The Chicago Teachers Union took to the picket lines on the morning of April 1 for a one day strike, highlighting the dire financial conditions of their schools because of the state budget impasse caused by Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner and contract disputes caused by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Teachers and supporters marched in front of public schools before shifting their protests to state universities facing financial catastrophe because of the budget crisis in Springfield. In typical fashion, no politician took responsibility for the continued stress facing public schools and universities. Mayor Emanuel protested that he is doing all that he can with what the state government is willing to give, and Governor Rauner issued a boiler plate statement claiming the teachers were victimizing students and their families with a display of “arrogance.” These statements are rich coming from the mayor who has made closing public schools the centerpiece of education agenda and from the governor who has kept the entire state without a budget for nine months because lawmakers won’t fully endorse his plan to break unions — resulting in a crisis in higher education funding that makes many Illinois families reconsider attending state universities — and whose idea of getting desperately needed funding to urban schools involves “re-purposing” $300 million of special education money for general education funding.
CTU’s action is welcome both for its clarity and for its signal that organized teachers are not going to go along with a governor who holds all of a state hostage to get his anti-labor priorities passed — or with a mayor whose school improvement ideas begin and end with privatization. The only real question is not why Chicago’s teachers took to the picket lines but rather why a hell of a lot more teachers have not done so across the nation?
President of the Americans Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten said, ““This governor is bankrupting public schools so they won’t effectively function for kids….If you can’t solve things through the normal processes, if you have exhausted every advocacy avenue in a democracy, you then step it up — and that’s what they’re doing.” Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis tied the strike to larger labor issues across Illinois, “For every single working person in this entire state, somebody’s got to lead the way. It happened to fall to CTU.” She could have easily been talking about several dozen states and the assault on public education that has unfolded across the country.
Let’s review only part of the national roll call:
- Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, having already hobbled the state’s public sector unions, championed budgets that savage public education, slashing 100s of millions of dollars from Wisconsin’s world class public university system and transferring K-12 public education dollars into vouchers that can be used even in parochial schools. Governor Walker’s attacks on education are not merely financial; he has put forward ideas that would essentially remove academic freedom from faculty across the University of Wisconsin system and would fundamentally change the mission of the university system to utilitarianism. It is entirely possible that Governor Walker has damaged one of the nation’s great public university systems for years to come. The only consolation coming out of Wisconsin under Walker is that “Scott Walker – I Can Kill America’s Future Like I Killed Wisconsin’s” was not a winning Presidential campaign slogan.
- Former Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal was even worse for his state’s public universities. Taxpayers picked up roughly 60% of the cost for higher education in Louisiana previously, but that share was down to 25% by the time Governor Jindal was done, refusing even to restore funds when the economy began to recover from the Great Recession. Governor Jindal likes to say that the all-charter school system in New Orleans should be a national model, but the reality of New Orleans schools is far less rosy and a lot less parent empowering than champions of privatization ever admit.
- Kansas Governor Sam Brownback promised that his massive tax cuts would energize Kansas’ economy, but he blew a massive hole in the state budget – that he keeps trying to fill with cuts to public education. The situation has gotten so bad that the Kansas Supreme Court has ordered the Governor and Legislature to restore at least $100 million of funding, leading lawmakers to contemplate the impeachment of judges over ideological differences rather than over conduct. Kansas legislators would rather impeach judges than fund their schools.
- North Carolina has been systematically deconstructing its public education system. Budget cuts, falling wages, attacks on meager existing workplace protections and retirement promises, cuts to successful teacher preparation programs, vouchers funneling public money to private and religious schools while decreasing oversight of charter schools, massive budget cuts to the world class University of North Carolina system and attacks on professor’s working conditions — if anyone in Raleigh actually cares if North Carolina has public education in any form that person has been almost silent.
