Water resource management, with impacts sweeping across public health, food production, security, energy, industry, and environmental sustainability, is one of the most consequential economic and societal drivers today.
Legislation currently on Governor Quinn's desk could dramatically alter the way Illinois manages its own water resources. House Bill 1379 would allow Illinois American Water and Aqua Illinois, two of the state's largest private water companies, to expedite acquisitions of municipal water systems and increase customer rates to fund their expansion.
Chicago schools have seen reductions at almost every level over the past couple years. Cuts to teacher salaries, jobs, and benefits, student arts and athletics programs, and even entire school budgets have created a new austerity within CPS. Amidst all the downsizing, however, one educational element has been growing in stark contrast. Teach For America recruits are teeming into Chicago schools like never before.
Teach For America, a branch of AmeriCorps, is the largest school reform not-for-profit organization in our country. On a mission to improve education and break the cycle of poverty, TFA recruits elite college graduates, gives them about a month of intensive training, and places them in two year termed teaching positions at low-income schools across the country.
When Seth Lavin asks questions, he gets answers. Lavin is a local teacher, parent, and education observer, and briefly published a newsletter following Chicago education news. He's a thoughtful man who has recently been active in the school closure process -- or, "process" -- surrounding Brentano School in Logan Square. Frustrated with the Chicago Public Schools' posture during the closures, Lavin recently posted 10 questions to Twitter meant to question CPS's assertion that its school closure process and the related charterification was purely data-motivated (what I and others would refer to as "technocratic").
CPS felt the need to respond to Lavin's thoughtful questions. Their responses are forceful, but hardly get to Lavin's essential point: if school closures don't really save money, if the past closures haven't improved outcomes for children, and if the main criteria for closing schools, "underutilization," doesn't itself harm student outcomes, why is CPS causing these communities so much pain, ignoring the outrage in the community, and undermining community schools?
One could add: and why are they doing it to support and institutionalize a program of charterification when charters can't be said to be as efficacious as they claim, and scandals like the United Neighborhoods Organization (UNO) scandal are becoming more frequent and acute?
I envy Lavin. I doubt CPS would have answered my 10 questions. I don't need to doubt actually; these are precisely the questions critics of the privatization of the Chicago school system have been raising at least since 2005.
Privatization is the modus operandi of the Emanuel administration, inherited from a clear precedent set forth by former Mayor Daley's policies. The city is broke and many private businesses are ready to put the capital up front to solve our problems -- for a small profit, and sometimes a large cost for us. Several of these recent privatization contracts stand to outlive the people who signed them as well. The Reader reminds of the 99-year-long lease of the Skyway. There's others too. Such as the parking meter deal -- just a few years into a 75-year contract and already the city and the company Chicago Parking Meters LLC have begun to sue each other. At least we only have 71 more years to go.
Chicagoans ought to be concerned about Emanuel's deal to sell off more parts of the city to advertisers for two reasons. One, because of the familiar sentiment that it was brokered under questionable circumstances. And two, because we should start discussing how far we want this city-brought-to-you-by-our-sponsors to go. That second part isn't an easy discussion to frame; calling that process nebulous would be putting it mildly.
Last month, Rahm Emanuel made a curious remark in an interview with Bloomberg BusinessWeek about his plans to upgrade Chicago's infrastructure. While explaining how his newly-created Chicago Infrastructure Trust would operate, he claimed that the United States had the world's most capitalist economy, yet was also "the only economy that still does its infrastructure on a socialist model, state-owned."
Rahm's old boss, President Barack Obama, currently oversees the country's supposed "socialist" road-building enterprise. But if he gets re-elected, he may actually follow Rahm's lead in advocating more private investment in infrastructure projects. In fact, he has been trying to create his own version of the Chicago Infrastructure Trust on the federal level since before he was elected.
As it turns out Romney made a killing from his time as CEO of Bain, but he was far from a job creator. Through his work thousands of people lost their jobs. The corporation uses a "Corporate Reform" model that looks a lot like the current model being used by billionaire-backed Astroturf groups claiming it will fix schools. Bain's a private equity firm that specialized in "leveraged buyouts." According to Slate.com:
Leveraged buyouts, which are what private equity firms do, load companies with debt, extract value for middlemen, and displace workers.
The company profits off of lowering the standard of living for workers It cuts middle-class jobs and funnels wealth upwards, much like the way education is being done in Chicago.
Privatization has been accelerating at break-neck speed (and in ludicrous ways) the last thirty years or so, in part because of the decline in government revenues and the general growth of the neoliberal consensus that assumes the profit motive brings with it ideal efficiency. It is also an efficient means of weakening the labor movement, because employees of a government contractor are covered by a different, considerably weaker, set of labor laws than employees of a state actor.
But privatization isn't new; in fact, privatization of public services was quite common back in the day, and by back in the day I mean ancient Rome.
The late Roman Republic grew quickly as a result of conquests and voluntary ceding. There was no time to inculcate Roman civic values and grow the necessary institutions to ensure administration along Roman lines. Instead, what the Roman Senate, Consuls, and other governing bodies did to guarantee the provisioning of necessary public services and the gathering of taxes was to contract powerful local men, called Publicans, to provide these services and gather these taxes.
The Publicans in turn grew immensely wealthy with these government contracts, and thus were able to flex significant political muscle in Rome itself, through the buying of tribal leaders in elections and the funding of foreign adventures for ambitious soldiers and politicians. It was a textbook rent-seeking loop.
The privatization craze may be leading to similar results in the U.S. (hopefully without the foreign adventures, although, you know; military-industrial complex). Stories have been popping up with increasing frequency indicating that privatizing the provisioning of public goods is creating wealth, but not, as it were, provisioning public goods any more efficiently.
First, here's Paul Krugman on the privatization of the prison industry--he touches on several of the key points, so I'm quoting at length:
The media is reporting, occasionally breathlessly, on the "standoff" and "contest" between the Board of Education--a proxy for the Mayor, who appoints it and controls it--and the Chicago Teachers Union, the democratically-elected collective bargaining representative for 24,000 public school teachers.
I watched an interesting debate over the weekend unfold on Twitter between a young academic in education policy and an award-winning teacher and activist. They were arguing about the supposed intractability of teachers and parents over the pro-privatization reforms of groups like Stand for Children and Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). The academic was striking a "reasonable" pose:
You're going to have to compromise. That's politics. There are two sides with competing goals, let's get an agreement.
A bit about Chicago's teachers voting to authorize a strike should talks with the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) break down:
First, a strike authorization is not a call for a strike. Unions are, by statute and traditionally, democratic institutions. Leadership is elected and by-laws approved by the membership. Some organizational decisions require a direct vote by membership (e.g., election of the union leadership) and some through representative bodies--in the case of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), the House of Delegates, composed of delegates elected by members. Because public sector employees are not covered by federal labor law, they are regulated by state laws. So state statutes give public sector workers the right to organize and determine the rules by which they operate. Thus, members delegate authority to the union leadership and other bodies--for example, negotiations are conducted by a negotiation committed chosen by the membership. Similarly, the membership delegates authority to call a strike action by vote. That is what happened; the membership voted to permit leadership to call a strike should one become necessary.
Chicago's teachers voted nearly unanimously to permit a strike should negotiations fail. Ninety-two percent of members voted, and ninety percent of members (but ninety-eight percent of those voting) expressed support for a strike should one be necessary. The analog would be Congress voting to give the President authority to conclude a trade treaty (called "fast-track") without having to return to Congress for ultimate approval; except the strike authorization was more democratic, since all members were permitted to vote.
Beginning today, over 20,000 Chicago teachers will vote on whether or not to authorize their bargaining committee to call for a strike should negotiations with the Board of Education over new contract terms fail. For authorization, 75% of non-retiree union members would need to approve. The voting takes place over three days. This high threshold is the result of legislation passed last year. As state public employees, teachers' collective bargaining rights and terms are governed by state, rather than federal, law.
The legislation in question, known as SB7, was passed after intense and stealth lobbying efforts by Stand for Children, a well-funded non-profit that operates at the state level to encourage entrepreneurial changes to public education that incrementally privatize school systems. Stand for Children co-founder Jonah Edelman famously bragged at a conference that they used access to important and influential political figures like Rahm Emanuel and Michael Madigan, and insiders like Jo Anderson to tighten restrictions on the Chicago Teachers Union. Part of the strategy was to take away one of the union's more potent tools, the strike threat. Unable to take away the right to a work stoppage, Stand settled for a 75% approval threshold.
Now, it is looking like Stand's strategy might backfire, if teachers ultimately vote to authorize a strike. After all, the question teachers will vote on is whether to authorize a strike, not whether to go on strike. Arguably, winning an authorization vote by 50%+1 would not be a real show of strength. A significant portion of teachers would have expressed their opposition to a strike, and maintaining the strike, once called, would be exceedingly difficult. The organizational capacity teachers build by being forced to get over 75% means a resilient strike, should things come to that, and a battle-tempered organization prepared to push hard during negotiations.
Besides the mechanics of it, there are the underlying social conditions that are bringing this to a head.
As the education privatization reforms spread across the country (from Chicago via D.C.), a report out of Roosevelt University threatens to add fuel to the fire of privatization critics, particularly here in Chicago.
The study, by sociology professor Stephanie Farmer, examines how tax increment financing (TIF) funds have been spent on schools. TIFs are controversial financing mechanisms originally created to allow cities to fund development in blighted areas by dedicating property values above a specific amount to projects within those areas. Thanks in no small degree to the work of Ben Joravsky of the Reader (and the now-defunct and terribly named Neighborhood Capital Budget Group), TIFs came to the public attention as de facto slush funds, with little or no oversight, used to divert property tax revenue (mostly from the schools) to be used as "incentives" or givebacks to developers. Because the revenues diverted into funds come from property taxes, the Chicago Public School systems has consistently been the biggest loser in the TIF craze.
Farmer's study does little to assuage the public's concerns. In it, Farmer finds that
CPS's top priority for the allocation of TIF revenues to school construction projects is to support selective enrollment schools....Though selective enrollment schools account for 1% of all CPS schools, they received 24% of all TIF funds spent on school construction projects.
It is hard to merely call it a "perception" that TIFs have been abused to accelerate gentrification, thus substituting displacement for economic development. That selective enrollment and charter schools received more than a third of all TIF funds spent on school construction and improvement projects isn't just an isolated fact. School quality is a strong, if not the strongest, component that determines not only property values but the attitude of young families and professionals to a neighborhood. Therefore diverting funds from CPS by creating a TIF, and then disproportionately spending that TIF money on already-elite schools actively harms the city's working class neighborhoods.
In approving with no modifications Mayor Emanuel's infrastructure trust plan today, the City Council took another step towards ensuring their own irrelevance and wholly privatizing the operations of Chicago. It also took another step towards building up the Mayor's 30-second campaign commercial for whatever higher office he's envisioning (so far, he's got "won the longest school day in the country" and "made the tough decisions to balance the budget"; of course, "took on the special interests (workers)" is a given). They can't be wholly blamed, though. There's little room for them, or any local (and even state) legislatures to maneuver. The corporate tactics of capital strikes and threats of flight have proven their worth. Cities and states have been starved for well over a decade, and now we're reduced to auctioning off what we own to meet our obligations.
In a piece on the Infrastructure Trust last week, I said that it wasn't an inherently terrible idea, in part because there's really no other feasible way to raise the money. Issuing general obligation bonds wouldn't be terrible different, the federal government doesn't spend money on infrastructure any more (at least not in a direct way not routed through private pockets) and the city's wealthiest institutions and individuals are unwilling to pay higher taxes--in fact, are unwilling to pay any taxes that aren't offset by massive welfare entitlements, as the ongoing tax increment financing boondoggle demonstrates.
Taking a step back and considering the broad view, this is an astounding progression of events. Over the last 25 years, Chicago's corporate and political leadership has drained the city of revenue through creation of TIFs as a condition to invest capital in neighborhoods--the whole point of a TIF is that available capital is being withheld until the public provides better incentives for its investment. The billions of dollars diverted into these funds contribute to not only to budget shortfalls but, amazingly, increase taxes on middle class taxpayers, as the school district and other bodies have to raise their tax levy to meet their obligations.
At the same time, the city's corporate powerhouses not only withhold investing capital without generous givebacks, but also threaten to leave if their taxes (euphemistically called the "business climate") are not satisfactory.
The result is a public sector starved of revenue which must then turn to selling off (or "long-term leasing-off") its assets. This in turn, by the way, reduces a city's credit-worthiness even more, making it more difficult to issue bonds in the future and narrowing the city's tax base.
This isn't just random dot connecting; it's actually how investors view Infrastructure Trust vehicles. Consider this bit of finance news from last year:
Earlier this month AMP Capital Investors was appointed by Irish Life Investment Managers to advise on its $1.5bn Irish Infrastructure Trust. The fund is expected to acquire key assets such as airports when the Irish government begins selling down assets to meet its obligations.
[The Irish trust] will provide crucial liquidity to a sector which has, and will continue to be, squeezed of capital. At the same time valuations for infrastructure assets should be low, given the weak macroeconomic outlook, with BMI anticipating a double dip recession to hit in 2012.
Investors in infrastructure trusts are not interested in helping communities (we, a community, are leasing the assets) getting to a place of healthy revenue capable of meeting obligations and investing in long-term projects. To the contrary; the more a community is starved of revenue, the more it'll have to auction off assets. The more it has to auction off assets, the fewer options it has to raise revenue. And on and on.
This morning a coalition of organizations opposed to Mayor Emanuel's proposed Infrastructure Trust Fund urged City Council Finance Committee members to vote on the proposal, calling it "the Great Chicago Sell-Off."
The idea of an infrastructure trust is to avoid funding needed and desirous infrastructure projects--such as public transit upkeep and expansion, building modernization, etc.--with debt. So instead of issuing general obligation bonds, attractive to borrowers because they're backed by property and other taxes the city has unlimited power to raise, the city would get private capital from wealth funds, banks, and other institutions, on the idea that the project would be administered by and in part controlled by that institutions, which would earn a return on its investment over the term of the interest.
