Christmas brings up painful memories about school choice in Chicago

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It happens to me every year. December rolls around and everyone begins to hang out the holly…it’s Christmas. But, in the midst of all the cheer, I find myself working on organizing a school fair or reading a story like the one in the Chicago Sun-Times recently about parents desperately searching for a high-quality school environment for their children and I am suddenly transported back to the winter of 1998 and 1999 when I was in 8th grade. Suddenly, I am struck afresh by the stress of the school search process in Chicago. Thousands of young people experience it each year; stockings hang on mantels and lights hang on trees from 79thstreet to the loop…as their futures hang in the balance of a school admissions decision.

I didn’t really understand it when I was in the 7th grade. I mean, the teachers and the counselors told it to us over and over again from the beginning of the school year. “The grades you get this year and the scores you get on the standardized test will determine what high schools you get to select from.” They told us how high school was going to be the most important decision that we will have made in our young lives. But, we were 12 or 13 years old. We didn’t understand.

I understood it a little better when I came back to the 8th grade after summer vacation. All the talk from the teachers and the counselors now was about applying to high schools. My scores were in and they were great. My 7th-grade transcript was set and it was equally good. The beginning of 8th grade was a little emotional because all of my classmates either experienced the joy of knowing that you have a chance to get into the very best high schools that the city has to offer, or the onset of a real sense of worry. A lot of the options that some of my friends had dreamed about (or at least that their parents had dreamed for them) were off the table.

The question seemed to linger over every single day of 8th grade; sometimes spoken, more often not, “what high school am I going to attend”?

Read the rest of the story by Chris Butler at Chicago Unheard.

Chicago teachers say ‘kids better have my money’

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Here we are again. The Chicago Teachers’ Union has voted to go nuclear and strike in an attempt to settle labor-management disputes over compensation and budget distress.

The district has offered teacher a contract with a 8.75 percent increase in wages, an ill-advised cap on new charter schools, and a pay scheme including “steps and lanes” that give unearned bumps in pay based on seniority and experience, not talent or merit.

But, there is a wrinkle in that offer the teachers can’t accept. By state law Illinois teachers are supposed to pay nine percent toward their own pension plans, but Chicago teachers pay only two percent and they don’t want to pay their fair share.

Cue the red shirts and the solidarity songs.

Why won’t we pay teachers for their hard work?

CPS is America’s third largest school district, boasting a $5.4 billion budget. Certainly they can afford to compensate teachers for their tireless work in education children, right?

No one ever wants to haggle with teachers over pennies. Americans are entirely sympathetic when it comes to teachers. We generally – and sometimes naively – repeat the cliche “teachers don’t get paid enough” and “teaching shouldn’t require a vow of poverty.”

Yet, a median fully-loaded public school teacher in Chicago costs the district $105,500. Not exactly pocket change or poverty wages.

Chicago Teachers’ Union leader Karen Lewis has said she wants her members to be “adequately compensated.” Comparing their packages with the parents of their students living in Chicago’s west and south side neighborhoods where the predominately black residents’ household incomes range between $10,000 and $20,000, it appears teacher compensation is at least adequate.

Chris Butler, a Chicago pastor, father, and activist who blogs at Chicago Unheard want us to remember a few facts when it comes to teacher pay in Chicago.

Here they are:

  • CPS teachers make an average of $78,000 per year (the starting salary is over $50,000) and they have the highest lifetime earnings of any of the 10 largest cities in America.
  • 2014 study shows that the lifetime earnings for a 30-year Chicago public school teacher is $2.15 million dollars, not including pensions.
  • Chicago teachers also earn well above the regional average salaries at every level of the pay scale so they are more than “competitive” with surrounding communities.
  • The City of Chicago has raised local taxes more than $1.1 billion dollars in the last year to pay for, among other things, pensions for teachers, police and firefighters.
  • Retired Chicago teachers get a 3% increase in their pensions every single year.
  • The average teacher salary in America is between $43K and $48K
  • The average income in Chicago is $69,000.

Butler recently organized members of the Chicago Parent Congress to pray in hope “that the Chicago Teachers Union would choose not to walk out on the children.”

