Chicago Teachers' Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey says Chicago Public Schools (CPS) need 25% more than the $15,000+ it spends per pupil in order to improve the quality of education the system provides. Sharkey also discussed the continuing possibility of a teachers' strike and the GOP idea of a state takeover of CPS.
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Proft: Jesse thanks again for joining us. Sharkey: As always, thanks for having me on. Proft: Let’s start with the prospect of the strike. Where does that stand? Have there been further discussion with Claypool and the CPS honchos. Where does that stand? Sharkey: We’re negotiating with them. And frankly, negotiations have been serious and productive. One of the big problems is obviously the overall funding picture of the district. So it does tie back in to what you guys were doing earlier in the segment. And we’re very aware that Cullerton moved the school funding formula. But to be fair to Cullerton and also Senator Andy Manar, who’s the one whose bill this is, they’ve been moving that bill in the Senate for the last better part of a decade. This is not a new issue. Chicago gets about $600 million in a block grant. And you talk about Peter and Paul, and I’m no theological scholar, but I think even Jesus recognized that the least among us should get a helping hand. Proft: Woah. Channeling John Kasich this morning. Intreresting. Here’s the rub, Jesse. Let me just give you an example. I’ve got all the numbers statewide. I mentioned this earlier in the show but I’d like to get your reaction. I’ve got all the numbers statewide in terms of the per-pupil expenditure, plus the local versus state versus federal distribution, or composition of that funding. So, for example, Matteson. Its a smaller community in south Cook County. Blue collar. Working to middle income. A lot of children that qualify for the free or reduced lunch program, like in Chicago. Here are the numbers. District 159 in Matteson, $15,159 per student Chicago, $15,120 per student So, basically the same. District 159, 70 percent low income. CPS, 87 percent low income. But here’s the difference. District 159 is funded 80 percent from local property taxpayers. CPS, funded 49 percent from local property taxpayers, getting two times more from the state than does Matteson. So you have Matteson District 159, with 70 percent of the kids from low-income families that are subsidizing CPS, that’s the basic fact. Sharkey: The issue Dan and Amy is that in Chicago you have huge concentrations of poverty, English-language learners, Special Education students. And those concentrations add up and are difficult to deal with and produce conditions that produce real challenges for educators. I’m not saying that places like Matteson should get cut. But Manar and Cullerton are right when they point out that even if you look at the block grant, which is the way Chicago’s schools are funded, it doesn’t really take into account just how difficult it is to educate students in places like Chicago. Chicago, like I said, gets $600 million from the state on a budget of $4.5 billion. Chicago in fact gets a lot of its money from the state and the feds through special education money, Title 1 funding. And it produces a real challenge. CTU has often said that if you compare the tax rates of Chicago to the tax rates of the collar suburbs, our local property taxes are actually lower rates. But I don’t think you guys are arguing we should increase the rate for homeowners in Chicago. Proft: That already did happen. And it’s going to continue. Sharkey: Not for the schools so much. That last increase, only like a tenth of it went to the schools. Jacobson: It went to fire and police pensions. Proft: Well, right. Because everything in the city is bankrupt. The numbers are the numbers. But one thing on property taxes. Let’s just understand something here. Cook County does property tax classification differently than the other 101 counties. So they use commercial to subsidize residential, whereas in the collar counties it’s all assessed at the same rate. Sharkey: Chicago has the ability to do that because it has a commercial district in a way that the collars don’t. Jacobson: From what I’m hearing from the teachers that I know at our Chicago Public School, they don’t think there’s going to be a strike because Karen Lewis made a great concession saying they will end the process of requiring contributions to their pensions Sharkey: I see what Karen was saying is that in a situation where there’s a real difficulty with the district’s finances. We obviously have debates among a lot of people, the mayor and you guys included about what the source of that difficulty is. But we see that there’s a financial crisis and there’s difficulty there. I think what Karen was trying to say is that everything’s on the table. What