So as a hypothetical example, the City wants to build a bus rapid transit line up and down Milwaukee Avenue. Rather than issue bonds that put the city further in debt, members of the Infrastructure Trust like, Macquarie and JP Morgan, put up $500 million to widen Milwaukee Avenue, put in the appropriate curbs, compensate the parking meter consortium for the lost spaces, buy the buses, and put in street signs and benches. In return, Trust members would be given a property interest in the BRT for a period of say 50 years, with the revenue generated either being divvied or going directly to them, either in full for the period of the agreement or up to a pre-defined ceiling that allows a nice return.
In the abstract, there's no real problem with this. We as a city don't have a lot of options. Illinois is broke beyond fixing and the federal government lost its appetite for funding major urban infrastructure projects generations ago. The general atmosphere of anti-tax hysteria makes general obligations a safe investment in theory but risky in practice. If these private institutions are willing to put up the money to develop the city's infrastructure for a similar or even slightly higher rate of return that the city would pay to bond holders, then there is no real loss to the city.
The abstract privatization isn't the problem, of course. It's the reality of it. Consider the hypothetical. In that hypothetical, the Infrastructure Trust would need to reimburse another privatizer, the consortium that bought the parking meter concession, for loss of spaces. This is a considerable cost over the life of a project. The city's agreement with that consortium tied our hands when it comes to planning our own city.
Consider in turn this story about the privatized downtown parking garages. In that agreement, the City promised not to permit competing parking garages to open up nearby. From the investor's point of view, this makes sense; they want a safe investment. From the public's point of view, it's an outrage. First of all, it's hard to see how such a promise serves the public interest, since it reduces competition for parking and thus protects a high-priced monopoly. But also, it seems like an outrageous delegation of the city's general legislative powers.
Privatization is supposed to make things more "efficient" by introducing "market-signals." In reality, however, privatization of public assets usually means binding the city's legislature--meaning us, the people--to long-term agreements that bind our ability to plan and design our city as we please, and keep us indebted to private interests, many of them with no real interest in making Chicago a better place.
A similar problem popped up with the parking meter concessionaire, too as a result of disability parking and its supposed deleterious effect on their bottom line. These agreements also tend to include arbitration agreements that are costly and keep "the City" (i.e., you and I) from going to Court over disagreements in an adversarial system that lets sunlight into operations.
Concessionaires are looking for safe, long-term investments. The more city assets they de facto control, the safer their investment, because the density of privately-controlled city infrastructure cuts into revenue generating opportunities for the city (which in turn makes it more expensive to issue bonds).
The safest investment are those that are most amenable to making a profit--more "monetizable" if you will. This inverts the rationale of infrastructure building. It's why Chicago has such a maddeningly redundant train system. The original lines were privately built, operating under charters granted by the City Council. The train operators knew the best and quickest way to make their money back was to have their train line touch the central business district, thus the creation of the Loop. But the whole point of infrastructure is not to maximize existing revenue opportunities, but to build up and out--to create new ones, even where there is risk, serving the underserved, and experimenting with new forms of infrastructure.
From a planning perspective, the concern with an Infrastructure Trust is that it privatizes our infrastructure decision-making. Rather than building and developing for the common good and to serve the underserved, we will be building and developing only where it is safe to do so, for the smallest cost for maximum return. And where such a decision may conflict with grander, more expensive, and potentially less lucrative plans, the binding, long-term agreements wins out.
As the story on the Monroe Garages indicates, these agreements are also often counter-productive. They lock the city into protecting non-competitive behavior for extremely long terms, with penalties that make forcing change or cancelling agreements costly enough to inhibit public innovation. It makes no sense for the city to agree not to permit competing parking garages, just as it made no sense for the city to guarantee the existence of parking spaces--and think how this inherently impacts the city's ability to move towards a more transit-friendly, bike-friendly planning posture. Consistent privatizing of assets creates a hodge-podge of potentially conflicting property interests owned by outside parties that keeps the city--us--from planning for a future that could, and should, look quite different from today.
From a democracy perspective, the Trust presents the twin problems accountability and transparency. Aldermen had to fight to get the Mayor to include a legislator on the body that makes decision--presumably an alderman he appoints--which does not augur well for the accountability and responsiveness of this body. It creates another appointed body immune to public pressure that further concentrates power in the person of the Mayor.
If we want a legislature that is independent of the Mayor, it'd be nice if it had some power distinct from his. With such limitless control over the Board of Education, the CTA, the CHA, and all the city's planning bodies, much of the reason the City Council can't cultivate any independence is that it has very little operational authority.
Asset privatization will create some jobs, it will modernize or improve some public assets, but it will not do so in a way that is publicly-driven, held well to account or even necessarily money-saving in a long-term sense. It isn't an inherently bad idea, particularly given the absence of lots of other options.
The problem in other words isn't privatization per se, it's privatization per quod.
Politics. A candidate for office envisions his 30-second campaign commercial. He wants five solid accomplishments he can read as bullet points. At least one, he knows, needs to be about saving the taxpayers money. To look into the camera and say, "Faced with a budget deficit, I made the tough decisions and cut X million dollars from the budget."
The thirty second commercial is meant to drive a narrative. So the value of X is less important than the fact of savings. And the consequence of that X is even less so.
Despite what we've come to accept, that campaign commercial is not politics--it's the ephemera of politics.
Politics is what is happening at 63rd and Woodlawn, on the border between a rich neighborhood and a poor one. There, twenty Chicagoans, most of them consumers of mental health services critical to their ability to survive and function in society, have barricaded themselves in a city-run mental health clinic as a last-ditch attempt to save the facility from closure, to ensure they can keep getting the services that mean little to millions of Chicagoans but mean the world to them. Mean everything to them. Make the difference between quality of life and unbearable hardship.
In order to cut the budget, Mayor Emanuel moved to consolidate twelve mental health clinics into six, and privatize the city's six public health clinics. The closure of the Woodlawn facility means consumers of these services will be forced to travel longer distances, into unfamiliar neighborhoods, and seek services from unfamiliar caregivers faced now with more burdensome loads.The uninsured may face serious gaps in care.
Impassioned pleas to the Mayor to negotiate to mitigate anticipated consequences of this "cut" have gone unheeded formonths. So health care consumers--not some "special interest," not a political interest group, but people with serious mental health conditions--have done the only thing left to them, as they face the closure of their clinic at the end of the month: occupy it to force the Mayor to negotiate.
Despite assurances that there will be no change in quality care, the consumers of services have not been assuaged. One must assume that is not for no reason; that the closure of their clinic, the severing of their relationships with their care givers, will have some effect not accounted for. So they've thrust themselves physically into the bureaucratic machine to stop it and force those making decisions to deal on something of an even level with those who feel the consequences of decisions.
To do this, they entered the facility late Thursday afternoon, and beginning at 4 p.m., used cement, impromptu fencing, chairs, vending machines, and chains to barricade themselves inside the clinic, where they are prepared to stay.
Meanwhile, outside, nurses, clergy, local residents, and other allies--as many as forty as of 10 p.m.--sat in front of the doors to protect their friends within. No less than fourteen Chicago Police Department vehicles, along with several County Sheriff's department cruisers, had blockaded the section of Woodlawn between 63rd and 64th Streets. After the news media left around 10:15, plainclothes cops in hoodies and jeans arrived. The atmosphere began to feel a bit more tense, as those assembled outside began speculating as to when the police would move in and try to remove the occupiers by force.