I believe in a mighty God, and the power of prayer, and at the same time I know teachers’ unions are more likely to listen to parents when they rally to save a withering school – full of middle-class jobs for which students may never qualify – than to parents who pray for putting the interests of children above pay disputes.

In 2014 Inquisiter reported reported Lewis earned as much as $226,000 in annual compensation, and her portfolio included a $400,000 condo in Chicago and two vacation homes (one in Hawaii, and one Michigan).

A black child who leaves CPS incapable of reading, writing, and computing at grade-level can expect to earn nothing approaching what Lewis or her members earn.

Don’t say it’s for the kids, it’s not

Typically labor organizers do a good job of conflating their middle-class disputes with the interests of the poor students and parents in public schools. In a narcissistic and maddening perversion of logic we are to believe fattening the personal incomes of already fairly compensated teachers uplifts their subjects who are trapped in economically bleak circumstances.

A better focus might be on the unacceptable academic results of CPS and wonder what citizens get for their money. Black reading proficiency is below 20%, and in math it’s only 12%. That’s for kids in poverty. For middle-class students it’s only 41% and 27% respectively.

Those types of numbers bespeak a generation of young people who won’t qualify for college or meaningful work. Forty-seven percent of Chicago’s black men between ages 20 and 24 are out of work and out of school. We know what the means. Large groups of capable and worthy human beings are on track to become economic outcasts who can expect lives of stress, social alienation, and capture by an eagerly waiting criminal justice system.

That problem is only compounded by teachers’ strikes. The last time CPS faced a strike pastors and parents wanted the district and teachers to avoid disrupting the lives of low-income parents who couldn’t afford threats to their tenuous work-life situations. In a city constantly seeking solutions to guns and gangs, school is often the safest place to be.

For teachers to walk out on their students over a few dimes is probably the most morally broke and opposite of woke thing they could do.

It’s the budget, stupid

When teachers are mistreated or underpaid they have no choice but to withhold their labor and jolt the powers that be into better bargaining posture. None of us should ever discount the power of collective action and the right to strike. At the same time we can’t turn off our brains to the tangled politics and showy theatrics that hide the real issues in these disputes.

Often we’re sold a picture of uncaring bureaucrats who want to squeeze working people so hard they have to take Uber jobs to make up the difference. Sometimes that might be accurate. Other times it’s just juvenile theater spurred by the inability of labor to understand the finite nature of money.

In those times it feels like adults need to say “I understand you want a pony my Princess, but daddy just got laid off.”

This might be one of those times. For a district facing a $300 million budget deficit, this couldn’t be a worst time for teachers to be bad partners in task of addressing CPS’ financial issues.

Given their indifference to the needs of kids and the realities of CPS’ financial picture, and the CTU’s willingness to put everyone at risk but themselves, we might be learning that some of Chicago’s biggest thugs wear red t-shirts.

There is a life and death difference between how the middle class and the poor see school choice

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In recent weeks Chicago Unheard has posted two open letters.  The letters reflect two very different perspectives and two different experiences in Chicago’s education system.  While both of the letters come from people within the same Chicago Public School District, it seems that they come from two different worlds.  In one of these worlds, middle-class families (mostly white) endeavor to push mediocre academic performance toward true excellence.  In the other, families of color in communities with significantly fewer resources struggle for academic – and sometimes even physical – survival.

Earlier this month, we re-posted a blog from Troy LaRaviere, the newly minted President of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association and former Principal of Blaine Elementary School on Chicago’s north side.  LaRaviere penned an angry letter of resignation addressed to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.  Last week, we posted a letter from a single mother of two, Latoya Oby.  In it she pleads with the Chicago Teachers Union not to go on strike.  She believes a strike is too great a risk for her son’s academic success and his physical safety.

There is a gap between systems people, and the people

LaRaviere touts the fact that under his leadership, Blaine Elementary has become the #1 neighborhood school in Chicago and the #3 public school in the city overall.  This accomplishment is one to which he apparently committed himself when he first got the job six year ago (at the time Blaine was already the #6 neighborhood school in the city).  LaRaviere insinuates that a proliferation of his approach to school leadership would have closed the achievement gap between students of color and white students in Chicago more effectively than the mayor’s approach to school improvement and that of the appointed Board of Education.