she wasn’t saying is that we’re going to go in and slash what’s effectively seven percent of our compensation and give that back to help other people solve the crisis on our backs. Jacobson: But you’re willing to take a hit, right? It sounded to me like ending the practice of picking up the bulk of the teacher’s required contributions to the pensions but-- so you’re saying that’s not true? That that was misleading in the media? Sharkey: What I’m saying is that you’d never accused us of not being shrewd bargainers and not trying to drive a hard bargain. Proft: No- we would not accuse you of that. Sharkey: What we’re saying is that everything’s on the table. And we’re trying to figure out if the district is committed to making the system work. There would have to be something in return for people who work for the schools. We’d have to have some assurances that there’s not going to go gutting the district, handing it over to charter operators, closing schools, stuffing kids in classes like sardines. There’s a whole series of things that we would want before you could talk about the pension pick-up and what would happen to it and what teacher’s compensation would be like in the future. There’s a whole conversation that complicates the negotiations right now. Proft: Do you think that the trial balloon floated by Governor Rauner and Republicans in terms of providing a pathway for CPS to reorganize under bankruptcy protection. Do you think that’s mean-spirited? Do you think there are bad intentions? Sharkey: I just think it’s not wise in terms of the reputational and financial investment that’s been made in CPS over the past 20 years. If you just look back at how much school construction. And can point to how far we have left to go in terms of student achievement rates and things like that. And that’s fair. No one ever said it was easy to educate in schools that have a 100 percent poverty rate and 80 percent mobility rate and things like that. But there’s been a lot of progress in the school system. There are lots of schools that do very well. There are whole neighborhoods in swathes of the city where people move to those neighborhoods for the schools. There are a number of ways where, despite everything, teachers and people who work in the schools have found success. I think the prospect of saying “the whole thing is broken, we’re going to flush it,” that’s a bad idea. Proft: Well, they didn’t flush Detroit they’re reorganizing it. There’s not flushing it they’re reorganizing it to rethink it and frankly to get out from underneath of some of the bills that you cannot pay, at least not at full freight. Sharkey: Ok, but what happened to Detroit is that a number of the vendors and creditors didn’t get paid. They took a haircut. Workers in the schools didn’t get paid and took a haircut. Proft: Yeah Bondholders. That’s what happens in bankruptcy. Right. Sharkey: So-- and look at the result. Jacobson: Are you just scared that if that happens, if they declare bankruptcy and that state takes control that you would lose control? Is that your biggest fear? Sharkey: Everybody loses control right? Sure. Who wants to have a federal bankruptcy judge with an up or down vote on a plan which the governor makes? I think the schools should be more democratically run, not less democratically run. We should have some local control. Proft: I want to go back to the per-pupil spending. $15,120 for Chicago. And you talked about the difficulty that a big urban school system presents. Maybe it shouldn’t be so big. But that’s a separate conversation. Have you guys determined what you think the actual number needs to be? The kind of resources you need on a per-pupil basis to do a better job educating children? Sharkey: We made a series of proposals, all of which have costs attached to them. The district made a pretty big point of that. The things that we would need, that we think would produce a better educational result. Can you drill down to a single number for me, per-pupil? Sharkey: Yeah I think for a billion dollars extra for year, you could probably do a lot. Proft: And the budget this year for CPS was? Sharkey: It was $4.5. Proft: So a 25 percent increase. Ok, well that’s a number. I appreciate it. Sharkey: I mean, look. Realistically, what’s likely to happen politically is those numbers are likely to move in the other direction. I like to point out that in the foundation world alone, which is being funded by Gates money and Walton money and Broad Money has spent that billion dollars in the last few years trying to advocate for charter schools. They’ll spend more than that much money on the presidential cycle, on ads and what not. There’s a lot of money- soft money that’s pouring in to super PACS. It sounds outrageous until you realize you’re talking about 400,000 of kids growing up in the most challenging environments in the country.