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The Plight of Chicago Public Schools

Here in Illinois, we like to think of ourselves as record breakers: whether that be having the most governors in jail (two of those within recent memory), being the only state in the Union not to pass a complete budget this year, or the fact the state ranks dead last in education funding. Every state needs an identity, right? Springfield proved its mettle, or lack thereof, again this week as the legislature failed to pass any sort of budget before the session adjourned for the 2016 fiscal year, meaning that Illinois will continue on without a budget for its second year in a row.

Republican Bruce Rauner gives a thumbs-up after winning the midterm elections in Chicago, Illinois, November 4, 2014. REUTERS/Jim Young
Republican Bruce Rauner gives a thumbs-up after winning the midterm elections in Chicago, Illinois, November 4, 2014. REUTERS/Jim Young

A largely Democratic state under Republican Gubernatorial rule, Illinois has been in a deadlock since businessman Bruce Rauner was elected to the post in the 2014 elections, a record low voter turnout across the country. The top priorities of his tenure have been to reduce the power of collective bargaining, reduce taxes on business, eliminate state property taxes, and increasing the prevalence of charter schools. In this attempt to force feed his pro-business agenda down the legislature’s throat, he has instilled an air of doubt in the people. Rightly so, many question the State’s ability to come through on its responsibilities to the public.

Not one, but two budgets were put on the floor on the last day of session for the year, and both failed to gain traction whilst opposed by Governor Rauner, who vowed to veto any bill which did not make the pro-business reforms that he has sought incessantly. One budget would have covered full state operations, the sort that every other state in the Union manages to pass. The second, a partial budget to ensure that state funding of K-12 education is there so that school doors may open in the fall, failed as well. As of now, there is no funding.

The Real Impacts

Serving 400,000 students, 86% of which are low-income, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is running a billion dollar deficit this year as Rauner keeps the school system in a headlock.  Without a budget, CPS is facing $700 million in budget cuts next year.

Rauner’s argument in refusing Chicago’s schools funding is that they are eating up a disproportionate quantity of Illinois taxpayer dollars, and the rest of the state shouldn’t be held responsible for funding its education. This claim couldn’t be farther from the truth. CPS students make up 20% of the Illinois student population and Chicagoans pay 20% of the state income taxes, yet its students only receive 15% of State education funding. That 5% difference equates to roughly $500 million in funding, a sum that could have saved CPS from most of the hardship already felt. We’re not asking for more than anyone else. We’re asking for the same as everyone else.

These are no small cuts being made in Chicago. CPS estimates that anywhere between 26-30% of school budgets will be cut. Imagine at least one of every four teachers, or one of every four classrooms disappearing. The toll on the quality of education and future prospects for students would be catastrophic.

As a student in the CPS system for 11 years now, I am not worried for myself as much as I am for the forgotten majority which has not been made a top priority. Even within a rotting school district I have it much better than most, being fortunate enough to test into a magnet school on Chicago’s north side. Struggling financially, but well established as an institution that produces results, my school will find a way (however difficult) through these tough times. Typically located in supportive well-to-do neighborhoods, these schools have temporarily been able to avoid some of the hardship already facing the rest of the district by dipping into reserve funds and calling upon the community to pitch in.

Often without a surrounding community financially able to even out the rough patches, the schools of low-income (predominantly Black and Latino) neighborhoods around the city are left with little to work with and no reserves to fall back on. Already, schools lack the ability to buy the supplies that other districts often take for granted. Paper, pencils, markers, and other supplies that make a classroom operate are often paid for out of pocket by teachers. Unsupported, teachers at these schools have a low retention rate, and try to move to the better-supported institutions like magnet and suburban schools. What will happen when funds are even tighter, class sizes are larger, and demoralized teachers quit to teach in a district that is given the money it needs so that teachers can do their jobs?

More importantly, what does this attack on the schools and education do to the communities of these students? The hollowing out of schools is reflected in the communities they are in. Some people are able to rise above these educational challenges but feel they cannot stay in their home communities if they are to make a success of themselves.

Rauner has made a point of saying that Illinois is killing its economy by driving out business with high taxes and labor unions. Frankly, I can’t blame business for running out the door when we fail to support 20% of the student population. Education is undoubtedly the key to a strong economy. Every other highly developed country has figured this out. Like the U.S. is falling behind the rest of the world by not funding a free education, Illinois is falling behind the rest of the United States by not funding any education. If Rauner truly believes that we “must make the education of our children a top priority”, let’s start setting record highs rather than record lows in public education. At the very least, he can start out by giving schools the means to open come fall.

Written by Hank Jirousek

The rhetorical baby-faced killer: Chicago-based.

Hank Jirousek is a Writer for Progressive Army.

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