A doomsday threat for Chicago schools

Chicago teacher Mike Shea examines the politics behind a new attack on our schools.

CTU members march for fully funded schools during the April 1 strike and day of action (Bob Simpson)CTU members march for fully funded schools during the April 1 strike and day of action (Bob Simpson)

CHICAGO PUBLIC Schools (CPS) bosses are once again raising the stakes on teachers and students with cuts that would devastate the schools.

Just six weeks after Chicago teachers and allies held a one-day strike and mass rally to defend public education, CPS CEO Forrest Claypool met with a group of school principals to hand out sample budgets for the coming year with cuts of between 20 and 30 percent in every school in the city.

Faced with a big budget shortfall and a state government that hasn't responded to calls for equitable education funding, CPS says its own per-student contribution to individual schools would be chopped by almost 40 percent, dropping from $4,088 per student to $2,495.

Claypool and CPS clearly meant to issue a warning about the stakes of the budget battle in the state capital of Springfield, where legislators are considering legislation that would provide badly needed funds for CPS--though far from everything the schools need. But Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner could still veto the bill as part of his refusal to sign any budget legislation that does not include his anti-union agenda.

Rauner's take-no-prisoners approach has enabled Chicago school chief and his boss Mayor Rahm Emanuel to ratchet up the pressure on the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). City Hall and its handpicked Board of Education are demanding huge concessions from the teachers, including shifting responsibility for paying for pensions. That would be the equivalent of a 7 percent pay cut, according to the CTU.

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IT'S THE same good cop-bad cop routine that Rauner and Emanuel have been playing for months.

On one side, Rauner is maneuvering to force CPS into bankruptcy in order to gut the CTU contract in exchange for more school funding from the state.

On the other side is Emanuel, who offered a more "reasonable" alternative in contract talks with the CTU--higher health care costs for teachers, pension deductions from paychecks and a cut in pension benefits for future retirees. The union's bargaining committee voted unanimously to reject the deal, meaning the CTU will almost certainly go more than a year without a contract.

Emanuel has already used Rauner and the state budget deadlock as political cover for a series of attacks on public education and the CTU. These include two rounds of layoffs last summer and again during the school year, plus three unpaid furlough days for teachers and staff. Now Claypool is threatening far bigger layoffs, swollen class sizes, the elimination of entire education programs and more.

Yet the very same week Claypool made his doomsday threat, news emerged that CPS would be paying private investors a $500,000 bonus for so-called "social impact bonds" sold to generate the revenue to fund expanded pre-K programs. The investors--including mega-bank Goldman Sachs among them--"earned" the bonus when more than half the children in specified programs were deemed "kindergarten ready" by the end of pre-K.

Apparently, giving extra profits away to wealthy bondholders comes before saving the city's public schools from a budget catastrophe.

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THIS IS another example of how, as the CTU puts it, CPS is "broke on purpose" because of sweetheart projects directing tax money to big real estate developers, pension holidays, predatory interest rate payments, no-bid contracts and semi-legal looting operations that have siphoned hundreds of millions into private hands.

Since the current union leadership won office in 2010, the CTU has organized resistance to Emanuel's agenda and corporate education reform. But after the CTU's historic strike in 2012 headed off his assault, Emanuel hit back by closing 50 schools, cutting school budgets and expanding nonunion charter schools that further drain the CPS budget.

Enter Rauner, elected governor in 2014. While his anti-union program is stalled in the budget impasse with the Democratic-controlled state legislature, he has already exercised the veto in devastating ways--including revoking college grants to low-income university students in February and allowing only a single, emergency stop-gap spending measure for Chicago State University, which resulted in hundreds of layoffs.

The fight against Rauner and Emanuel were linked on the streets of Chicago on April 1, when the CTU's one-day strike was joined by staff, faculty and students from state universities around Illinois who shut down their schools for the day.

They came together for a mass protest downtown with a wide range of groups fighting Rauner's cuts, including disability rights groups, organizations representing the elderly, state aid recipients and more. Black Lives Matter organizations also endorsed and turned out for the march, reflecting the CTU's support for protests against racist police violence in Chicago.

The central call of the protest was to demand new revenue from the city and the state. But while the strike inspired some movement in the state capital, it is unlikely that any progressive revenue solutions will be passed before the legislature's session ends on May 31. It is also clear that any proposal to tax the rich, as the union has called for, would be swept aside by a Rauner veto.

That was the backdrop to Claypool's choreographed budget-cut presentation to the 15 principals. It was timed to match legislation proposed by an Emanuel proxy in the Illinois Senate and dubbed a "CPS bailout" by Republicans. In reality, it would merely shift existing revenue around to avoid some of the cuts at CPS proposed by the Emanuel administration.

Essentially, the schools boss Claypool is using the stick of severe cuts--while Emanuel exercises his insider expertise to dangle a small legislative carrot in front of desperate parents and teachers.

These tactics are aimed at co-opting the CTU's own political operation in Springfield. In order to escape the ire of parents and community, Claypool and Emanuel are making great efforts--hurried and awkward as they are--to organize parents, students and community members to travel to the capital and pressure lawmakers in support of their bill.

Meanwhile, Claypool has attended legislative reform forums across the city sponsored by Stand For Children, a longtime neoliberal school "reform" group, to champion a district proposal to shift the proportion of education funding between districts in order to bring additional state funding to the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund.

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AS THE legislative session ends May 31 and the school year wraps up several weeks later, CPS and Emanuel are rushing through legislation--an old tactic that relies on backdoor deals and insider access.

But from the perspective of the CTU and other unions, such legislative deal-making runs the risk of demobilizing and disarming their members and drawing us into a bad deal. The CTU, for example, has endorsed Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan for re-election on the basis that he's a bulwark against Rauner's attacks.

But Madigan, a consummate machine politician, is anything but a reliable ally for the CTU. He backed the 1995 school reform bill that restricted the CTU's right to strike and limited the scope of collective bargaining.

If Madigan is battling Rauner today, it's because the governor is out to destroy not just organized labor, but the speaker's political power as well. Sooner or later, however, they'll make a deal--and it won't benefit working people.

That's why the CTU should build on the April 1 action by organizing in the schools and building alliances with parents and the community as well as the wider labor movement. We need to build our power to fight for funding today and a sustainable future for public education.

Earlier this year, the CTU tried to take the legislative initiative by proposing measures with $502 million in new revenue that would only require immediate action by City Hall. By contrast, CPS supported legislation in Springfield that would supposedly bring $380 million to CPS--far short of the billions that Claypool claims the system needs.

CTU members have been tasked to bring teams of teachers and community members to visit their local alderman and argue for a series of local taxes--including, unfortunately, a regressive gas tax.

More positively, the union has also demanded that the mayor declare a surplus in the tax increment financing (TIF) budget. That's the tax dollars diverted from schools, libraries and other government agencies to fund "economic development" schemes that puts money into politically connected contractors and commercial real estate businesses.

Rahm Emanuel has flatly rejected these revenue solutions, calling them a burden on Chicago taxpayers. The mayor also pointed out that raising funds locally would let Rauner off the hook for equally funding Chicago students. But after watching Emanuel squeeze school spending for years, it's difficult to take him seriously when he poses as the defender of CPS.

Even if the current legislation or some other stopgap measure to fund Chicago schools should pass, we won't be clear of trouble. The Board of Education will still demand huge concessions from the CTU while continuing to strangle our schools.

That's why adequate school funding and a decent contract for teachers will ultimately depend not on a deal in Springfield, but on our ability to step up the fight--today and in the years ahead.

Lee Sustar contributed to this article.