Stripping schools to the bone

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is ready for the next stage in his cruel war on public education--and students and teachers will pay the price, writes Lee Sustar.

Students protest Emanuel's plan to close dozens of Chicago elementary schools (Sarah-ji)Students protest Emanuel's plan to close dozens of Chicago elementary schools (Sarah-ji)

AFTER CLAIMING that closing 50 elementary schools will improve the quality of public education, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) officials are preparing the way for cuts throughout the system that will lead to teacher layoffs, overcrowded classrooms and the elimination of what CPS calls "specials," like art and music instruction.

A new budget system for the schools--pushed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel's handpicked school board weeks after it approved the biggest round of school closures in a single city in U.S. history--is an attempt to use CPS's claimed $1 billion budget deficit to push forward with the latest craze in corporate school "reform." It's called "principal autonomy"--and the aim is to promote market-style "school choice" and weaken teachers unions.

"There is a literal wealth of revenue that the district has ignored," Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) President Karen Lewis said. "CPS claims to act in the interest of the children, but by cutting budgets up to 25 percent in lieu of going after potentially billions of dollars, one has to ask just how much are they really doing?"

The CTU has called for Emanuel to cover the deficit by releasing funds from the Tax Increment Financing (TIF) program--basically a slush fund controlled by the mayor that diverts $250 million in property taxes from school funding each year to pay for real estate development schemes.

The union also is pressing CPS to renegotiate its costly interest rate swaps with banks that drained another $70 million from the system--and it wants a financial transaction tax to fund the schools, too.

Instead, however, Emanuel is determined to shield the bankers who back him by squeezing students and bashing the union that defeated him in last September's strike.

"I think it's the shock doctrine once again," said Jitu Brown of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, a leading activist group challenging school closures and other CPS policies. Brown was referring to Naomi Klein's book The Shock Doctrine, which describes how capitalists have used natural disasters and economic crises to push harder for free-market policies.

"Closing schools is one blow," Brown said. "The other blow is to destabilize hundreds of schools by starving them. As the schools fail, they will come in with their solution--mass privatization," through the proliferation of charter schools.

There's a short-term political advantage for Emanuel as well: The new plan for per-pupil budgeting would push the crisis into hundreds of different schools, overwhelming teachers and parents while keeping the heat off City Hall. The funding formula puts more power in the hands of principals to make the cuts, instead of the central office--and gives those principals a clear incentive to purge veteran teachers by scrapping courses outside "core" areas.

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THE EDUCATION justice movement was quick to respond to Emanuel's latest maneuver, with members of Local School Councils (LSCs) rallying outside CPS headquarters on June 17--and dropping the proposed budget into a shredder.

"They closed 50 schools in Chicago and then cut millions of dollars from the rest of our schools," Anita Caballero of the Kelly High School LSC said at a press conference. "Meanwhile, the mayor is building another stadium with our tax dollars." Caballero was referring to a new pet project of Emanuel's: a new basketball arena for DePaul University, funded by $55 million in TIF money diverted from schools and other social services.

The new per-pupil budgeting system ties individual school budgets directly to the number of students, rather allocating teaching positions according to a formula based on average class sizes. This may sound reasonable, but CPS wants principals to pay teachers' salaries out of the same funds as supplies and other items. As one blogger put it, individual schools will face a choice between teachers and toilet paper.

Principals will be compelled to cut teaching staff--and, in particular, to take aim at the highest-paid veteran teachers. For example, the $1.1 million slashed from the budget of Theodore Roosevelt High School could result in the loss of up to 20 positions on a staff of 100. Those cuts would follow layoffs of one-third of the staff in 2010. Ironically, the cuts would come in the midst of an expensive renovation project at Roosevelt's 85-year-old building, which houses several small "learning communities" oriented on vocational education and will also host a new ROTC program.

Parent activists in the group Raise Your Hand began a recent meeting with a list of the cuts in other schools: $780,000 at Mitchell Elementary, $700,000 at Alcott, $186,000 at Pritzker, $275,000 at Goethe, $550,000 at Beasley, and $1 million at Gage Park High School.

"What CPS is doing is beyond imagination," said a high school teacher at one of the hardest-hit schools.

The only schools partially protected will be selective enrollment schools, where kids who are adept at taking tests gain placement, and some magnet schools, where a lucky minority win seats via a lottery system.

So despite a $400,000 total reduction in money from CPS, Disney Magnet Elementary School, with about 1,650 students, will lose only one clerical position and one-and-a-half counseling positions, thanks to money from grants, rental of the school parking lot and other funding sources. Only a relative handful of CPS schools have such funding alternatives.