By contrast, Oby does not write from the perspective of a high achieving principal in a north side school.  Oby is a single mom on the west side of Chicago.  In her letter, we read about a deeply troubling experience with Chicago Public Schools.  Oby’s older child – a son – has attended a number of CPS schools over the years.  In every case she has found that the school has been, in many ways, unable to meet her son’s needs.  She is afraid that the Chicago Teachers Union will put their financial demands above her son’s safety and her emotional and financial well being by choosing to strike.

The only light at the end of the tunnel for Latoya Oby was her ability to exercise her right to something that LaRaviere is very critical of in his letter: school choice.  Oby homeschooled her younger daughter and then put her in a Catholic school when she went back to work.  She did not feel that she would be able access the kind of education and social-emotional environment that she wanted for her daughter in the public schools around her home.  So she chose to do something different.

In a very real sense, these two passionately written letters typify the ongoing struggle for the soul of the school system.  They exemplify how people who are motivated by the same general principle (the academic and social success of students) can be so deeply divided.  To understand this a bit more deeply, we have to look at the worlds from which these two letters come.

The easy answer – the one Troy LaRaviere offers in his letter – is the proliferation of leaders in his mold.  The schools that Latoya Oby interacted with were, in LaRaviere’s estimation, suffering from the “uncaring mismanagement of the school system” on the part of Rahm Emanuel and the Board of Education.  What was needed to change Oby’s experience was a leader like him.  One who would be dedicated to “use evidence-based practice in the face of tremendous pressure…to adopt baseless ‘school reform ideas”.  Ideas like school choice and teacher evaluation.

Oby’s solution, while not crafted as a forceful policy recommendation, is simple and quite a bit more revolutionary.  ABANDON SHIP!  This mom calls for an approach that sounds a lot more like the “school reform” policies that seem to so irk LaRaviere.  Homeschool.  Catholic school.  Whatever you can do, get something better for your child and do it now.  Otherwise, be left at the mercy of underperforming schools and a volatile labor-district relationship that constantly jeopardizes your child’s future.

Why don’t these two policy recommendation square?  Because they come from two different realities.

We must admit the black poor are not doing well in CPS

Across the state and across Chicago Public Schools, academic proficiency rates are depressingly low.  38% of students are proficient in English and Language Arts (ELA) in Illinois and 29.7% in CPS.  In math, 28% are proficient statewide and only 21.6% in CPS.  But, it gets more depressing.

When we look inside of these figures, you can see which students are truly suffering.  The lowest scores in CPS come from African American students who receive free and reduced lunch. Among these poor, Black youngsters only 18.5% are proficient in ELA and 11.6% are proficient in Math.  The second lowest scoring group is poor Latino students.  The third lowest (with only 40.5% proficient in ELA and 27.2% proficient in Math) is African American students who DO NOT receive free and reduced lunch.  That means that the entire Black population in CPS is performing in or at the very bottom in CPS.  That’s enough to make a Black man cry.

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The realities in CPS are stark.  Students of color (especially poor students of color) can expect very different outcomes.  And it has been that way for a very long time.

Maybe that is why Troy LaRaviere does not embrace drastic reform proposals.  His leadership success was born in the other CPS.  The chief jewel in LaRaviere’s crown, Blaine Elementary, is almost 60% White and only 5% Black.  Only 16% of students at the school participate in the free and reduced lunch program.  Maybe Troy’s success has more to do with who he was educating and less to do with how he educated them.

In fact, the data suggest that folks like Latoya Oby and Rahm Emanuel might be onto something with their ideas about school choice.  Charter schools are public schools that are operated by independent, non-profits and by most assessments represent a form of school choice Chicago.  While these schools are not outpacing district-wide averages on the PARCC assessment, they are moving toward closing the long persistent achievement gap in Chicago.

When compared to non-selective schools in CPS, charter schools students in all 3 of the lowest performing subgroups do better (charters don’t outperform non-selective district schools among Latino students who don’t receive FRL).