- New Jersey Governor Chris Christie likes to claim that Garden State education funding has never been higher, but the reality is that districts have never recovered from the steep cuts he made when he entered office and most districts do not get the state aid promised by law in Trenton, leaving New Jersey schools short $7 billion in state aid since the School Funding Reform Act was enacted. Local revenue growth from property taxes is capped at 2%. This would be bad enough without Governor Christie’s own form of special disdain for schools, teachers, and communities, but the man’s record of disrespect and lack of interest in listening to anyone is epic. Governor Christie imposed the disastrous and incompetent Cami Anderson on Newark who proceeded to implement a poorly thought out plan called “One Newark” without any regard to community input. To make matters even worse, nearly half of the schools in the district, which has been run by Trenton for two decades, have lead contamination in drinking water above federal safety guidelines. Memos show that officials in Anderson’s office knew about the risks of lead in the water in 2014, and tests showed elevated lead levels at least as early as 2012 but nothing was done. There is no way to know whether this information was ever sent to Anderson’s bosses in Trenton, but I cannot think of a reason why most of the Newark office should not face child endangerment charges. And just to rub a bit more salt in public education’s wounds: when Governor Christie returned from his failed Presidential bid, he quickly showed up at North Star Academy in Newark to promise a lot more charter schools in Brick City even if he has to “run over” Mayor Ras Baraka to do it. North Star is one of those “no excuses” charter schools that anti-public school types like Governor Christie adore – even though North Star routinely suspends a THIRD of its students each year and the class of 2016 is FORTY PERCENT SMALLER THAN WHEN IT ENROLLED.
- Behind Ohio Governor John Kasich’s campaign smile is an utter and total unwillingness to provide even basic oversight to the state’s growing charter school sector (including the state’s top charter official changing school ratings), and the combination of a budget cutting local school aid with legislation “deregulating” schools, including allowing “high performing” districts to enlarge class sizes and do without some teacher credential requirements.
- Just in case Democrats are feeling smug: New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s war on schools and teachers is well documented by now. The Democrat’s 2015 education agenda was designed almost entirely around using state tests to rank more teachers incompetent. Cuomo inherited a school aid budget that failed to meet the requirements of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity settlement, and at no point has he proposed coming close to what was agreed upon in 2007. Worse, Albany keeps using accounting gimmicks implemented as emergency measures during the Great Recession to take school aid back from districts even after passing a budget. Governor Cuomo plays favorites with the charter school sector in New York in a manner that rivals any other governor in the nation, going so far as to orchestrate a pro-charter rally in Albany on the exact same day the mayor of New York City was rallying for pre-Kindergarten funding. After taking a beating in public opinion polls largely based on his education plan, Governor Cuomo trimmed his education agenda for 2016 to only 364 words – including a $200 tax credit for teachers who spend their own money on supplies. Despite the kitten routine, Cuomo pushed for, and ultimately backed off of, an effort to force New York City to pick up an additional $485 million of the operating budget for City University of New York.
- Just up the road, Governor Dannel Malloy of Connecticut entered his Hartford office pushing for major changes to teachers’ workplace protections. It must have also been a total coincidence when the Connecticut Democratic Party received $91,000 in donations from a single charter school backer Jonathan Sackler, and then $21 million in new charter school funding was offered in a year when local school funding remained flat.
- And this brings us right back to Chicago and Mayor Rahm Emanuel whose indifference to community concerns inspired a 34 day long hunger strike by activists in the Bronzeville section of the city – during which the Mayor pettily refused to meet with them. After a first term highlighted by closing almost 50 schools in mostly minority neighborhoods, Mayor Emanuel is still slashing money from Chicago’s school budget with help from Springfield’s budget circus – this time in the middle of the school year – leading to student walk outs and contributing to this week’s strike.
Attacks on public K-12 and university education are not limited to these examples. Total per pupil funding for elementary and secondary schools remains, adjusted for inflation, below 2008 levels in all but 13 states because of both state aid cuts and loss of local revenue from property taxes. In 27 states, local funding for K-12 schools rose but could not make up for continued cuts in state aid. 25 states continue to provide less money per pupil today than they did before the Great Recession, and 12 states cut general education funding just in this past year. Higher education has done no better with all but three states funding their public universities below 2008 levels, both on a percentage of previous funding and on a per pupil basis. Although 37 states spent more per pupil in the 2014-2015 school year than before, the national average increase was only $268 per student. Perversely, state schools have had to increase tuition while cutting programs and staff, and now, for the first time, tuition makes up a larger percentage of public university revenue than state grants. Attacks on teachers’ workplace protections have gone nationwide, hitting courtrooms with dark money funded campaigns where they cannot gain traction among lawmakers, and it appears that only the untimely death of Associate Justice Scalia prevented the Supreme Court from gutting decades of precedent on public union funding.
Once again, the question must be asked: Why aren’t many, many more teachers across the country joining their sisters and brothers in Chicago in demonstrating that their voices are still there and can speak loudly when they speak together? It isn’t just the future of their work that is still clearly at stake – it is the future of every child they teach. President Weingarten said, “….if you have exhausted every advocacy avenue in a democracy, you then step it up — and that’s what they’re doing.”
Chicago is Everytown, USA.