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THE FINANCIAL disaster driving the latest budget cuts is the state public employee pension funds crisis.

Because CPS took a three-year pension payment "holiday"--that is, it skipped payments--it now owes $600 million to the Public School Teachers' Pension and Retirement Fund of Chicago. Emanuel, Chicago Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and CPS are pressuring the CTU to either accept state legislation that would sharply cut retirement benefits--or stand by as hundreds, if not thousands, of teaching jobs are eliminated.

There are many people who say the CPS budget crisis is exaggerated. Crain's Chicago Business recently pointed out that the claimed $1 billion deficit for the coming year will be radically reduced through a variety of means, including state revenues and property tax payments getting to CPS earlier than usual. "[T]he very fact that the CPS has been able to eliminate such a large deficit will raise some questions about how real the projected $1 billion figure really was," wrote journalist Greg Hinz.

Crisis or not, however, Emanuel was planning to push per-pupil funding and principal autonomy, no matter what. It's a strategy embraced across the political spectrum of corporate education reform.

On the right, the ultra-free-market libertarian journal Reason even published a handbook for school administrators to show them how to implement per-pupil budgeting in order to break up traditional school districts and further privatization. "We are moving away from a K-12 system funded by local resources and driven by residential assignment to a system where funding is driven by parental choice and student enrollment," the authors of the manual wrote.

The same strategy is given a more liberal framework by the Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) at the University of Washington, a research center funded by leading proponents of school reform such as the Gates and Broad Foundations. For the CRPE, per-pupil budgeting is inextricably linked to a "portfolio strategy" of school administration that embraces both traditional schools and charter schools.

The goal, CRPE makes clear, is to convert principals from being instructional leaders into being bosses who hire and fire at will, union contracts be damned: "The strategy demands that school leaders have authority to use money flexibly, for example, to extend their school's hours, vary class sizes according to student need and teacher ability, create their own mix of junior and senior teachers, and make tradeoffs between staff salaries and instructional technology or purchased services."

One key proponent of this approach is the Broad Institute, which trains big-city school superintendents. In Oakland, Calif., a Broad-trained superintendent used per-pupil budgeting to ram through a series of devastating cuts, as Rethinking Schools reported. Principals had a financial incentive to cut staff--and did so. "It all happened quietly, school by school," the magazine reported.

In New York City, former Schools Chancellor Joel Klein took a step in the direction of per-pupil budgeting by linking school budgets to the average salary of teachers at the site. He claimed this method would channel more funds to schools in poorer neighborhoods, where less experienced teachers were often located.

The result, however, was to put a target on the back of better-paid veteran teachers. "Before that, when a principal hired a teacher, it didn't matter what their salary was," said a high school teacher in New York. "Now, salary is something that every principal has to consider, because it affects their overall budget."

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THIS VISION of an empowered, budget-cutting, union-bashing principal captured Rahm Emanuel's imagination. In 2011, Emanuel announced that then-schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard, held a special meeting of all school principals to inform them they'd have more independence--and would be under more pressure to perform.

Brizard got the boot shortly after the CTU strike. But his successor, Byrd-Bennett, accelerated the principal-empowerment program.

A former head of the Cleveland public schools who went on to preside over a scorched-earth downsizing at the Detroit Public Schools, Byrd-Bennett is a key player in corporate school reform. She even maintained her position as a "coach" at the Broad Institute for several months after taking over as the head of CPS, with special permission from Board of Education President David Vitale.

In February, a few months after taking over as schools CEO, Byrd-Bennett announced the Principal Quality Strategy, which dangled bonuses ranging from $5,000 to $20,000 in front of principals to try induce them to ratchet up student test scores. Next came per-pupil budgeting, billed as "part of CPS's ongoing effort to increase principal accountability."

After being taken down a peg in last year's teachers' strike, when the CTU held the line against the mayor's most cherished plans for the schools, Emanuel and his apparatchik Byrd-Bennett are determined to show who's boss.

This latest attack from Emanuel and CPS means that the CTU, parents and their community allies will have to fight on three fronts.

In the state legislature, teachers have to continue to work alongside other public-sector unions to guard against a pension "fix" that would slash benefits, raise the retirement age or both. Across CPS, parents and teachers will need to bring together scores of scattered fights against budget cuts into a single protest movement for fully funded education. And in the schools, CTU members will have to make use of new contract language that protects them against bullying and other expressions of "principal autonomy."

So nine months after the CTU strike, the struggle to defend public education in Chicago is far from over.