A press event is planned for ten in the morning at the clinic. In the meantime, the Mayor has a decision to make about the politics of campaign commercials versus the politics of human need.
The Chicago Board of Education, having proven itself unconcerned with parent concerns that do not match their own person concerns, and unresponsive to popular political pressure, fail the test of participatory democracy that institutions like school systems need to stay vital and innovative. The last vestige of democracy in the school system, local school councils, may need to do something drastic to make the Board of Education as irrelevant as they seem to think parents are.
In 1988, Chicagoans made an impressive step forward in democratic school governance, amending the state's relevant education statute to provide for, among many other things, elected local school councils with authority over hiring, structuring, and budgeting at local schools. These councils, or LSCs, were novel then and continue to be rare. LSCs are composed of members of the public, parents, teachers, the school's principal and student representative with non-voting authority. The LSCs are not merely advisory bodies, but were designed to make schools responsive to the community and give parents a vested interest in the operation of the local schools. When the reforms were first proposed by state Sen. Art Berman (D-Edgewater) in 1988, they were considered radical but necessary--and for a very interesting reason that resonates today:
The new legislation would make some of the most radical changes ever to be undertaken in this country as a way of scrapping the power structure of a failing public school system. It would break up the monolithic control wielded by the central Board of Education and, instead, set up 11-member mini-school boards, comprised chiefly of parents, that would be elected and have the responsibility of governing each of the city`s 595 public schools.
The idea is that control at the school-based level cannot help but be an improvement over decades of unresponsive management by a bureaucratic, heavily politicized, and rigidly centralized Board of Education.
(Bonita Brodt, "School Reform's Achilles Heel: The Parents" Chicago Tribune, 20 November 1988).
The major concern, shared by power-friendly elites like the Tribune, was that unsophisticated parents would be too susceptible to pressure from outside groups. As an example, that same Tribune article pointed out one community organization that was pressuring parents using race-baiting tactics in East Side:
At Bowen High School, 2710 E. 89th St., a community group called the United Neighborhood Organization (UNO) has become so heavily entrenched in what began as a parent fight to oust the school principal that the parents have been split bitterly along racial lines and observers now call it UNO`s crusade, instead.
Yet, LSCs have proven remarkably resilient and insulated from this type of pressure. While complaints about principals bullying untrained LSC members are common, the concerns that LSCs would be unsophisticated cats paws or rubber stamps for powerful interests have not born out. Democracy has proven its value as not just a box to check but for its creative power and capacity to ennoble those who feel they have a meaningful role in it, rather than just being a passive consumer.
School privatizers like Mayor Emanuel, his appointed Board of Ed, and his CEO Jean-Claude Brizard, are hostile to LSCs and parent governance. That is to say, whatever their rhetoric, their actions in aggressively pursuing closure of public schools in favor of charters (which do not have LSCs) indicates either outright hostility or indifference amounting to the same thing. This can't be disputed so long as actions are weighted greater than press releases.
The only nod to democratic control of schools the current administration has given is of the "check-the-box" variety, where the Board, before voting unanimously to pursue a Mayoral policy, holdshearings where there are no procedural options for parents to actively and meaningfully participate in decision making. Instead, the Board holds the hearings to say they held them and continue to pursue the precise policy dictated by the Mayor and his CEO.
I recently discovered that my alma mater, New Trier High School, did not make AYP (Annual Yearly Progress) mandated by the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act this year. (See here for the letter sent home to parents). Yeah, that New Trier. The one with all the awards, the trophies, the students going on to Ivy League schools, and the highest SAT/ACT scores in all of Illinois for open-enrollment schools. It's the same school where all those kids from Chicago protested in front of a few years back with Rev Meeks to highlight the unfair school funding practices in Illinois. It's the one written about in the infamous book (and still an enthralling read 20 years later) by Jonathan Kozol, Savage Inequalities. It's produced some big shots like Donald Rumsfeld (sorry about that one, world.)
Oh, and Happy Birthday NCLB! You just turned 10 this past Sunday. Now the only question is... when will you die? Because NCLB has proven to be a failure of epic proportions. Quite a few articles have come out to commiserate, oops, I mean commemorate, the occasion including Fairtest.org's NCLB Lost Decade Report, and this Wapo piece by Valerie Strauss, and this blog by education great Diane Ravitch.
As a little bit of background, the No Child Left Behind act was signed into law back in January of 2002 and was the first major piece of legislation to come through Congress after the 9/11 attacks. Looking back, many Congressmen admit they probably wouldn't have agreed to the bill, on either side of the aisle, if they weren't focusing so hard on appearing united after the terrible events that past September. (In many respects, the passing of NCLB was Shock Doctrine at its finest.) The act itself set a timeline to hold schools "accountable" by testing grades 3-8 every year and punishing schools that did not meet their AYP. The punishment generally involved withholding much-needed federal funds, and after a certain number of years on probation, the school would be eligible for disciplinary actions such as firing all the staff, handing the management of the school over to a private charter school operator, or closing down the school. (Starting to sound familiar Chicagoans?)
On Monday Chicago Public School (CPS) officials announced that 12 new charter schools are proposed for the next two years. This would add more schools to the already established Noble Street, United Neighborhood Organization (UNO) and LEARN Charter Networks while establishing Catalyst and Christopher House charter schools.
In a press release, CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard is quoted as saying that expanding the charter school options would increase "higher quality school options" for students.
This would be a nice proposition if 25 of the 83 charter schools in Chicago didn't have less than 50 percent of students meeting or exceeding state standards. It's curious why something touted as being a way to provide outstanding education to students doesn't have more performing at outstanding levels.
A little friction met the Emanuel administration's to-date smoothly-rolling program of partially privatizing the school system this week. First, a report in the Tribune indicated that charter schools, which are privately run schools operated on tax money, do not perform any better than public schools on average and in many cases are considerably worse. Particularly troubling for privatization advocates--who are found in both political parties and in a wide swath of the political spectrum--was the suggestion that it is in fact poverty that drags down those charters performing worse. This fact is often brought up by privatization opponents and downplayed by its champions as mere excuse making. From the Tribune report:
More than two dozen schools in some of the city's most prominent and largest charter networks, including the United Neighborhood Organization (UNO), Chicago International Charter Schools, University of Chicago and LEARN, scored well short of district averages on key standardized tests.
In two of the city's oldest charter networks, Perspectives and Aspira, only one school -- Perspectives' IIT Math & Science Academy -- surpassed CPS' average on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test, taken by elementary schoolers, or the Prairie State Achievement Examination, used in high schools.
Next, Emanuel's choice to spearhead his school-turnaround effort brought the word "cronyism" into coverage of his administration, always a quick way to convince Chicagoans the new boss is the same as the old boss. This week the Emanuel administration announced a turbochargedCompStat program for the public schools and the expansion of the privately run Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL) program, handing them six more schools to turn around. AUSL has a mixed to poor record with school turnarounds, and is connected to the Mayor through a number of campaign and policy staffers and his choice to head the Board of Education, David Vitale, raising questions of the propriety of the choice. Interestingly given the mantra of privatization advocates that public school supporters use poverty as an excuse, AUSL head Martin Koldyke defended their record by blaming kids for being slow to catch on.
