Rahm's school budget assault

Facing a contract showdown with teachers, Chicago school officials announced a budget that targets the CTU while draining schools of resources, reports Lee Sustar.

Teachers and parents picket outside a Chicago Board of Education meetingTeachers and parents picket outside a Chicago Board of Education meeting

FACED WITH demands for a pay increase for teachers and a call to fully fund its planned longer school day, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) officials responded with a budget that calls for educators to work longer for less, funnels money from neighborhood schools to charters, and includes no money for the major increase in the school day.

"It's a war budget," one official at the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) said of the proposal.

Claiming it is facing a $665 million deficit, CPS has budgeted for a 2 percent pay raise for teachers who will be forced to work 20 percent longer with the extended school day--even as the teachers union calls for restoration of a canceled 4 percent raise plus additional compensation for more time in the classroom. The budget also cancels scheduled individual teacher raises tied to seniority and educational attainment.

With 90 percent of CTU members having voted to authorize a strike, CPS and Mayor Rahm Emanuel are trying to set a political trap for the union. Their claim is implicit but unmistakable: any raises for teachers must come at the expense of students--through larger class sizes, for example, or the elimination of key programs.

As Erica Clark of the organization Parents 4 Teachers put it, the CPS budget "seems designed to lock in the board's insulting initial contract offer to teachers, which was basically a pay cut disguised as a pay raise. But CPS knows the teachers will not--nor should they--accept it. So this budget moves us one step closer to a strike in the fall."

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WHAT'S MORE, a closer look at the budget shows that CPS is continuing to divert funds away from neighborhood schools towards politically connected charter schools, almost all of which are nonunion. In a statement, the CTU noted that the budget:

increases charter school spending by 17 percent, but does not address the rampant inequality in education programs across the district. In 2002, charter school spending was about $30 million; now, CPS proposes a whopping half-a-billion dollars to a failed reform program that has been shown to provide its students with no better education outcomes.

The CTU emphasizes that Chicago's Tax Increment Financing (TIF) system drains $250 million each year from CPS--money that could go a long way to closing the schools' budget deficit. Then there's the $100 million tax break for the Chicago Mercantile Exchange operator CME approved by state legislators--funds that could also be used for education. Meanwhile, the big banks that received massive taxpayer bailouts drain $35.9 million from CPS each year due to fixed interest rate agreements made before rates fell to near zero.

At the same time, despite claims of making deep cuts at the central office, CPS has boosted funding for its latest bureaucratic initiatives. George Schmidt, publisher of the rank-and-file Chicago teachers' newspaper Substance and a researcher for the CTU, pointed out that CPS's Office of Communications will get a budget increase from $1.6 million in fiscal year 2012 to $2.3 million in 2013, with staff increasing from nine to 20.

"I have been analyzing the budgets for the past 25 years and have been studying them for the past 35 years," Schmidt said in an e-mail. "Every administration has announced that they have 'cut administration,' and it's been and is a lie."

Schmidt observed, for example, that CPS is also dramatically increasing funding for its so-called Portfolio Office, created last year in a merger of three departments in a bid to provide a common administration for both charter and traditional schools. The office will see its budget soar from $23 million to $104 million, with an increase in staff from about 43 to 68.

The budget also creates new bureaucracies--a Department of Knowledge Management and Quality Practices, with a $1.4 million budget; an Office of Strategy Management, with an allocation of $1.2 million; and an Office of Student Health and Wellness with a budget of $6 million.

"They always do sleight of hands stuff like this," Schmidt wrote. "Last summer, Rahm actually went around town saying that his CPS team had cut '$400 million' from the schools bureaucracy, which was crazy. But in the 'he said, but she said' form of journalism, that's what becomes 'news.'"

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WHILE THE CPS budget is partly geared to its contract talks with the CTU, it also highlights the school district's agenda of turning over 100 schools to charter operators.

That plan was put forward nearly a decade ago, not by education professionals at CPS, but by the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago. "Competition--which is the engine of American productivity generally--is the key to improved performance of our public schools," the Civic Committee declared in calling for a sweeping expansion of charters.

To date, the district's 675 schools include 110 charters, along with another 27 traditional schools run by private organizations. But CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard is pushing to create another 60 charters over the next five years.

This long march to privatization is reflected in this year's CPS budget, in which all but a few charter operators will receive an increase in funding, while traditional public schools face big cuts.

CPS Chief Operating Officer Tim Cawley last year admitted to reporters that academically struggling schools are routinely starved of urgently needed money for upkeep of their buildings. "If we think there's a chance that a building is going to be closed in the next five to 10 years, if we think it's unlikely it's going to continue to be a school, we're not going to invest in that building," Cawley said.

There are signs that Emanuel and Brizard are preparing for an even bigger transition to charters as they float plans to close dozens of schools in addition to the 17 slated for shutdown or "turnaround" in the past school year. They may use next year's budget as a pretext: by draining reserves to pay for the 2012-2013 school year, they're engineering an even bigger crisis in the coming year.

"This approach virtually guarantees school closures in the future," said Lorraine Chavez, an education researcher at the University of Chicago and member of the newly formed Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign, formed to support educators in their contract battle with CPS and Emanuel.

A total budget wipeout at CPS may in fact be what Emanuel wants. As White House Chief of Staff, Emanuel famously said, "You never want a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before."

School officials in Philadelphia are doing exactly that, using a tight budget as a pretext to essentially abolish the public school system and replace it with a series of "achievement networks" run by nonprofits, academic institutions and charters, carving up the teachers' union collective bargaining agreement in the process.

Is it just a coincidence that one of Jean-Claude Brizard's initiatives since coming to Chicago was to reorganize CPS into "networks", linking high schools to their feeder schools? Perhaps. But the decentralized approach, coupled with the push towards charters and an aggressive program of school closures, raises the specter of a Philadelphia-style breakup of the traditional school system.

And if CPS reserves are drained, Emanuel and the school district will likely demand massive health care concessions from the union and ask the state legislature to radically cut teachers' pensions, following up on a failed proposal made earlier this year. The Chicago Tribune editorial board was openly enthusiastic about how the budget shortfall could be used as a pretext to extract concessions from the CTU.

Because Chicago is a wealthier city than Philadelphia, the crisis-driven program may not be as crude here. But the objectives are similar: the dismantling of traditional public education and its replacement with a system in which private charter operators skim taxpayer dollars with little accountability, selective enrollment and magnet schools receive priority funding to appeal to the middle class, and underfunded traditional neighborhood schools are constantly threatened with closure or "turnaround."

The CPS budget proposal has vindicated the CTU's view of its contract talks as part of a wider fight to save Chicago's schools, as outlined in its document "The Schools Chicago's Children Deserve." At stake in this fight is far more than pay and benefits for teachers, crucial though that is to quality education for our children. The battle in Chicago is crucial in the fight to defend public education, not just in this city, but across the U.S.