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Maybe this is how we have to look at the debate?  If I’m Troy LaRaviere and I walk into the #6 neighborhood school in the city, I don’t have “school choice” in my playbook.  It would be nonsense to scrap everything and start all over.  At the same time, if I’m Latoya Oby and 80% of the students in my child’s school are not proficient in English and Language Arts, I don’t have time to wait for a LaRaviere style “6-year plan”.  When a school is in crisis, families can’t wait that long.  It is good and right to create new options.

There are two educational realities in Chicago.  One is in need of drastic reforms.  The other is probably right to opt for steady improvements upon the status quo.  Is there a way for these two approaches to co-exist?  Only time will tell.


Chris Butler is a father in Chicago. This post was republished from his blog, Chicago Unheard.

How can we better survive the killing season?

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I’m an Oakland boy but the place that birthed me is in crisis and the world is numb to it. Chicago, one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever seen, is losing Black life at an astonishing rate. What’s worse is that very few folks outside of Chicago are discussing it. The past two weekends have been particularly bloody (read here and here).

The vast majority of my relatives live all around the Chicago area and it astonishes me how so many lives can be taken and the conversation be so small on the national front.

I’m gonna have a real moment with y’all right now. I’m that dude that people say are angry. Folks say there’s a chip there and I’ve always been this way. I go to work and intentionally walk around my entire office every single day and speak to people – not just because I’m this super friendly guy, but it’s because I know how people see me. It’s the way they’ve always seen me, so I put people at ease. But when there are so many inputs that let us know that Black life isn’t valuable and it’s reiterated to you time and time again, it changes you.

I’m talking about cops killing us, us killing us, food killing us, water killing us, education killing us, our government killing us, poverty killing us – ALL OF IT. So when we step up, we’re met with a prime mixture of animus and patronization.

The cop had due cause. Let the hood take care of itself, eventually they’ll kill each other off. We need Monsanto. Just give schools more money. Charters are manipulating you. Don’t blame teachers. If they just got jobs, this wouldn’t happen.

Get outta here with that, man! For real.

What are we doing, both collectively and individually to add value? So many people out here make money off of Black suffering. There are so many nonprofits. So many schools. So many candidates. So many books.

My people dying is a cash cow for this country!

If you’re happy in your life and have some success, I need you to mentor someone. If you’re a Black man and you spend time with your kids, bring along the kid with no daddy.

Murders go up when the temperature rises in Chicago!

How bothered do you need to be?

I just spoke on an education panel discussing the normal stuff; charter schools, achievement – you know, all the stuff reformers and anti reformers discuss. The arguments where neither side is changing the other sides mind. The spaces where we all are just taking up space. I just couldn’t get over what’s been happening to Black folks.

I feel like I just kept yelling that our education system has never really educated Black people well, especially after Brown vs. Board. I just kept going back to the shootings that happened over the weekend. Last weekend it was 40 plus shootings, this weekend (at the time of writing this) it was 18. 13 people killed. This is Chicago for people that look like I do. This is Chicago for poor folks. This is the America that poor folks of color often experience. In this story it’s Chicago, but it’s our country.

I’m all over the place so I’ll end it with this list because we can all do something:

  1. Be a mentor.
  2. Get in front of these Black boys and girls and show genuine interest in them.
  3. Dads and men matter – to the dads on the block, make room for another kid or two in the neighborhood. Take them with you.
  4. Black churches, come on now! You were and are the backbone of our communities. WE NEED YOU. There was a time when you could go to the Black church and get all the information you needed. There was a time when we used to see y’all in the streets.
  5. Mosques, we need you. When I was a kid, y’all had brothers on every corner as we walked to and from school. You brothers made us get to school on time, told us to respect the girls and asked us what we learned. Y’all corrected us and I always respected it, even as a Christian boy. We need y’all.
  6. Media, tell the stories. For real. Make this country care like you force me to care about whatever the Kardashians are doing. Why are there like five shows focusing on OJ Simpson right now? I don’t care anything about that dude.
  7. School leaders, both reformers and anti reformers, I want to see conversations about Black kids. Talk to me about how they’re achieving or no achieving.
  8. The list isn’t exhaustive. It’s clear I’m writing off pure emotion. So what I want to leave you with is DO SOMETHING!

