High School Graduation—Rahm’s Plan Worse than Ohio’s Terrible Plan, But Arne Loves It

I had imagined it would be pretty hard to come up with worse high school graduation requirements than the new Ohio plan endorsed by Governor John Kasich. Watching the state move toward the implementation of our new graduation requirements a year from now is like watching a train speeding down the wrong track. It is expected that nearly a third of the students in Ohio’s Class of 2018 won’t be able to accrue the required 18 points—based on their cumulative scores on end-of-course exams—to graduate from high school next June. Remember that the cut scores on high stakes exams are not in some way scientific, but can be raised or lowered depending on how many students politicians want to pass or fail.

School superintendents from across Ohio have been holding protest rallies at the statehouse, and this week even the Ohio State Board of Education proposed a one-year emergency exemption to allow students to graduate from high school in June of 2018, as long as they have passed all their classes even though they may not have scored high enough on the tests. The State Board suggests that students could make up for low test scores with, “some career training goals or by doing things like having strong attendance or classroom grades their senior year.” For the members of the State Board to oppose Governor Kasich on this matter is pretty amazing. After all, eight of the 19 members of the Ohio State Board of Education are appointed by the governor and most of the rest of them are members of his party.

But Chicago’s mayor (who also runs the public schools) Rahm Emanuel just came up with a more punitive and less workable plan to toughen up. Here is the Chicago Tribune: “Emanuel’s proposal would add one more big item to the graduation checklist for high school seniors: proof they’ve been accepted into college or the military, or a trade or a ‘gap-year’ program. The requirement would also be satisfied if the student has a job or a job offer… Emanuel and his office said the ‘groundbreaking’ effort would make CPS the nation’s first large urban school district to require students to develop a plan for their lives after high school. He outlined the plan as CPS continues to struggle with financial problems that have led officials to warn the current school year could end three weeks early.”

DNA Info Chicago lists the ways students could meet the demands of Rahm’s new plan:

  • “College acceptance letter,
  • “Military acceptance/enlistment letter,
  • “Acceptance at a job training program, like a coding bootcamp,
  • “Acceptance into a trades apprenticeship or pre-apprenticeship program,
  • “Acceptance into a ‘gap-year’ program,
  • “Current job or job offer letter.”

While the Tribune describes Mayor Emanuel defending his plan with the traditional justification—“If you change expectations, it’s not hard for kids to adapt.”—many have questioned the wisdom of Emanuel’s thinking.  Some have even questioned the legality of his plan: “State laws and regulations aren’t clear on exactly how much authority school districts have to expand graduation requirements, said Miranda Johnson, who is the associate director of the Education Law and Policy Institute at Loyola University’s School of Law. “I think that raises questions when the requirements go beyond academic curriculum and extend into the student’s post-secondary choices… I think it also raises questions if those requirements are contingent on a third party’s action that may go beyond the scope of what the student can control.”

Emanuel’s plan hasn’t yet been voted on by the Chicago Board of Education. And some have noted, including Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post, that, “A top CPS official also acknowledged… that every Chicago public high school graduate essentially already meets the new standard because graduation guarantees admittance to the City Colleges of Chicago community college system.”

We shouldn’t imagine, however, that all those students will be able to afford community college tuition. And there are also serious questions about the workability of such a requirement in a school district so broke that it may have to close three weeks early. (See here.)  School districts in dire fiscal circumstances are known to burden high school counselors with unworkable case loads of hundreds of students.

Peter Greene, a high school teacher in Pennsylvania, responded to Rahm’s new idea on his personal blog: “Steady job that’s not a trade?  Working musician? Stay-at-home mom? Person who just needs to spend a year or two working at a crappy minimum wage job while they figure out what they want to do next?  Manage the family business?  All of that and more have passed through my classroom and gone on to successful, productive, happy lives. Are you telling me we shouldn’t have given them a diploma because they didn’t do what we wanted them to after graduation.  Nor do I imagine for one Chicago Second that wealthy parents whose children are not ready for or aimed at one of these… choices while they are still high school seniors—those parents are going to say, ‘Oh, well, then.  I guess you don’t get a diploma.  Them’s the breaks.’  No—this is one more numbskulled reformy idea that wealthy parents would not tolerate for a single second… Demanding that an eighteen year old develop a life plan, right now, this minute, or else, is just rank foolishness.  To demand a commitment to that plan, right now, that involves a commitment to give up a year or spend a ton of money or both—also foolishness… But to attach such high stakes is the worst, particularly since three of the four options require someone to accept the student… Well, too bad, because now they have a double strike against them—no plan yet, and no diploma, either.”

