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Drawing battle lines won’t save our schools

On my children’s public school playground, they’re talking progress reports and soccer games. Nobody’s touching the looming Chicago Public Schools crisis – not the Illinois court ruling rejecting pension reform, the severely downgraded credit ratings or the overwhelming debt.

In Chicago Teachers Union meetings, they’re celebrating the court decision and preparing for a strike; claiming the crisis is purposeful, that pay-cut proposals are punitive. Nobody’s discussing the $1.1 billion deficit from ballooning pension costs, or the 60 percent of promised pensions Detroit teachers are now left with following their own financial debacle. Nobody’s telling teachers the celebration is short-lived.

OPINION

In our governor’s mansion, they’re talking CPS bankruptcy as a means to get out of these unsustainable contractual pension obligations. Nobody’s discussing the human toll on families whose children need a solid education or on educators who’ve dedicated their lives to our kids and count on their retirements.

We can’t hide our heads in the sand, hoping our schools will be fine. Yet, the choices seem polarizing and hopeless — a teacher strike or bankruptcy, an insurmountable mountain of growing debt.

The Civic Federation, a watchdog group, has stated that solving this crisis demands that all stakeholders be committed to sacrifice and change. As a therapist working with families and schools, I’ve learned that parties need to trust they’re committed together.

It’s too easy for union leaders to only complain about what’s not working, deny financial realities and incite. It’s also too easy to treat public education like a corporation, slashing funding to needed social and educational programs to save money when real lives are affected. What’s harder is working to preserve and improve essential services while finding ways to sacrifice and pay our bills.

What happened to “socially progressive and fiscally responsible”? Today, the reasonable middle is on the political near-extinction list. Politicians who risk it get pummeled from the left for being too pro-business and slammed from the right for being too liberal.

In Chicago, Mayor Emanuel is challenged by unions for pushing needed pension reform, adding school choice and closing underutilized schools. He’s criticized by the right for pushing higher minimum wages and borrowing funds to sustain our children’s education. Maybe that means he’s doing something right. Certainly, he can’t do it alone.

For CPS to survive, all sides must come to the table.  Unions must negotiate, taxes must be increased, cuts must be made, a casino and state aid must seriously be considered, and we all must support the effort. Acknowledging problems is important. Finding solutions is paramount.

Have missteps been made? Do inequalities still exist in our schools? Yes. The mayor promised he’ll have more dialogue with teachers. He should. They know what’s working.

Is it fair that decades of grossly underfunded pensions by past state and city politicians left needed programs struggling, larger class sizes and jeopardized retirements? No. But sadly, here we are.

Some may think that just taxing homeowners and corporations is the fairest way out of this mess, but we know that strategy alone is insufficient and unsustainable. Families and jobs don’t stay. A shrinking student population and less revenue for the city only exacerbate the growing fiscal crisis.

As parents and educators, we teach our children to collaborate, problem solve. Yet, ironically, when it comes to their education, we draw battle lines that make it impossible to address real problems collectively. Shame on us.

To those who insist we can’t be pro-public education, pro-teacher and pro-City Hall: Shame on them. It’s exactly what we must be.

We’re told with crisis comes opportunity, but with opportunity comes a responsibility to sacrifice together and find common ground.It’s our only hope for getting our city’s schools on track.

Alana Baum, Ph.D., is a  psychologist and an adjunct professor at Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago. She is also a local school council member for a Chicago public school.