Show these kids we care about them. Chicago, Oakland, Detroit, show em. Welcome to the Killing Season. Hopefully it’s the last one.

GLASS HOUSES: Karen Lewis should be careful about calling people terrorists

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Recently at a City Club of Chicago luncheon, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis equated Governor Bruce Rauner with Islamic State terrorists. She suggested that his behavior is equivalent to “acts of terror on poor and working-class people.”

That’s a very harsh comment. Even if it is being directed at a governor who seems content to watch the lives of students, workers, the elderly and others of the most vulnerable people in the state fall into disrepair as he holds out for unreasonable reforms to be enacted in precisely the way he prescribes. As far as the “ISIS” comment, I would not have gone there. But, I have to admit that I can see where Ms. Lewis was coming from.

But, I do find it a little ironic that the CTU president is going after the governor in such a strong manner as it relates to his “behavior.” It would seem to me that if the aim is to get powerful leaders to move off of the dime and make compromises so that the most vulnerable people in our communities don’t suffer, Ms. Lewis could take a little advice from the Michael Jackson: Start with the woman in the mirror.

Just think about how much the CTU president and the Illinois governor have in common.

Both Governor Rauner and Karen Lewis ran on platforms that promised not to be so quick to give in and compromise on their issues and demands. As the Republican nominee for the governorship, Rauner lambasted the Chicago political machine and promised not be “weak” like his predecessors when it comes to dealing with those leaders. As the leader of the slate for the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), Karen Lewis came to power making very similar claims. The previous administration had been too willing to compromise. She would not be so flexible. She would fight.

Another example: Bruce Rauner’s “Turnaround Agenda” is not realistic in the current environment. It includes things like severely limiting workers compensation and collective bargaining. Similarly, last week a neutral third party suggested to the Chicago Teachers Union something that I suggested to them weeks ago; that they should take the generous deal that Chicago Public Schools put on the table. The arbiter essentially said that the demand for 4% raises instead of 2% (even though Chicago teachers are among the best compensated in the country), the demand that CPS continue to pay 7% of the employee pension contribution and other similar demands are unreasonable in the current environment.

You could call Karen Lewis’ response somewhat Rauneresque: She insisted that the third-party findings were “dead on arrival.”

Bruce Rauner has built a massive fortune over the course of his career. His wealth has allowed him to isolate himself politically and ignore the voice of reason. A huge part of what has enabled the governor’s behavior is that no one can stop him but himself.

Karen Lewis has taken a different route to power. She organized a vocal and active base inside of the union in order to gain power and then continued to build the CTU into a powerful turnout and PR juggernaut that allows her to push her agenda even if it does not accord with reason.

Both the Governor and Karen Lewis are locked in tough battles with similarly strong opponents, and it’s led to deadlock and a lot of collateral damage.

Which leads me to perhaps the most significant similarity between Rauner and Lewis: While they hold out for their agendas, more and more people stand to get hurt.

All around the state, social service providers are closing their doors, schools are shutting down, people are losing their jobs. Rauner soldiers on, pushing his turnaround agenda.

In Chicago, students have already lost a day of school due to a mini-strike. The tension between CTU and CPS has thrown tremendous uncertainty into the lives of parents, teachers and students. And an indefinite strike looms like a dark cloud over everyone’s head. But, like Rauner, Lewis sees only the justice of her cause and fights on with dogged determination.

In the fight over the state budget as in the fight over the CTU labor contract, neither side is going to get everything they want. But, if ever an overture for a real compromise were going to be made it would be the offer that CPS put on the table in March.

My 6th grade teacher always used to say “Don’t point people out. Whenever you do, there are always three fingers pointing back at you.”

Ms. Lewis should take that advice and not be so quick to call “terrorism” at behavior like refusing to negotiate or leaning in too hard and for too long on unreasonable demands—all at great cost to the most vulnerable people in our communities. She just might be saying something about herself.


Chris Butler is first a husband and a dad. He has been involved across the spectrum of public engagement activities and has worked with a number of diverse constituencies in urban and suburban communities. This post was republished from his blog Chicago Unheard.