But Rahm does have one cheerleader: our former U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. It is instructive to read Arne Duncan’s Chicago Tribune op ed just as a reminder of the kind of technocratic nonsense we all lived with for nearly eight years. Arne was always using big city schools and their teachers and their students as the subjects of an experiment with one of his plans—Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, quick two-year school turnarounds like firing the teachers or closing or charterizing schools. We are still living with the collateral damage. Arne’s innovations rarely involved careful consideration of the possible negative externalities.  And he always focused on the program—certainly not the students in any kind of careful developmental or psychological way.

Arne is always motivated by competition—the endeavor to create and win the race to the top. Here is his analysis of Rahm’s new graduation plan: “For much of the last 10 years, America out-educated most other nations in the world, which drove the world’s strongest economy, built the middle class and made the American Dream possible for millions. In recent years, however, many other countries have caught up to us.”

Arne is also a technocrat—prone to focus on the mechanics of a program and the data sets that can be generated to hold it accountable—without considering how it might really affect the lives of particular children or their teachers or their counselors: “Every student needs a plan, whether that’s college, trade school, apprenticeships, the military, a job or even a  gap-year program that can open young eyes to the world and lead graduates in promising new directions. We should be tracking all of these outcomes and holding ourselves accountable for them.”

There is definitely a classist bias to Rahm’s new plan and Arne’s defense of it: “But too many… young people have no real plan for their future. They don’t have those dinner-table conversations about the future. Instead, they feel pressure to earn for themselves and their families and they can’t see a path forward… Middle-class parents expose their own children to work opportunities. They have networks of friends who can offer internships.  Their communities offer entry-level jobs to kids who are still in high school. For low-income kids however, those work experiences don’t just happen naturally.”  Arne expresses a whole lot of assumptions here about how eighteen-year-olds think and about the kind of opportunities that may not be happening so naturally in today’s economy even for middle class eighteen-year-olds.

Finally there is Arne’s love of incentives as primary motivators—the kind of psychology that has driven the past two decades of technocratic school “reform.”  Behaviorist psychology will tell you that if you are going to use incentives, you are far better offering carrots than sticks, but Arne and the school “reformers” have preferred threats and manipulation through fear. Threaten the jobs of teachers if they can’t quickly raise scores. Close or privatize schools that cannot quickly raise scores. Deny high school diplomas for students who don’t score well enough!  And set those cut scores really high; make it so tough it will motivate everybody.  Here is Arne describing Rahm’s plan: “Some people worry that raising graduation standards will cause more young people to drop out, but they’re wrong. Young people don’t drop out because school is too hard. They drop out because it is too easy and they are not engaged. They don’t understand how it’s relevant to their lives.”

So Rahm and Arne now endorse a plan to reduce dropouts with the threat of denying diplomas to students who have passed all their classes and their required tests but lack a life plan. Deny students without a plan their high school diploma, the very document required across our society as the credential for a next step in any plan a young person might eventually come up with.

As Strike Averted, CTU Affirms Rights and Contributions of School Teachers

Late Monday night, after two years of negotiations, Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union reached a tentative agreement to avert a strike only minutes before a midnight deadline.

Emma Brown and Kari Lydersen summarize the terms of the tentative agreement for the Washington Post: “It calls for a four-year contract good through June 2019, including salary increases based on teachers’ experience and education—which had been frozen during contract negotiations—and cost-of-living raises in the final two years. The agreement also includes a cap on privately run charter schools and would require the school system to provide a teaching assistant in early education classrooms—kindergarten through second grade—with 32 students or more.  And in a victory for the union, it requires the school system to continue its contribution to current teachers’ pensions, though new hires will lose that benefit… The total cost of the tentative agreement, and the school system’s plan  for footing the bill, was not immediately clear.”  Chicago’s WBEZ and a local publication, DNA Info, speculate that the cost of the agreement will be covered through special Tax Increment Financing district funds.

