The New Chicago School Budget Strangles Public Education

When you wage war on the public schools, you’re attacking the mortar that holds the community together. You’re not a conservative, you’re a vandal.” —Garrison Keeler


The 2013 Chicago Public Schools (CPS) budget received a resounding thumbs down at a community forum held at Malcolm X College on the West Side the evening of July 11. Over 200 people filled the auditorium to listen to an explanation of the budget from Chief Operating Officer Tim Cawley and then ask questions and make their own recommendations. The reaction of those who spoke from the audience was overwhelmingly negative. Cawley was loudly booed several times. Similar meetings were held at Kennedy-King and Daley colleges on the South Side. No meetings were held on the city’s North Side.

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) described it as a “fantasy budget at best.”

Earlier that day Moody’s Investor’s Service lowered the CPS bond rating, noting that the $431 million dollar reserve fund had been emptied to pay for the 2013 budget. Moody’s warned that,”The drastic use of reserves will eliminate the district’s unreserved operating fund balance and significantly reduce operating liquidity.”


Moody’s said that a second rating drop may happen in the near future. The ratings drop means that the CPS will have to pay more to borrow money. It already has accumulated a 5.6 billion dollar debt.


The budget has ignited a firestorm of opposition across the city, with even the normally conservative Chicago Tribune and Crains Chicago Business   chiming in. The Chicago schools budget fight has national implications as other cities struggle with similar problems.


Raiding neighborhood schools to pay for privatization & charters

Board of Ed representative Cawley presented a PowerPoint that laid out a future of more standardized testing and more charter schools, neither of which address the rampant educational crisis across the city.


Teachers feel pressured to “teach to the test” which diminishes students’ joy of learning and exploration, while limiting the development of critical thinking skills. Many neighborhood schools, particularly in working class communities of color, are being drained of resources and deprived of art, music, libraries, computer labs & playgrounds. Neighborhood schools are anchors in their communities. Attacking them only feeds social disruption and violence.

Teachers face:

~overcrowded classrooms

~inadequate preparation time

~inadequate labs and similar facities

~leaky roofs, peeling paint & falling plaster

~poor indoor air quality and temperature control

~the threat of violence

~job insecurity

~paying for classroom materials out of own pocket


The budget does not address the now mandated longer school day, nor the need for an adequate pay raise for Chicago teachers who will have many extra hours of work added. Chicago teachers already work an estimated 58 hour workweek. Experienced teachers are losing their jobs as CPS hires cheaper less experienced people for their charters and “turnaround” schools.


The Board’s presentation celebrated its efforts to empower school principals, but was silent on how to empower teachers, who actually do the face to face work of education. This silence speaks louder than words ever could.

The Resistance

Before the forum even began, the newly organized Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign(CTSC) held a press conference outside Malcolm X College to announce their opposition to the proposed 2013 budget. Begun by activists from Occupy Chicago to support the Chicago Teachers Union in its negotiations with the Board, the group is now a broad network of union, community, student and parent groups who support both teachers and public education. The group hopes that a teachers’ strike can be avoided, but is prepared to offer full support if teachers do strike.


UIC labor studies professor Steven Ashby called the formation of CTSC unprecedented saying:


”In more than 30 years of watching labor relations I’ve never seen a grassroots solidarity committee form before a strike, let alone 2 or 3 months before the possibility of a strike”


David Hernandez, a social studies teacher in Chicago’s Little Village community on the Southwest Side spoke about his experience in the classroom:


”Educators are being asked to work 20 percent more, and this budget projects to pay us an insulting 2 percent (raise). Not only that, there’s no provision for our members to be compensated for their experience, and for their continued education degrees, which is not only required by the state of Illinois, but also which directly benefit our students. It’s an insult to educators.”


Parent groups around the city  have already pledged that support for public education and its teachers. Erica Clark, from Parents for Teachers, also spoke to the media saying:


”The schools continue to be starved of basic resources – counselors, social workers, nurses, math specialists, art and music teachers – all the things that parents want for their kids, and that we understand our kids need.”


Inside Malcolm X College, CTSC members joined with others to voice concerns

Speaking from the audience a member of the High HOPES (Healing Over the Punishment of Expulsions and Suspensions) Campaign described the Board disciplinary policies as a “school to prison” pipeline, resorting to extreme punitive measures and pushing students out of school through suspensions and expulsions.


According to the High HOPES Campaign,”…there were more than 40,000 students suspended and 600 students expelled.” The Campaign wants the Board to expand the Restorative Justice program which is designed to keep kids in schools instead of being cast out on to the streets.


Jan Rodolfo of National Nurses United (NNU) echoed this theme when she talked about the kids who are carried into emergency rooms with bullets in their bodies from Chicago’s endemic street violence. Well supported neighborhood schools can help prevent these tragedies, especially now when crossing gang boundaries can lead to injury and death.

A teacher from Kelvyn Park High School on the Northwest Side explained how his school is being starved for funding while charter schools in nearby communities seem to have everything they need. He felt like his school was surrounded, cherry-picked and besieged.

A special education teacher described how her overcrowded classroom made teaching nearly impossible until her principal finagled a size reduction and she could suddenly educate children again. As one leaflet that circulated among the audience put it, smaller class sizes are an educational reform that works. Research backs up the importance of smaller class sizes.


Because of the economic and social crisis that grips working class Chicago, many Chicago students come to school with multiple personal problems that must be addressed if they are to succeed. A school social worker who is overwhelmed by being responsible for 3 schools, showed how the budget does little to increase the number of social workers and counselors.

A number of speakers criticized how the City of Chicago was misusing TIF money and how large corporations were being under-taxed at a time when Chicago’s working families were hit with another property tax increase. Lorraine Chavez, a parent activist with the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign, strongly criticized the decision of the Board to draw down its reserve fund. She reminded the Board that Moody’s downgrading of the debt could have dire consequences when the the schools are forced to borrow at a higher rate.


Board spokespeople often claim that there is “no money”, but Mr. Cawley failed to point out that the City of Chicago and the State of Illinois are always throwing money at problems as long as the money sticks to the wealthy.

  • The Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) threw a tantrum and demanded a $77 million dollar state tax break. Poof! It appeared.
  • The Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE) wanted a 15 million dollar state tax break.Poof! It appeared.
  • Penny Pritzker of the Chicago Board of Education wanted $5.2 million dollars of Tax Increment Fund (TIF) money to build a new Hyatt Hotel. Poof! It appeared.
  • Now Doug Oberhelman of Caterpillar, one of the largest employers in Illinois, is complaining about a tax increase and threatening to move the Caterpillar offices out of Peoria IL. Caterpillar made record profits of $4.5 billion 2011 and Oberhelman brought home $16.9 million.

Illinois has one of the most regressive taxing structures in the nation as corporations use such creative tax breaks as the “Vendor Discount” and the “Single Sales Factor” combined with depreciation tricks that according to researchers Thomas Cafcas and Greg LeRoy cost the State more than $600 million dollars a year.


Schools in Illinois are largely financed through property taxes which means that Chicago, with its widespread poverty, is at a disadvantage compared with wealthy districts like Winnetka in the northern suburbs.


Of course when school funding comes from the federal level,  with its massive subsidies to oil, agribiz  and weapons along with our endless wars in places like Afghanistan, well, I’ll let you do the math. We seem to find the money to kill children in poverty stricken countries but not educate them in our own.


The CPS 2013 budget is disaster capitalism at work

In 2008, Canadian activist Naomi Klein published The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. In it she showed how political and corporate leaders use natural and human created disasters to impose economic austerity through”…economic shock therapy.”

An example would be  New Orleans where in the wake of mass devastation from Hurricane Katrina and poor levee engineering, residents found that their public schools were being privatized by fiat. Although this was presented as an expansion of “choice,” the choice of a top quality neighborhood public school was obviously a low priority. Instead resources were diverted to expanding charter schools. Working class students of color are  being left behind in the rapid expansion of charter schools with their selective enrollments that favor more middle class and white students.


Starting to sound familiar? I’ve come to believe that we are seeing this process unfold in Chicago. By systematically under-taxing wealthy corporations and expanding charters with little public accountability, Chicago is creating a two tier educational system segregated by race and class.


The attack on the Chicago Teachers Union is part of the offensive.

The CTU has presented a comprehensive program of reform based on smaller class size, a de-emphasis on hi-stakes testing and many other changes based on sound educational research. It’s entitled The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve and you may download it for free. It is sensible reform applied to ALL Chicago students, not just the children of middle class professionals and the wealthy, who because of our persistent racial caste system, will be mostly white. The Chicago Board of Education and the corporate owned media have almost completely ignored the CTU reform package. No wonder. Quality education for ALL of the working class majority of the city is not high on their priority list.


The decision to wipe out the Board of Education’s reserve fund will give Chicago’s corporate leaders the ability to provoke a financial crisis as they have done before in Chicago’s history. A banker-led “crisis” is a powerful “shock treatment” weapon to blunt the effects of a likely teachers’ strike in the fall.  As the Board continues to expand charters and other privatization schemes, they hope to reach a “tipping point” where the CTU and its allies would be so weakened that effective resistance would collapse and a two tier system of class and race-based education would prevail.


The attack on the CTU is also an attack on public employee unions throughout the city and a powerful lesson to the remaining private sector unions. Your wages and benefits are also on the chopping block. It’s an attack on small businesses which depend heavily on customers who can actually afford to buy what they are selling. It’s an attack on communities like Woodlawn, Kenwood, K-Town and North Lawndale who desperately need high paying jobs and lively innovative small businesses.


It’s the disaster capitalism strategy, Windy City-style. If successful, think Detroit on Lake Michigan.  

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