Emanuel was reportedly testy when asked if there was a conflict of interest in his choice of AUSL given his political connections to them. Asked directly if there was a conflict of interest, the Mayor answered a wholly different question:
It is not a conflict to give kids a good education. It's the responsibility I have as mayor.
Whether there was a conflict or not, this controversy, if it is that, lays bare one of the problems inherent to privatization of public trusts, namely, the ease with which, at worst, actual conflicts arise, and at best, the appearance of conflicts arise. Mayor Emanuel's political connections to AUSL leadership are undeniable; whether they motivated in whole or in part his decision to hand them more business isn't as germane as the ease with which he is able to hand them business, the lack of meaningful checks to that ability, and the absence of transparency in the decision. It is worth nothing that another major charter operator, United Neighborhoods Organization-Charter School Network (UNO-CSN), is headed by a co-chair of Emanuel's Mayoral election campaign, Juan Rangel. From the outside looking in, the lesson is obvious: if you want to build a successful school operator, at the very least it helps to have strong political connections.
Now that the privatization train has started rolling, it will be more and more difficult to stop, and the Mayor's ideological dedication to the principles underlying certainly grease those tracks. It is unfortunate that the years-old warnings that charters were unproven went unheeded. We now are looking at a class of powerful and connected rent-seekers with intense financial and professional incentives to preserve the system. If it bears out that charter schools offer not meaningful advantage over public schools, we have solved no problems while likely creating a whole new class of them.
This morning, the Illinois Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) released the first nation-wide study on the risks associated with outsourcing automated traffic law enforcement to private, for-profit companies. While the report offers the most details on cities in California, Texas and Florida, it serves as a cautionary tale for Illinois law-makers. Illinois ranks third, only behind Florida and California, for having the greatest number of jurisdictions with such contracts. More to the point, the city of Chicago is the single largest contract-holder in the country with Redflex Traffic Systems, one of the two largest operators of automated traffic monitoring — rare is the Chicagoan who hasn't seen one of the 380 red-light cameras in the city.
Celeste Meiffren, Field Director with IL-PIRG, emphasizes that the study is intended to underscore the pitfalls many other cities have fallen into when drafting their contracts, leading to the prioritization of revenue over public safety. The report details the most glaring conflicts of interest, such as contracts that link payment to Redflex (or its competitor, American Traffic Solutions) with the number of tickets given — the more effective in ticketing motorists, the more money the company earns. This has resulted in the companies lobbying to kill measures that would increase the duration of yellow lights at intersections, which would decrease both the chance of accidents as well as potential tickets.
Meiffren explained that the deals Chicago has struck are, by and large, a "model" for how other cities should have done it. Chicago purchased the camera systems from Redflex, and the Chicago Department of Transportation operates and maintains them, without involving Redflex in the citation process. Although the city has been smart in the arrangements it has made to date, the study remains important in keeping the eyes of watchdog groups on the situation.
Current developments make this especially pertinent. Springfield lawmakers have been considering a bill that would expand privatized law enforcement in Chicago dramatically, by adding a roster of speed cameras to its already impressive holdings of red-light cameras. According to an article in the Tribune, the two versions of the bill, sponsored by Senate President John Cullerton and House Speaker Michael Madigan, would "render about 47 percent of the city eligible for speed camera surveillance." Although the language put forward by the lawmakers and Mayor Emanuel is that the new cameras are intended to "protect children" in "safety zones" near parks and schools, because of Chicago's abundance of such areas, very little of the city would be speed-camera free.
That Chicago earned $58 million from red-light camera fines in 2009 alone — "a rare bright spot in a generally bleak fiscal picture for the city" — is not to go unnoticed, and is certainly a motive for acquiring speed cameras.
As the Chicago Reader's Mick Dumke and Ben Joravsky reported on recently, private operators of public services seem to be erring on the side of privacy rather than transparency. A private sector instinct for the shielding of information seems to be pervasive among these operators, particularly schools.
The systematic privatization of public services assumes that accountability and efficiency will improve because private firms are more sensitive to consumer response. This is a particularly common rationale for the privatization of the school system. As private operators move in, the argument goes, they will be more accountable to parents out of fear that the parents-as-consumers will take their "business" (e.g., children) elsewhere. Since "an education" is a service and not a good and its effects are rarely immediately evident, parents as consumers would have to rely on information from the school to provide the cherished "market signals" to which private operators would respond.
So a major school operator in a huge education "market" being intentionally opaque would be a cause for concern.
The City is currently faced with a $635.7 million deficit for the upcoming budget year. Since the City is cutting programs that seem as if they would be necessary in order to save money, what could possibly be cut, or reduced in funding, to save the budget?
Taste of Chicago is, for those unfamiliar, a massive food festival that occurs for 10 days in Grant Park. In order to save money, in the past five years the Chicago Country Music Festival has been eliminated and merged with the festival, along with several other music festivals. This was the first year that the Chicago Park District ran the festival, as opposed to the Department of Special Events, which merged with the Department of Cultural Affairs. Prior to leaving office, Daley did attempt to privatize Taste of Chicago, but only found one bidder, who wanted to charge admission to the festival.
Here's the important thing: Taste of Chicago is free for admission, which is great if you're there for the music. If you want to eat the food, you have to buy tickets and use those tickets to pay for the food.
Chicago's enormous structural budget deficit, which could reach $700 million next year, is due in part to the cratering of the economy, particularly the free fall of revenue from real estate-related taxes and fees. But it is also due to the symbiotic lack of political will by politicians and political appetite by voters (and interest groups) to make painful decisions to meet the problem. The problem, by the way, is obvious: the city (you and me, the people who live in the city, not the abstract City) made promises to our employees--particularly our public safety employees, cops and firefighters--that our revenue simply cannot meet, and will not be able to meet without tax increases as well as cuts and reforms.
According to the Civic Federation, the city has a $14.6 billion dollar pension liability that is unfunded. To meet this liability, the city can rededicate revenue committed elsewhere to pension funding, raise contributions from current employees and decrease future benefits or eliminate cost of living adjustments, raise taxes, particularly property taxes, or some combination thereof. Solely raising taxes, particularly property taxes, would be politically unpalatable as well as eventually regressive--renters are already beginning to feel a squeeze. If we want to meet our obligations, some reasonable and fair combination of reform of the pension system, rededication of existing revenue (i.e., cuts to services in one place to pay for liabilities), and increasing revenue is necessary.
Yet the focus by the city to date has been almost wholly on "reforming work rules," in other words altering public worker contracts. Such reforms may very well be necessary, but they alone will not put a significant dent in the structural deficit. Mayor Emanuel and his team know full well that even with history's most efficient city government and not a single unionized employee, we would not be able to meet our obligations. Chicago News Coop columnist James Warren astutely observed that this is the strategy is meant to make future potentially unpopular actions--i.e., revenue increases--more palatable. If the Mayor also stokes unwarranted hysteria about thieving public employees, so be it.
The City's budget rests on several revenue streams. In descending order of quantity, the most significant of these are sales taxes, utilities taxes, the "personal property replacement tax" (a convoluted tax that boils down to a corporate income tax), transportation and recreation taxes, and business taxes. Licenses and fees provide a significant chunk, as do--or rather, did--income from parking meters.
Between 2007 and 2010, these revenue streams declined immensely, the biggest being the transaction tax, which is mostly a real estate transaction tax, which declined by over 40%, or $120 million, in that time. To make up these shortfalls, Mayor Daley recklessly privatized city assets. These privatization schemes (and they were schemes) amounted to little more than major borrowing programs that take up-front payments to compensate for revenue shocks. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, University of Chicago Professor Julie Roin characterized the supposedly bold privatization moves this way,
"Politicians are calling these deals privatizations, but what they really are is secured loans....Whether you collect the revenue and pay it out to creditors or just divert the income stream to begin with is just inconsequential in terms of the financial ramifications of the transactions."
Chicago News Cooperative's James Warren's editorial, "Warren: Rahm Exercising Art of Media Control" is not what you'd expect it to be. Or rather, was not what I expected it to be. When I see a headline like that in my reader, attributed to a well respected journalist, I expect it to be a critique. It's not; it's praise. Why would a member of the media praise a politician for controlling (really he means manipulating) the media? I'm not certain. From what I can glean, it is because Mayor Emanuel's use of this "art" will help him slay the "monsters," i.e., city workers' retirement money, et al.
Mr. Warren in his own words:
Chicago's Jardine Water Purification Plant, the world's largest filtration facility, helped make something crystal clear last week about the heat-seeking missile known as Mayor Rahm Emanuel: The Missile is playing a confidence game, all puns intended.
The recent assaults on the EPA moved me to dust off and finish some notes I hadn't had time to polish into a full-blown blog post. Because the cuts now threaten Illinois clean water infrastructure projects, however, in addition to the climate change programs that have gotten deserved attention, I'm compelled to give this a little more air.
An investigation into high-stakes testing results in DC schools has helped narrow the already skimpy body of evidence on which supporters of school privatization build their case. More telling, the results of the investigation lend vivid credence to a primary concern of skeptics, that the measures used to analyze schools and teachers simply compel sleight-of-hand:
A USA TODAY investigation, based on documents and data secured under D.C.'s Freedom of Information Act, found that for the past three school years most of Noyes' classrooms had extraordinarily high numbers of erasures on standardized tests. The consistent pattern was that wrong answers were erased and changed to right ones.
In 2007-08, six classrooms out of the eight taking tests at Noyes were flagged by McGraw-Hill because of high wrong-to-right erasure rates. The pattern was repeated in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years, when 80% of Noyes classrooms were flagged by McGraw-Hill.
On the 2009 reading test, for example, seventh-graders in one Noyes classroom averaged 12.7 wrong-to-right erasures per student on answer sheets; the average for seventh-graders in all D.C. schools on that test was less than 1. The odds are better for winning the Powerball grand prize than having that many erasures by chance, according to statisticians consulted by USA TODAY.
"This is an abnormal pattern," says Thomas Haladyna, a professor emeritus at Arizona State University who has studied testing for 20 years.
A trio of academicians consulted by USA TODAY -- Haladyna, George Shambaugh of Georgetown University and Gary Miron of Western Michigan University -- say the erasure rates found at Noyes and at other D.C. public schools are so statistically rare, and yet showed up in so many classrooms, that they should be examined thoroughly.
Is a policy of charter expansion a sound reform plan for our schools? Agreeing our schools need reform doesn't mean we need to accept any reform plan, but only the best reform plan. The argument for charter school expansion rests on a number of premises and inferences: mainly, that collectively bargained work rules make it more difficult to cultivate the best teaching; and that sharp competition between schools will increase efficiency and improve outcomes. For critical thinking purposes, let's take a look at this argument and see if there are any pressing objections.
Let's concede for a start that a major problem with the public schools is work rules that make firing and incentivizing teachers difficult, thus confounding the efforts of school operators to cultivate the best teaching.
Does that mean that school administrators should be allowed to fire teachers with "bad cause or no cause at all"? In other words, is the only alternative to the status quo its exact opposite?
Basic reason says this is not the case. There must be other possible and viable alternatives. For example: the grievance procedure could be simplified or changed; peer review could be instituted or, within the range of options, grievance steps could be reduced. The "good cause" standards could be independently policed or more explicitly stated, etc. These are all possible alternatives, and assuming that charter proponents believe no binding work rules is the best solution, we can infer that a minimum of binding work rules would still be better than the status quo. So these alternatives are also viable.
Knowing there are possible and viable alternatives, we still needn't jettison the proposed solution (banning of union rules) unless it is either not possible or not viable, leaving a preferred solution somewhere in between.
The expansion of private school operators promised by Rahm Emanuel and Gery Chico will turn teachers into at-will employees. This impacts who gets fired and how, but that isn't the primary objection. More importantly it adversely effects the maintenance of professional standards. Charter teachers regularly complain about being made to teach classes they are not qualified to teach or grade levels they are not certified to instruct. Even if this is merely anecdotal, the fact that it is possible and not remediable should disqualify it as a structural reform. Lack for formal grievance makes it difficult for teachers to prevent their own termination, but it also makes it impossible for the professionals to police the profession, which by definition unravels the profession itself. As a policy, it is not clearly viable.
That Arne Duncan is a professional failure has never really been up for much debate. He achieved precisely zero of his objectives as head of the schools in Chicago, and failed upward into the President's administration mainly for his skills at self-marketing and the President's bizarre desire to appear "tough on teachers".
Catalyst Chicago in its latest issue[PDF] is digging into what teachers and parents have known since at least 2005: that the Renaissance 2010 program is a disaster, that privatization and charter schools have done nothing but increase opacity, decrease accountability, and aggravate the bifurcation of the school system; and that whatever improvement CPS has seen since the Mayor took over the school system in 1995 is due not to the free market unicorns sneezing their econowoozle magic on the evil teachers unions, but to gentrification.
As opponents of public school privatization have warned for years, the fascination with "innovation" and "entrepreneurial spirit" is hanging the hopes of a generation on buzzwords and sloganeering. There is no evidence, nor has there ever been, that introducing profit motive and private sector slash-and-burn sensibility would add value to education. Indeed, it hasn't been. What a surprise: firing master teachers and destabilizing the work force has NOT lead to an improvement in retention in poor schools and has not somehow magically improved classroom instruction.
As the Catalyst study points out:
On average, charters lost half of their teachers over the past two years, a turnover rate that rivals many low-performing neighborhood schools.
Only 16 of 92 new schools have reached the state average on test scores. Of those 16, just eight are charters. The rest are new magnet schools or new satellites of existing magnet and selective schools.
Just as public education advocates have been saying, introducing private operators into the school system with little oversight simply accelerates the problem of bifurcation. Charters are competing with each other for the best students and leaving the public school system to educate kids with poor performing kids, kids with learning disabilities, and kids from the poorest communities. Oh, and kids from multi-lingual households: Latino kids are particularly left behind according to the Catalyst study. The proportion of Latino kids attending high-performing schools has not increased at all since Renaissance 2010 began in 2004.