The Chicago Teachers Union emphasizes that improving support for children is part of the tentative contract—the above-mentioned addition of an assistant in primary grade classrooms of over 32 children, and an additional $10-$27 million to hire more clinicians, wrap-around supports and restorative justice coordinators.  Teachers also won promises for two additional 15 minute preparation times per week beginning in 2017 and a reduction in required testing and excess paperwork.

The Chicago Teachers Union’s 800 member House of Delegates must ratify the agreement before it can be considered approved, followed by a vote by all 28,000 members of the Chicago Teachers Union. Last February the union’s membership rejected a tentative contract as it became clear that when its complicated terms were added together, some teachers’ salaries and benefits would have been reduced. The school district has been negotiating in the midst of a serious financial crisis, with the district teetering on the edge of bankruptcy from time to time and its bond rating falling to junk status.

At contract time, it is common to blame teachers and their unions, particularly in these days when business rhetoric and celebrity dominate the airwaves.  Children are too often an afterthought; the people who educate children and adolescents work invisibly in the schools few of us visit or think much about after our own children become adults. Teaching is public work of great consequence; nothing a teacher says or does can really be taken back. Every teacher’s biggest worry is passing judgment or saying something hurtful that a child will carry through life; yet that same teacher knows she or he must insist on every child’s best effort at every turn.  Teachers don’t have power lunches as part of their day; they are simply present—supporting and instructing and mentoring our society’s children day after day and year after year. Teaching also requires considerable preparation—filling every day with well orchestrated curriculum that builds coherently through the semester and school year.

In a column published a couple of years ago in the Washington Post, Why Educating the Educators Is Complex, Mike Rose, a teacher of teachers at UCLA, reminds us about what teachers do:

“Teaching done well is complex intellectual work, and this is so in the primary grades as well as Advanced Placement physics.  Teaching begins with knowledge of subject matter, of instructional materials and technologies, of cognitive and social development.  But it’s not just that teachers know things.  Teaching is using knowledge to foster the growth of others.  This takes us to the heart of what teaching is…. The teacher sets out to explain what a protein or a metaphor is, or how to balance the terms in an algebraic equation, or the sociological dynamics of prejudice, but to do so needs to be thinking about how to explain these things: what illustrations, what analogies, what alternative explanations when the first one fails?  This instruction is done not only to convey particular knowledge about metaphors or algebraic equations, but also to get students to understand and think about these topics.  This involves hefty cognitive activity, … but the teacher is doing it with a room full of young people—which brings a significant performative dimension to the task.

“Thus teaching is a deeply social and emotional activity.  You have to know your students and be able to read them quickly, and from that reading make decisions to slow down or speed up, stay with a point or return to it later, connect one student’s comment to another’s.  Simultaneously, you are assessing on the fly Susie’s silence, Pedro’s slump, Janelle’s uncharacteristic aggressiveness.  Students are, to varying degrees, also learning from each other, learning all kinds of things, from how to carry oneself to how to multiply mixed numbers.  How teachers draw on this dynamic interaction varies depending on their personal style, the way they organize their rooms, and so on—but it is an ever-present part of the work they do.”

I am very glad Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, who controls the Chicago Public Schools, felt compelled to affirm these realities as the school district and the teachers union negotiated on Monday night. At a press conference two hours prior to the agreement, Emanuel said: “Tonight, we are committed to remaining at the negotiating table as long as it takes to reach an agreement—to give teachers raises, to secure their pensions, to invest in our schools.” I hope Emanuel’s ongoing management of the school district will embody these values.

In the meantime, all praise goes to Karen Lewis and her negotiating team for insisting with dignity—despite hard financial times in Chicago and the state of Illinois—that the rights and contributions of school teachers remain visible.

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?

Chicago: Private Firms Cashing In on the Common Good

Rick Perlstein’s new piece, How to Sell Off a City, paints the landscape of the privatized metropolis.  Privatization is, of course, much broader—wars conducted by what used to be called Blackwater and by Kellogg, Brown & Root—prisons kept packed with folks on long sentences to build the profits of the Corrections Corporation of America —but Perlstein’s panorama is local.

