more than 450 librarians staffing libraries and media centers at more than 600 schools to fewer than 150 in a four year period, according to South Side high school librarian Sara Sayigh, whose positions at the historic DuSable High School and later the Bronzeville Scholastic Institute and Daniel Hale Williams Prep School of Medicine have been cut four times in the last 14 years.”

Community Schools are an important idea.

What about the growing cry for more wraparound Community Schools—the other issue mentioned in Goldstein’s recent story?  In some of their strikes across states and school districts, teachers have also bargained for the expansion of full-service, Community Schools.  Here is the definition of a Community School according to New York City’s Children’s Aid Society, currently the lead partner in many of New York City’s Community Schools: “The foundations for community schools can be conceptualized as a Developmental Triangle that places children at the center, surrounded by families and communities.  Because students’ educational success, health and well-being are the focus of every community school, the legs of the triangle consist of three interconnected support systems: a strong core instructional program designed to help all students meet high academic standards; expanded learning opportunities designed to enrich the learning environment for students and their families; and a full range of health, mental health and social services designed to promote children’s well-being and remove barriers to learning… Community schools are the products of explicit partnerships between the school and other community resources… Nearly all models of community schools employ a site-coordinator, whose role involves joint planning with school staff and subsequent recruitment, management and coordination of partners.”

I was once privileged to visit a Community School in New York City. The school was a collaboration of the public school district and the Children’s Aid Society.  I could feel the way this school and its staff, teachers and medical and social service personnel alike, embraced the children, their families and the community.  It was a chilly autumn day, and we had to walk quite a distance from the subway to get to the school, but inside, the atmosphere was warm and sunny.  Parents were around in the hallways, and it all felt very welcoming.

As visitors we were greeted in a room used for parent education programs—English as a Second Language and various job training classes. There were huge commercial sewing machines there, for example. We visited the early Head Start (for toddlers) right in the building. We also visited the Head Start classes for preschoolers located there. Again, right in the school building, we visited the dental clinic, where a child was having a tooth filled. We visited a medical clinic, where students receive vaccinations, where they have eye exams, and, where someone checks sick children for strep throat and ear infections. We stood outside the room used for the mental health clinic, where both children and parents can get help. We visited a huge 21st Century Learning Center afterschool program where some children were engaged in folk dancing, some were working in a school garden that had been funded by a grant from the Bette Midler Foundation, and others were cooking with ingredients they had harvested from their school garden. Many of the children in the school participate every summer in an enrichment day camp. All this was in addition to a well-staffed academic program, where class size is reasonable.

Two important issues: ensuring necessary school staffing and expanding Community Schools. It is important to recognize that neither one can substitute for the other. Community Schools, where family medical and social services and extended learning opportunities for children are located in the school building, are now enriching communities across the United States.  But this month’s strike by teachers in Chicago has been primarily to demand that the most basic services—once provided in most every U.S. public school, but now lost in many places—will be restored in the Chicago Public Schools.

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.

The Lasting Impact of the September 2012, Chicago Teachers Strike

The Chicago Teachers Union’s new report, A Sea of Red, the story of the impact of the September 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike, is instructive and inspiring.  Researchers from Roosevelt University, Harper College, and Texas Christian University interviewed 32 Chicago public school teachers, three district clinicians, one para-professional and one counselor.  At the time of the strike, fifteen were elementary school teachers, seven middle school teachers,  five high school teachers, and three working in schools across the grades.  Their comments indicate that while some had been active in their union before the strike, others became more engaged as the union reached out to them.

The authors report on bonds created among teachers, parents, local business owners, and progressive community organizations before and during the September 2012 strike, but the most fascinating content is about the transformation of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) itself—that moved from what the authors call “service unionism”—that takes a reactive stance as union staff and leaders respond to complaints and attend to grievances, arbitration, and contract deadlines—to “social-organizing unionism”—as leaders organize, energize, and activate the members who then develop and frame an agenda the entire membership can embrace.

Through 2011 and 2012, CTU and its members faced growing external pressure that forced the union to develop a new strategy.  Nationally test-and-punish policies through No Child Left Behind and programs like Race to the Top mandated “a pedagogical regime where high stakes testing became both rampant and an end in itself.”  In Springfield, Senate Bill 7 created a requirement that 75 percent of a local’s membership must vote affirmatively to authorize a strike; removed the length of the school year and the school day from the contract—giving control of  this issue  to the school administration; reduced protection of due process in the evaluation and termination of teachers; and threatened seniority job protection.

To make matters more threatening for CTU, Jonah Edelman, the executive director of the national anti-teachers-union organization, Stand for Children (headquartered in Oregon), bragged on YouTube from the Aspen Ideas Festival about investing thousands of out-of-state dollars to hire Springfield’s most influential lobbyists to push through Illinois Senate Bill 7 and break the union. Edelman’s anti-union rant went viral across the country. Locally Chicago was also pursuing “portfolio school reform” with school closures, an expanding number of charter schools and turnaround schools with charters able to hire non-union teachers. Finally Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel tried to “rescind the contractually agreed upon 4 percent raise for CTU educators in the 2011-2012 school year.”

In this context, CTU turned to a strategy of bottom up, informed, and organized collective action.  CTU effectively empowered teachers by ensuring they were well enough informed to counter the anti-union message coming from Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the school district in the lead-up and during the strike.  “The CTU has actively developed an independent set of ideas which provide rank and file educators with the tools to identify and act upon their own interests as educators, professionals and unionists… CTU media now takes up topics such as the corrosive effects of charters, privatization, and tax increment financing on the very foundation of open, inclusive, and equitable public education… The frame ‘for a better school day, not just a longer school day’ and ‘teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions’ meld together the two roles of unionized labor and professional educators.  The CTU is demonstrating to unions and educators nation-wide how to combat this false division between ‘the union’ and ‘the profession of education’ by reframing the issue as one of teachers taking a stand to defend the common good of quality public education.”

Teachers were so well informed by their union that they could confidently seek out parents, even walking the neighborhoods of their schools during the strike to talk with parents about the issues.  The report’s authors point out that the strike became important for parents who shared the concerns of the striking teachers: “Parents who supported the strike were most supportive of the attention that the strike was bringing to funding inequalities between schools, along racial lines, and the lack of wrap around support services in so many CPS (Chicago Public Schools) schools.  Parents were becoming increasingly aware of how CPS was becoming a tiered system of schools with charters, selective enrollment and neighborhood schools.”

The report’s authors describe CTU’s embrace of social-organizing unionism as having a lasting impact among Chicago’s teachers, many of whom have engaged more actively in their school’s Professional Problems Committee and their Local School Council as they have discovered more ownership of their professional lives.

Despite its length—28 pages—I urge you to take a look at this report.  Its authors demonstrate that the September 2012, Chicago Teachers Strike was the action of well-informed, deliberate professionals whose union had provided the infrastructure, issues education, tight communications and outreach that enabled teachers to reach out to parents and other community allies to preserve an essential community institution.  The teachers let the community know that the strike’s purpose was to make it possible for them to do their work on behalf of Chicago’s children.