And, just as predicted, charters inherently prejudice students with highly involved parents, as this story heartbreakingly illustrates:
This spring, Charise Agnew was forced to confront the lack of school options in Roseland as she made an agonizing decision about where to send her older son, Dorian Metzler, to high school. Dorian was one of the top 8th-graders at Lavizzo, one of the lowest-performing schools in the city. In 2010, only about 44 percent of students met or exceeded state standards on the ISAT. Agnew had her heart set on Dorian attending Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep, a selective enrollment school just to the west of Lavizzo. She had him apply, and then she waited. But Agnew didn't know that Dorian needed to take an entrance exam. Few students at Lavizzo score above the 70th percentile on the ISAT, the cutoff to take the selective enrollment test. So there was no buzz in the hallway. A teacher might have asked about it, but the original 8th-grade teacher was fired and the class had a substitute for two months.
The end result is that no one tapped Dorian or Agnew on the shoulder to tell them about the entrance test. "I just had no idea," Agnew says.
Brooks is the only higher-scoring high school in the area. Agnew's first reaction was to take Dorian's transcript up to Brooks and try to talk to the principal. But selective enrollment school principals can be inundated with pleas from parents to offer their child a slot. Schools set up shields, and Agnew didn't make it past the foyer.
A woman like Charise Agnew is undoubtedly an involved and interested mother. But in an education system perverted by the neoliberal fascination with competition and markets, even her children end up losing out.
Governance by sloganeering results in things like this:
The private parking meter company that runs the metered street parking system in Chicago expects to reap at least $11.6 billion in revenues over the 75-year term of its lease deal with the city, according to a new report from Bloomberg News.
The Chicago News Cooperative recently reported that the 218 percent rate hike introduced since the parking privatization has barely reduced meter use, resulting in better-than-expected profits for the investors. The new profit estimate goes well beyond the earnings projected last year in documents uncovered by the Chicago News Cooperative, the first time that the internal financial projections of the privately held partnerships were disclosed.
Did you know profit-seeking organizations can do everything much better than government? It's a truism because lots of people say it. If you inject the profit motive into something, then it will work better. Every time. We don't need to study it. Just know that it's true because it's true.
Mayor Daley's reckless pursuit of "public-private partnerships" based solely on his wafer-thin rationale that the private sector can do everything better than government, has essentially cost the next three generations of Chicagoans billions of dollars both in lost revenue and jacked-up parking costs. At least, we should hope that is his sole motivation; because we could be less charitable and say that shameful impuissance also contributed. Mayor Daley is so terrified of making a "hard" (also obvious) decision regarding raising revenue that he would sell off city assets in a panic. This the "CEO Mayor" that BusinessWeek fell in love with?
Chicago Math and Science Academy is a charter school on Chicago's far north side neighborhood of Rogers Park, an ethnically and economically diverse community that has struggled to have quality public schools. Community residents were pleased when the charter school was founded in 2004. Its first two graduating classes, in 2009 and 2010, had college acceptance rates of 100 percent.
I vaguely knew about the school because one of my choir members attended and graduated in its 2010 class. She spoke highly of the school and the teachers. She got lots of help from the school in applying for colleges and tuition assistance.
The school loomed larger in my life when it moved last year from its original location to a spot about five houses down from where I live. Chicago Math and Science Academy bought and renovated what had been a run-down shopping area. The renovation is an attractive addition to the neighborhood and I enjoy seeing the children and parents streaming around the school every morning. Although I had been inside the school once, I had never met its leadership or teachers. Nor did I know much about its philosophy. I just knew it was doing a good job. Chicago Math and Science Academy, as its website touts, is one of the top three charter schools in Chicago. It's clearly doing something right for the students and their families. This is clearly the good.
The bad is a function of the failure of the public schools to establish learning environments in which all children can learn. Into this void has entered a collection of for-profit charter schools that are only marginally accountable to local communities. Some would argue that this outside control, without having to mess with community politics, is why they are succeeding. Perhaps. But there is some weirdness here.
Chicago Math and Science Academy is a part of Concept Schools. According to its website, Concept Schools is a management organization founded in 2002 to support and develop charter schools that seek to integrate the best aspect of the Turkish and American educational systems. Concepts Schools have grown from two to 19 schools, of which 16 are in Ohio, and one each in Indiana, Michigan and Illinois. Concept Schools bring in teachers from Turkey, Russia and other European countries to help teach math and sciences. Currently, approximately 25 percent of the faculty are international teachers.
Every summer, as the thermometer pushes 90 and the humidity makes a walk around the block sure to drench you in sweat, I have friends and family who complain about the heat. Usually I tell them two things: first, quit whining--you'll be trudging through sub-zero windchill in, like, two months, and longing for these days. Second, have you ever read that book about the Chicago heat wave that killed over 700 people?
Maybe I should recognize that people shooting the breeze about the weather don't want to get into a conversation about a massive natural and human-made disaster and the governance model that helped spawn it. But Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago is a damn good book--GB's own Book Club read it on the disaster's tenth anniversary--and I think people who want to understand how this city operates should read it.
On July 14, 1995, Chicago saw the beginning of a record-breaking heat wave where temperatures reached well above 100 degrees. The heat was brutal, and at the spell's end, over 700 Chicagoans lay dead. But Eric Klinenberg, a former Northwestern professor of sociology, writes in Heat Wave that "[t]he weather...accounts for only part of the human devastation that arose." The extreme temperatures laid bare the effects of the city's notoriously segregated populace, he argues, as well as a governing model that led to a city unprepared for the heat's devastation--unwilling or unable even to follow their own emergency plan.
Klinenberg is a good social scientist, of course, and states from the outset that his intention is not to place blame on any one public figure or institution for the devastation wrought by the extreme weather. But the "market model" Mayor Daley has pushed for city services such as water and parking does not come out of the book looking too desirable. Klinenberg also has an entire chapter, entitled "Governing By Public Relations," devoted to the mayor's office's astute defense of their handling of the crisis. The author writes, "While the city neglected to follow its own guidelines for coordinating an emergency public health reaction to the dangerous heat, the administration accomplished a tetbook public relations campaign to deny the severity fo the crisis, deflect responsibility for the public health breakdown, and defend the city's response to the disaster."
The book is full of rich analysis, from a comparison of the heat wave's effects in North Lawndale versus Little Village and the racial and gender dynamics of social isolation, to social service provision that "reflects a systemic prioritization of cost containment over life preservation"--there's even a table of denial (p. 181) that goes through all the different variations utilized by city officials to deny responsibility for the crisis. As you bake in the still-somewhat-sweltering sun this summer, consider picking up Heat Wave. It's not exactly the perfect beach read, but your comprehension of the state of the city in the second Daley era is guaranteed to improve.
Op-Ed Contributed by GB Contributing Writer Bob Quellos
Last week, the Chicago City Council approved a $96 million TIF for the South Works development site, the largest ever given to a private developer in the City of Chicago. The plan for South Works calls for the eventual building of over 17,000 dwelling units on the 500-acre site at the location of the former U.S. Steel South Works, near 79th Street and east of U.S. 41. The project is to be run by a development group that includes the Chicago-based McCaffery Interests. The first phase of construction is scheduled for groundbreaking in 2012; located on a 77 acre portion of the site, it will compromise an astounding million square feet of retail space alongside residential dwellings. Decades from now if the project eventually is completed, it will create an entirely new neighborhood along Lake Michigan on Chicago's South Side.
But if you had $96 million dollars to invest in the City of Chicago what would you do with it? Would you build the infrastructure for a new neighborhood, or perhaps take a shot at filling the ongoing budget hole that is wrecking havoc on the Chicago Public School system. Perhaps you would find a way to put the over 1,100 employees at the CTA who were recently laid off back to work and restore transit services that were axed. Or maybe (hold on to your seat, this is a crazy one), reeling with disgust from the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico you decide to make a ground breaking attempt to move Chicago away from a dependance on non-renewable resources and invest the $96 million dollars in wind power that would provide free and clean energy to some of Chicago's poorest neighborhoods.
Maybe it was the policy postures of Clinton era--I don't know--but for some reason, this mythology that all social problems can be solved through the awesome force of "markets" and a business ethos has been wholly absorbed by liberals, particularly big city liberals. We can all agree that capitalism has created an awesome amount of wealth and raised the quality of life for many people. Isn't that enough? Do we have to admit the profit motive and corporate governance to every area of human relations? Does it mean corporate CEOs know the solutions to all our problems? Must we be thankful, rather than terrified, that JP Morgan Chase is trying to underwrite our schools?
The littlelocalkerfuffle over the failure of Chicago's pilot teacher merit pay program is another example of petty liberals assuming "seriousness" by just accepting that a corporate approach can solve social problems if only properly designed. Can't it be that some things aren't like profit-seeking entities, and therefore those models can't be transposed onto them? Isn't it possible that some things we as a society want are going to be expensive, big, and not anything like, say, Wal-Mart?
The fact is, Chicago's merit pay experiment failed not because of some illicit design flaw, but because pay for performance for teachers is fundamentally flawed, from its head to its toes. It's nothing new. It's been tried since the 18th Century--yes, the 18th Century--and has failed fairly consistently. In fact as cited in that report, the sole serviceable model--the one in Denver--is even low-rated by its supporters in that school system, who admit that lots of other expensive things are required for even modest improvements.
Teachers, parents, and students are not happy at Chicago's education leadership--there is mounting frustration with the Board of Education, the CPS bureaucracy, and the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) leadership. As President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan take the Chicago model of slow-burn privatization national, Chicago may just be seeing a full fledged revolt against it. With the recent revelation that there are now no educators among the CPS' top leadership, scrutiny of a reform program dominated by entrepreneurs and private interests (including a Board of Education stacked with financiers and real estate developers) is likely to sour people further.
Teachers, Parents, and Students, Oh My
Chicago's teachers are angry; but that matters less than the fact that even more are discouraged, leaving the profession, burning out and warning the next generation away from teaching all together. Teachers have been under a full assault by corporate interests and the disingenuous reformers they underwrite for decades, and this assault has only intensified since the election of Barack Obama to the White House and the elevation of former CPS CEO Arne Duncan to the top of the Department of Education. Obama and Duncan have undertaken to bring Chicago-style education reform to the level of national policy, without any evidence whatsoever that that reform works.
The (arguably illegal) Race to the Top program, which embodies Chicago Renaissance 2010 model of school turnarounds, privatization, and "pay-for-performance" incentives, is just getting underway, and teachers around the country are finding out, too late, that Obama et al are hostile to public educators.
But here in Chicago, where the method to this madness was born, teachers and parents are organizing revolts to protect their schools. Unhappy teachers are lining up to challenge a union leadership they characterize as ineffective or accommodationist and an insular Board of Education, as parents and students are fighting to keep their schools public and democratically controlled. And what happens here, at ground zero of school privatization, could presage what happens nationally as the federal government tries to strong arm school districts into dismantling their public schools; a policy instituted as a sop to "centrism" could end up sparking a serious fight in the moderate liberal wing of the Democratic Party as urban community groups and teachers union factions resist.
That's Why There Will Be a Change
The Chicago Teachers Union is in the middle of a bruising factional fight as union elections approach in May. Several caucuses are vying for leadership by running slates to unseat the current ruling caucus, the United Progressive Caucus (UPC) and CTU President Marilyn Stewart. The gentlest of the criticisms against the UPC are that they are inept, unable to effectively advocate for teachers and students; the more stinging criticisms allege outright accommodation by union leadership of the Board of Education (and, by proxy, Mayor Daley). Whatever the various grievances, there is undoubtedly frustration among teachers that they are being vilified and left hung out to dry with little support. Teacher activism is as high as it has been in years, and that activism is a direct result of the privatization policies of Renaissance 2010 and the inability of the CTU--under different administrations--to halt those policies.
Reason.tv has a series with Drew Carey (host of The Price is Right & star of The Drew Carey Show) taking aim at struggling Cleveland, Ohio. They highlight Chicago's schemes to privatize Millenium Park and the parking lot below in addition to the Chicago Skyway and the parking meters. I know many of you may have issues with privatization in Chicago, especially with parking meters so I invite you to cut up Chicago privatization as an example for Cleveland.
UIC Students, Faculty and Staff Rally Against Budget Cuts.
Several hundred students, faculty and staff rallied at the University of Illinois Chicago campus on March 4th, to demand an end to budget cuts that target the poor. They rallied in the Quad, before marching around campus and marching to University Hall where the administrative offices for the school are. It was part of a national day of action to defend public education.
SEIU Local 73 chief Steward Joe Iosbaker led the crowd in chants, "They Say Furlough Day, We Say No Way! They Say Cut Back, We Say Fight Back!" and the sarcastic, "They Say Fee Hike, We Say, Yea, Right!"
At University Hall SEIU members served Soup to passer-by's "to prepare us for what we'll be eating if the budget cuts go through." They then sang a parody of Gnarls Barkley's Crazy, "Is UIC crazy? They must be crazy,to think that they can defeat, local 73."
It was in this context that I attended the The Public Square's discussion on Chicago charter school's on February 23 to hear James Thindwa, the former head of Chicago Jobs With Justice and current Civic Engagement Coordinator for the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff speak. The Public Square is a joint project between Chicago Public Radio and the Illinois Humanities Council's Cafe Society. The discussion was held at the Chicago Public Radio West Side Bureau.
Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce CEO Jerry Roper teamed up with outgoing Chicago Federation of Labor President Dennis Gannon in penning an editorial to encourage Mayor Daley to pursue the privatization of Midway Airport. One thing I agree with: years ago, Midway was a ghost town. The expansion of Midway is definitely one of the feathers in the Mayor's cap.
Or, at least, in his weird fedora/stetson thing. Photo via the Sun-Times.
The City Council authorized the partnership deal in the fall of 2008. However, due to the global credit crisis, the winning bidder could not arrange financing.
Today, conditions are significantly better, evidenced recently by two successful airport transactions in England: the long-term lease of London Gatwick Airport and the sale of a one-third interest in Bristol Airport.
Midway's lease value is bolstered by the fact that passenger traffic has rebounded and interest rates have plummeted. If borrowing costs rise in the future, as many predict, the value of the Midway lease could be negatively impacted.
We applaud Mayor Daley for working with business and labor on these partnerships. The parking meter initiative has been a great success for Chicago's businesses and the public and other cities are looking to replicate that success.
We hope the mayor relaunches the long-term lease of Midway soon.