“For over a decade now, Chicago has been the epicenter of the fashionable trend of ‘privatization’—the transfer of the ownership or operation of resources that belong to all of us, like schools, roads and government services, to companies that use them to turn a profit.  Chicago’s privatization mania began during Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration, which ran from 1989 to 2011.  Under his successor, Rahm Emanuel, the trend has continued apace.  For Rahm’s investment banker buddies, the trend has been a boon.  For citizens?  Not so much.”

Chicago is a microcosm of our privatizing society.

  • Chicago was a big winner of a federal competitive “Hope VI” grant that “aimed to replace public-housing high-rises with mixed-income houses, duplexes and row houses built and managed by private firms.”  According to Perlstein, it hasn’t all quite worked out: “Meanwhile, the $1.6 billion Plan for Transformation drags on, six years past deadline and still 2,500 units from completion while thousands of families languish on the Chicago Housing Authority’s waitlist.”
  • There’s the deal that turned parking meters over to Chicago Parking Meters in an arrangement that, Perlstein’s sources estimate, has underpaid the city “by a factor of 10.”
  • Then there’s the deal by which the Chicago Skyway was leased for 99 years to an Australian firm. The city reaped $1.8 billion in immediate cash, but drivers using the road are now paying $4.50 in tolls, when it is estimated $2.50 would be the likely toll rate if the highway were still public.
  • Chicago Transit Authority now has a privatized Ventra “smart card” through an arrangement with a San Diego defense contractor, Cubic.  Cubic is making added profits because “the transit cards can double as debit cards.”  “But dig the customer fees… $1.50 every time customers withdraw cash from an ATM, $2.95 every time they add money to their online debit account… $2 for every call with a service representative…”  and so on.

Of course Chicago has also been one of the big laboratories for privatization of public education.  Perlstein reminds us that when President Barack Obama chose a member of the mayoral-appointed Chicago board of education, Penny Pritzker (the Hyatt Hotel heiress) to be Secretary of Commerce: “In June of 2013, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel made a new appointment…. The appointee, Deborah H. Quazzo, is a founder of an investment firm called GSV Advisors, a business whose goal… is to drum up venture capital for ‘an education revolution in which public schools outsource to private vendors such critical tasks as teaching math, educating disabled students, even writing report cards.'”  Perlstein wonders, “Given the work her firm does in education, did she anticipate recusing herself from school board decisions that presented a conflict of interest?”  Instead, “Some of her companies that had preexisting contracts with CPS cut their prices after Quazzo joined the school board so their bills would fall under the threshold that would require review by district bureaucrats.  One of those bills came to precisely $24,999.  The threshold for review? $25,000, naturally.”

Then there has been the privatization of janitorial services for Chicago Public Schools, something principals have continued to decry as disastrous because, they have complained, the schools have become filthy.  Even as principals and teachers despaired about the conditions in their buildings, Aramark, the recipient of the $260 million, three year contract, laid off 470 school janitors, a 20 percent reduction.

Chicago has also been in the forefront of the movement to replace public schools, where teachers and other staff are protected by unions, with privately managed charters. “Of course, another thing that elites like about privatization is that it lets them lay off public employees—especially unionized ones.  In Chicago, privately run charter schools that replace traditional public schools are not covered by Chicago Teachers Union contracts, and most are not unionized…”  “All told, since 2009, the city has cut 5,000 jobs, in addition to laying off 1,700 public-school employees.”

Perlstein concludes: “Most privatization deals fail every public policy test.  There’s little record of successful competition between concessionaires to deliver service more efficiently. The very logic is faulty, because most government services are what economists call a ‘natural monopoly’—which turns out to be what makes it so attractive to capitalists in the first place: ‘Infrastructure is ultra-low-risk because competition is limited by a host of forces that make it difficult to build, say, a rival toll road,’ as Businessweek explained way back in 2007. ‘With captive customers, the cash flows are virtually guaranteed.'”

Perlstein quotes one Illinois politician, captivated by the seduction of the the rhetoric of competition, who commented: “The developers were thinking in market terms and operating under the rules of the marketplace.  But at the same time, we had government supporting and subsidizing those efforts.”  “The fan,” writes Perlstein, “was Barack Obama, then a young state senator.”