Jul 21, 2019
Public schools in the United States have been steadily getting worse for decades. Chicago schools exemplify this process, showing the concrete impact on working class children.
Three-fourths of Chicago Public Schools have no librarian, as the money to pay for them has been slashed. And according to the Chicago Tribune, “Swaths of schools on the South and West sides have no librarians at all and the majority of schools that do are concentrated on the North side of the city.” The South and West sides are much poorer, while most of the wealthy live on the North side. So the wealthy schools retain librarians, the schools for workers and the poor have generally lost theirs.
Special education services have been attacked, in particular by making it increasingly difficult to sign up children who need help. The vice-president of the teachers’ union summed up the purpose of this bureaucratic practice clearly: “Thanks to the excellent investigative work of local reporters, we know that the motivation behind CPS’ changes to special education policy was based on one overarching goal: to cut costs, no matter how catastrophic the consequences for our students.”
Instead of having a nurse in every school, today, there are only 300 nurses for 500 schools. Contract nurses are supposed to fill in the gaps, but they are moved from one school to the next so they don’t get to know the students – and on many days, there is no nurse in a school at all.
Most dramatically, the neighborhood schools in the poor and working class areas have generally been gutted.
In many areas, particularly the poorest, there are no operating neighborhood schools nearby, just empty, boarded-up school buildings.
And budgets for the neighborhood schools that remain have been slashed. Each time CPS has declared a budget crisis – which was most years since 2008 – the cuts have fallen most heavily on the neighborhood schools. For example, in 2015, even as per-pupil budgeting remained stable, two-thirds of schools saw budget cuts. A Chicago Tribune article from 2016 summed up the results: “In short: Many of the city's neighborhood schools are dying.” They didn’t say, but should have, that this was particularly true of the neighborhood schools in the poorest neighborhoods.
As a result, these schools have cut back dramatically on the programs they offer. For instance, Hirsch High School, in the black, working class neighborhood of Chatham, has no band. Journalism programs, the radio/TV studio, pre-law, and the librarian have also gotten the ax. While the elite CPS schools offer more than 200 different courses, Hirsch offers just 28 other than physical education and JROTC (a military training class). It doesn’t teach physics, has only four English classes, and offers only Spanish I and Spanish II for foreign language. And this school that won the city’s football championship in 2010 now doesn’t field a team. Of course, Hirsch was never the same as the schools aimed at training privileged students, but it offers much less than it used to, and Hirsch is only one among a long list of schools that have faced similar cuts.
Neighborhood schools have long been central to building stable working class neighborhoods. For all their problems, they used to offer at least a basic modern education to working class children in Chicago. And they also helped build communities, by offering sports, music performances, theater, and other events that parents and community members gathered around. Neighborhood schools were also the most efficient way for parents to take care of their children. They were by definition not too far from home, so a parent with multiple children could more easily navigate getting those children to and from school.
The destruction of these schools falls particularly heavily on working class children. If a child does very well on tests, they might get into one of the selective enrollment schools that get extra resources. Those who live in a wealthy neighborhood might still have a decent elementary school or high school nearby. For those who can afford it, there is always private school. But for most working class parents, with none of these privileges, the destruction of the neighborhood schools leaves no good choices.
Chicago is by no means unique. Just the opposite: similar cuts have taken place everywhere. School budgets for actual education of children – including the money going for teachers – have been starved of the money they need.
In a city as rich as Chicago, given all the taxes that working class people pay, it is incredible that schools don’t have all the money they need. But two examples from the 2019 CPS budget, which is basically typical of the budgets in recent years, illustrate part of why they don’t.
First, more than ten percent of the six billion dollar budget, or 607 million dollars, is allocated for debt service. Of this, just 150 million is going to pay off the principal the system owes, while 450 million dollars is for interest.
Chicago Public Schools, like other large government bodies, of course has relied on borrowing for construction projects. But most of the system’s current debt was racked up to cover its normal operating expenses. In other words, the fact that state and city authorities didn’t allocate enough in previous years, means they were short-changing the schools. They just covered for part of that by debt. This enormous debt load has now been the justification to give CPS a very bad credit rating. As a result, the school system pays an extremely high interest rate.
A second example: this year CPS will put 800 million dollars into the teachers’ pension fund, many times more than it would owe the teachers for just this year. This giant payment is due to make up for years when CPS and then the state of Illinois systematically shorted the teachers’ pension fund – along with every other public worker pension fund. Pensions are simply part of the wage bill. So CPS authorities didn’t pay the teachers what they were owed. Now CPS is paying off some of this debt to the teachers – at the expense of the education available to students today.
Taken together, these two payments alone eat up almost 1/4 of the school budget, before a penny gets to the schools.
And as we’ll see, these two examples are only the tip of the iceberg of money drained from the schools.
The political decisions that got CPS into this situation were the results of a conscious policy carried out since the 1980s and 1990s, pushed by organizations of the capitalist class and facilitated by their political servants in both parties.
In the mid 1980s, after a decade of cuts, the schools were already in bad shape. Report after report came out decrying the state of education across the country, especially in the big cities. In 1987, Secretary of Education William Bennet even called Chicago’s schools the worst in the country. But this did not set the stage for increased funding of schools, in Chicago or anywhere else – just the opposite. In fact, the alarm about schools was used as an excuse to “reform” the school system.
In 1988, the Chicago Commercial Club, taking advantage of this situation, stepped in and offered to use their business skills to fix the problems. Ever since then, school “reform” has been central to the Commercial Club’s agenda.
This club has been one of the Chicago bourgeoisie’s key political organizations since it was founded in the aftermath of the 1877 railroad strike by some of the city’s richest men, including Marshall Field of department store fame and Phillip Armour, founder of the meatpacking company. Since its founding, the Commercial Club has ensured that the Chicago and Illinois governments respond to the needs of the city’s bourgeoisie, organized as a class to discuss and reach some sort of consensus. In the 1800s, this included buying weapons for the police, donating money for a National Guard outpost, and giving the army land for a base within striking distance of the city because of their fear of the working class. The Commercial Club championed the 1909 Plan of Chicago, giving the blueprint for the region’s growth into the 21st century. The Commercial Club has also been central in formulating city and state policy towards the water and sewer systems, street cleaning, pensions, and what it calls “race relations.”
The Commercial Club first had to establish the political means to shape school policy. In the late 1980s, Chicago’s schools were run by a combined board and local school councils, elected by residents of each neighborhood. This system allowed people to more directly make their demands felt. The Commercial Club agitated for a state law giving the mayor and his appointed schools Chief Executive Officer (CEO) more authority. This has evolved into a system under which the mayor is essentially a dictator over the school budget. He appoints the school board and effectively controls the school system, including its budget, from the top, with little local input. The schools are run directly by an appointed CEO.
This allowed the “reformers” to implement their “reforms,” starting in a big way in the mid-1990s and continuing to today. And these reforms, in one way or another, took money from the direct education of children for the benefit of private interests.
One of the first “reforms” was the promotion of charter schools. These were, in essence, a kind of privatization of the school system, paid for by public money. Despite the public money, the charters operate under the control of private interests who don’t have to follow the same rules.
The first charter in Chicago opened in 1996, backed by Paul Vallas, the business-backed CEO of the schools. Ever since, the Chicago charter schools have been pushed and largely controlled by business through the Commercial Club. At the beginning, the Commercial Club distributed money to the first charters to serve as models. In 2004, the Commercial Club distributed 50 million dollars a year to charters it chose – added to the charters’ ordinary public funds. This was an enormous sum given that there were only 52 charter schools operating in the city in the 2004-5 school year. But this “model” of putting in extra money didn’t continue.
Charters have expanded to the point that today there are 126 charter schools out of about 600 Chicago Public Schools. Current policies can only increase this number. There are no charters aimed at wealthy or middle class students. Instead, they help attract students – and money – away from the neighborhood schools in the working class neighborhoods. While they are not all the same, in general, they offer students a cut-rate, test-score-based education, with a heavy hand of discipline.
Today, many Chicago charters continue to be controlled by private boards, often dominated by the largest corporations. The last President of the Board of the largest charter network in Chicago, Noble Street, was a Senior Vice President with the investment firm Merrill Lynch. The current president is a vice president of NAI Hiffman, a giant real estate company. Other board members include executives with Allstate Insurance, an advertising company, a construction maintenance and supply company, another investment services corporation, and an architecture firm.
Charter schools put about 750 million dollars a year of the public school budget under the control of these private boards. Of course, much of the money that charter schools get goes to educate their students. But while charters in Chicago cannot be operated openly for profit – unlike in many cities – they have largely opaque budgets. So nonetheless, money goes to other interests.
And charters do not have to abide by the general teachers’ union contract, allowing them to pay their employees less, with worse benefits and more onerous work rules. According to a study by the teachers’ union, Chicago charter schools pay teachers on average $25,000 less a year than public schools – freeing up that money for the private interests that run these schools to do with as they will. Charters also have much higher turnover than the public schools since most charter teachers who can, leave their charter schools for the higher-paying and less micro-managed public schools. This turnover makes the education provided by charters even worse. And despite some recent successful unionization drives and even strikes at charter schools, they still represent a wedge aimed at reducing the pay and benefits of all school workers.
Another “reform” backed by the Commercial Club and its reformer allies was the use of “data,” especially testing data. Testing to hold students to the same standards is, in itself, a reasonable idea. In 1963 over 200,000 Chicago students boycotted school demanding, among other things, that test scores be used to determine which schools needed extra help. But testing since the 1990s has been used in the opposite way, not to give more money to the “poorly performing” schools, but as the excuse to drain money from them.
The massive Chicago testing program began in 1996, at the same time the first charter schools were opening. From the beginning, schools that did poorly on tests did not get extra resources – they were put on probation.
Then, in 2001, Chicago implemented “school choice,” encouraging parents to pull their students out of “failing” neighborhood schools, and put them in alternatives – meaning, generally, charter schools. Of course, where the students went, the money followed. When in 2012 CPS implemented “student based budgeting,” even more money was drained out of the neighborhood schools each time a student transferred out.
This set the stage for closing an enormous number of schools, culminating in 2013, when CPS closed 49 neighborhood elementary schools at once. These closings were justified by pointing to declining enrollment – but of course enrollment was declining, when every policy carried out for 20 years had been aimed at driving students out of these schools!
And on top of closings, CPS has “turned around” another 150 schools since 2002, using the excuse of low test scores. These schools weren’t technically closed – but all the adults in the building were fired, from the principal to the teachers to the custodian. New staff were brought in, often at much lower pay and benefits. Management of the school was usually turned over to a private school management company, the Academy for Urban School Leadership. