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.



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).


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.

I backed Clinton when it wasn’t cool, now I want her to get real about education

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I went on record as a Hillary Clinton supporter before it was the easiest thing to do. Now I hope that Hillary will return the favor when it comes to standing firm on her support for high standards in education and school choice.

Back in March of this year it looked like Bernie Sanders had a reasonable shot at being the Democratic nominee. It wasn’t at all clear that the Republicans would nominate Donald Trump, so it was still conceivable that independents and some Democrats might cross over to vote for their candidate. So, when the reporter from the Chicago Sun-Times stood by the entrance to the Clinton rally looking for a quote, folks were dodging him.

When I saw that, I knew that somebody other than the elected officials and party bosses needed to step up. In some small way, this political titan needed an everyday citizen to go to bat for her. So I did what I knew was right. I stepped up and did my best to argue that Hillary Clinton was not just the party’s choice, but also the people’s choice.

A few months later, Hillary Clinton delivered a speech to the National Education Association (the nation’s second largest teachers union) in which she took great pains to distance herself from President Obama’s legacy of support for high standards, teacher accountability and school options. Soon after that, Clinton’s platform committee met in Florida and turned the party’s policy agenda sharply against high standards and weakened long-standing support of public school choice—even where public charter schools are concerned.

chrishillaryI’ve been around politics and elections for a majority of my life, so I get it. The teachers unions are important members of the Democrat’s winning coalition in the upcoming national elections. Nobody wants them upset. They give money, they mobilize volunteers and they talk to millions of parents across the country on a very regular basis. People in communities often turn to teachers for input and guidance. It won’t be easy for Hillary Clinton to stand firm on these issues.

But that is what attracted me to the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton’s campaign in the first place. Because this is a party that stands for people when they can’t stand up for themselves. Because the Democratic Party platform is home to progressive policies that cast aside traditional ways of doing things when those traditions run their course and start hurting people.

Because President Obama used his policies, his appointments and bully pulpit to promote innovation and progress in education. Because when it comes to education, the students—especially low-income students in under-resourced communities like the one where I grew up on Chicago’s West Side—are those people who can’t stand up for themselves.

Because we know that spending more money on education isn’t the only answer. It is often a copout—the United States already spends significantly more on education than many other OECD countries.

Because the Democrats do the right thing. And because the Clintons are Democratic royalty.

When I look back on it, I realize that these values—the ones I learned growing up in community organizing and Democratic politics in Chicago—are what motivated me to step up to that reporter at the Hillary Clinton rally back in March when everybody else was playing it safe.

I was just being a good Democrat.

I hope that in the final stretch of the presidential election, Hillary Clinton will tap into her Democratic roots. I hope she will be inspired by the same Democratic values that inspired her to give her life to fighting for the little guy, the same values that inspired this community organizer on the south side of Chicago to want her as the next president of the United States.

When she does tap into those values, she will defy the party platform and acknowledge that student assessment, teacher evaluation, instructional innovation and parental choice are all necessary components of the change we need to ensure that every child in America has access to the high-quality education they deserve. And she won’t back down.
For the sake of struggling children and families across the nation, I hope that Hillary will make the same choice I did that day at the rally: to be a good Democrat. It got her a good quote out of me that day, but it will get us something far more consequential, a brighter American future.

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

F- the police

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I’m going to have to stand in a pulpit with the team of church leaders at my church in Englewood on Sunday. Our congregation is Black. Our community is Black. We are Black. It will be difficult to leave the issue of the execution of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and the countless other Black people unaddressed in the gathering. We will probably continue with our preaching series for the main sermon, but if I had to deliver a sermon on this issue I’d give it the title: “F– The Police”.

I would take as my text Psalm 82 verse 3 and 4.

Defend the poor and the fatherless; Do justice to the afflicted and needy. Deliver the poor and needy; free them from the hand of the wicked.

My sermon would not be a call to peace and forgiveness (and I believe deeply in peace and forgiveness). But, this sermon would be a clarion call to righteous indignation over the state of affairs in our country in which the force of law is consistently used to unnecessarily end the lives of poor, Black people in America.

I would dismiss the faulty notion that race is not the great motivator for this brutality. Black males aged 16 to 19, I’d tell the congregation, are 21 times more likely to be killed by the police than white males in that age group. Unarmed black men are seven times more likely to be killed by police than are unarmed white men.

This is about race.

It is an expression of the racism and oppression that has been the great stain upon our nation’s legacy from the beginning.

So yes. I would say to our congregation that it is our righteous duty to say F— the police. There is no other option. But, there are some options on how we might do this.

We might Fix the Police.

Over and over again police officers execute black people and get away with it. The reasons for these killings are too expansive to do them justice here. But, the reason for the acquittals is clear. It’s about police training. It’s about the law. It’s about police contracts.

Cops don’t go to jail for killing black people in cold blood for this simple reason: it is not illegal for cops to kill black people in cold blood.

Police are trained not to aim for limbs when they discharge their weapons. Say what you will, but that means that our boys and girls in blue are trained to shoot to kill.

The legal standard for police to discharge their weapons leaves it vastly up to the officer’s discretion – complete with his or her cultural and racial bias – to determine whether or not a person deserves to be shot.

An officer can shoot someone “to protect the officer or others from what is reasonably believed to be a threat of death or serious bodily harm; and to prevent the escape of a fleeing violent felon who the officer has probable cause to believe will pose a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.”

That legal gobbledygook basically means “for just about any reason you see fit”.

And as if this were not enough legal protection, the vast majority of police contracts in this country present significant barriers to the prosecution of police officers.

As a nation, we have to fix this. And we have to fix it now. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Justice too long delayed is justice denied”.

And if the nation denies Black people this justice by deferring the Fixing to a distant future, how can we but resort to another approach. After all, the inability of the nation to Fix the police does not relieve the Christian (especially the Black Christian) from his Biblical duty to free the oppressed.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see even good men resolve to Fight police.

We’ve seen it before in American history. The “Black Panther Party for Self-Defense” organized for this very purpose: to defend the Black community against police brutality.

As a pastor, I would not encourage our congregation toward violence. But, I could not discourage the righteous desire to defend the powerless and the oppressed. I would advance the cause of peace. But, I would also issue a prophetic warning to our congregants and to the nation at large: whenever the state refuses to yield justice in the face of peaceful protest, it creates the environment for violent resistance.

We don’t want to see this. But, ultimately justice and timely course correction is the best way to avoid it.

Because what the community cannot do is continue to Fear the police.

The Bible reserves judgment for cowards.

Black Christians shrink from their moral responsibility if we sit idly by and do nothing as the warm blood of our most vulnerable cries out from the ground.

And while we are at it, F— the school system. F—the racist economy. F— every unjust system in our country.

For thine oh Lord is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.

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