Special Report • Part 1 of 5
This week, TheseDays’ latest addition, Nicole Kreizel, dives into the current state of operations at Chicago Public Schools. CPS has a long history of budget shortfalls and school closings, and the back and forth between Springfield and Chicago has been contentious. The latest sparring between Rahm Emanuel and Bruce Rauner has caused the public schools’ situation heading into 2017 to become a flashpoint in the state’s agenda.
Politicians, along with teachers, parents, students and nonprofits, have all shaped, and are continuing to contribute to, Chicago’s educational landscape. Over the course of the next five days, we will delve into the key decisions and issues within this realm.
Not often known as the arbiter of shrewd choices, the State of Illinois, if it evenly distributed funds across the state, could inject an estimated $500 million in additional funding into the current fiscal year.
On Tuesday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago Board of Education sued Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Illinois State Board of Education, accusing the state of utilizing “separate and unequal systems” for funding public education in Illinois, as their ongoing political battle advances into the legal realm.
This lawsuit, that was filed in the Cook County Chancery Division on behalf of five African-American and Hispanic Chicago Public School families, asked a judge to bar the state from distributing state aid in a manner discriminatory against the plaintiffs.
The lawsuit says that “the state treats CPS's schoolchildren, who are predominantly African American and Hispanic, as second-class children, relegated to the back of the state's education funding school bus,” citing that CPS receives 15 percent of the state’s education funding even though it holds about 20 percent of the state’s students. This rhetoric eerily brings us back to the era of Jim Crow education and the landmark case that was supposed to end any correlation between race and education, Brown v. Board of Education.
The lawsuit also highlights that black, Hispanic and other students of color, many of whom are poor, make up about 90 percent of the CPS student body, while public school students in the rest of the state are “predominantly white.”
Rauner's office said in a statement that the state is still reviewing the lawsuit.
“But it is important to remember that the bipartisan, bicameral school funding commission just issued its report, which recommends an equitable school funding formula that defines adequacy according to the needs of students within each school district,” said Beth Purvis, Rauner's education secretary, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Purvis is referencing the Illinois School Funding Reform Commission’s recent call for an increase of at least $3.5 billion in school money over the next 10 years. The panel said that more money should be spent on districts with higher populations of poor students, but it did not disclose detailed methods for state officials to review, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Emanuel’s recent tirade on Rauner continued on Tuesday as he told reporters that Rauner’s broken school system and inadequate funding “penalizes poor kids in poor school districts and rewards wealthy kids in wealthy school districts,” according to the Chicago Tribune.
In a speech to the Economic Club of Chicago, the mayor continued criticizing Rauner’s handling of CPS, focusing on the governor’s failure to deliver a balanced budget which had “the biggest adverse effect” on Chicago’s economy, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Despite Emanuel and Rauner’s public outcries against each other, do not forget that these two men have shared business deals, vacations and Napa Valley Reserve wine. Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) President Karen Lewis said she was not impressed by the lawsuit, or the “fake fight between Rahm and Rauner” about an issue that might seem new to them, but has always been relevant to the CTU, according to the Chicago Tribune.
“So now they're figuring out that schools are funded in a discriminatory manner?” Lewis said in the same article.
Lewis and the CTU have been speaking out about these issues for years, blaming Emanuel and Rauner alike, despite the mayor recently bashing Rauner for neglecting the public schools’ needs. Emanuel shut down 50 public schools, almost all of them in black and Latino neighborhoods, in 2013, and Emanuel chose a CPS chief executive who pleaded guilty to corruption charges in 2015. These events do not leave him with the best track record in the eyes of many parents and teachers.
Gov. Rauner’s Veto
CTU and CPS officials are especially critical of Rauner’s decision, on Dec. 1, to veto a $215 million funding bill for CPS that the district already included in its 2016-17 budget to pay for employees’ pensions.
This brings us to the pension crisis, another hot topic that is actually dated. Over the past few years, CPS has struggled to maintain and fund its own teachers’ pension system, while the rest of the districts in Illinois have resided in a statewide retirement fund heavily subsidized by the state, according to Reuters.
In February 2015, CPS had to borrow money in order to make its $634 million pension payment, and as a result of the ensuing debt, CPS was forced to lay off approximately 1,400 positions.
About four months later, pensions came to the forefront again. Rauner and Democratic legislative leaders agreed on six-month spending plan to get the state through the end of the year, which included the $215 million for CPS to pay Chicago teachers’ pensions, according to CBS Chicago.
As you already know (spoiler: look four paragraphs up), this plan proved too good to be true, and CPS was later hit with Rauner’s veto. Arming himself for battle, the governor said Democratic leaders agreed they would come up with a “comprehensive” plan to fix the state's pension crisis, which they had not done, and that the $215 million was contingent on that plan.
“Without reforms to solve our structural problems, taxpayer money would continue to be wasted on bailout after bailout,” Rauner said in a message to legislators. The governor stressed that taxpayers want a balanced budget, and he said this would not be possible with the existing imbalances bankrupting the state and CPS.
Senate President John Cullerton, however, fought back, denying that there was an agreement to pass broad pension reform by the end of the current General Assembly.
“The governor just indicated that he wasn’t gonna sign because of his desire to have some kind of pension reform,” Cullerton told reporters at a press conference, according to NBC 5 Chicago. “It was very vague, there was never any agreement by us as to what that might be.”
Following the decision, the Illinois Senate voted to override Rauner’s veto, but the House adjourned without voting on the measure.
“Springfield is in gridlock,” said Martin Ritter, an active member of CTU. “And CPS claims it will balance the budget, maybe with more cuts and more layoffs, we don’t know, but it is up to the mayor to figure it out.”
District officials have been meeting with Emanuel to discuss ways to deal with these cuts, which might include more layoffs and delays in buying textbooks and new technology, according to an article in The Chicago Tribune.
Some of these tactics are already concrete. On Jan. 17, the CEO of CPS, Forrest Claypool, announced that all District employees will have to take four unpaid furlough days this school year, in order to save about $35 million and reduce the budget hole left by the veto. These days were previously set aside as School Improvement Days, or days used for teachers’ professional development training.
On Feb. 13, CPS officials said they will be slashing $46 million from public schools’ budgets in emergency midyear cuts, according to DNAinfo.
“The government is just looking at dollar figures and putting money on these kids’ futures and educations,” said Latoya Peterson, who has a child at Jordan Elementary Community School in Rogers Park. “They are not looking at the bigger picture, how this affects the students.”
CPS officials also cancelled the district’s central staff’s professional development events, according to DNAinfo, in order to save $5 million.
Some schools, like Chase Elementary in Logan Square, will no longer be able to buy enrichment books or pay teachers to come to additional staff meetings, due to these midyear budget cuts (DNAinfo). The elementary school, which mostly enrolls low-income Hispanic students, already had to fire its art and music teacher and abandon all after-school programs before receiving news of the most recent $1 million loss.
“Since Governor Rauner is denying fair funding to Chicago students, we are forced to make cuts that will create new challenges for schools that are working to build on their academic gains. But make no mistake, any additional cuts we are forced to make would fall squarely at the governor’s feet,” said Claypool, in a press release on Jan. 13. On Twitter (so you know it’s real) he added, “We will keep fighting for equal funding for all IL students. CPS students can't be pawns in Gov Rauner's games.”