Karen Lewis: How to avoid calamity of closing schools early

SHARE Karen Lewis: How to avoid calamity of closing schools early

Chicago Teachers Union members march in June 2016. | Sun-Times file photo

Chance the Rapper has recently stepped up to address the fiscal crisis in Chicago Public Schools. Unlike Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Gov. Bruce Rauner, Chance has not made excuses, but instead, made a sincere effort to avoid the calamity of ending the 2016-2017 school year a month early on June 1.

Private philanthropy and goodwill, however, are a wholly inadequate method for providing a sustainable and fully funded school district. At this rate, we would need more than 200 Chances to emerge to fill in the gaps already imposed and planned for CPS this year.


There is incredible violence, fear and trauma throughout Chicago that students are harboring within their schools. Additionally, the mayor’s handpicked Chicago Board of Education callously cut budgets in February at low-income, predominantly Black and Latino schools at twice the rate as predominantly white schools, exacerbating an already separate and unequal school system in our city.

Whether it is the one part-time social worker serving 1,700 students at Sawyer Elementary one day a week, the 37 English as a Second Language students in a Roosevelt High School class, or the shooting deaths of CPS students such as Kanari Gentry Bowers and Diego Villada, right now is the absolutely worst moment to impose greater harm upon our most vulnerable children. But this is what Emanuel and CPS CEO Forrest Claypool are proposing.

The good news is that both city and state government

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis. / Sun-Times photo

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis. / Sun-Times photo

have the means — if not the political will — to follow Chance’s lead. Cook County Clerk David Orr found that, last year, tax increment financing (TIF) receipts in Chicago leapt to nearly $100 million more than what was projected. This year is likely to produce an even greater TIF projection as property values continue to rebound across the metro area. That money could help the district avoid closing schools a month early, a disastrous decision that would subject almost 400,000 students to violent streets and the loss of academic opportunities.

Our projections are that if the City of Chicago put a freeze on all TIF projects and had the entire surplus go to CPS instead of just half, Chicago’s public schools would see up to $250 million annually beyond the district’s current budget. This would be enough to eliminate the need for cutting the four professional development days Claypool and the mayor imposed this year, or the aforementioned February freeze on school budgets.

An ordinance in the Chicago City Council’s Finance Committee would allow for this important change, while a bill in the Illinois House would allow TIF dollars to be used for the first time ever for special education and wraparound supports in schools — services our schools desperately need. Either one of these options is better than allowing our schools to falter.

Additionally, 35th Ward Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa has discussed reinstating the city’s corporate head tax — a tax the mayor eliminated when he was first elected — which could raise around $100 million and is also enough to remove the threat of closing school early.

The mayor has figured out how to plug every budget hole in the city except for our schools while he points to Springfield and claims there is nothing left for him to do. He opened funding streams for fire and police pensions; found the resources to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in police settlements. He worked to change state law and successfully lobbied for the means to finance the CTA’s Red Line renovation.

Members of the Chicago Teachers Union prefer to teach rather than grapple with instability caused by poor stewardship of the district. The fact that educators are continuously subjected to budget cuts and threatened with the elimination of a month of school is the only reason we have considered strike action. If our elected and appointed leaders did the right thing and invested in our students and schools, then parents and teachers across Chicago would welcome the reduction in anxiety and extreme stress that threats and poor financial decisions have produced.

As June 1 approaches, enough is enough. Chicago’s families deserve some assurances that their children will receive a full year of school — that same year the mayor campaigned so strongly for in 2011. I urge our city, state and district leaders need to stop their childish bickering and finger pointing, stop holding our students and their families hostage, and take the resources available to them and fully fund our schools.

Karen Lewis is president of the Chicago Teachers Union.

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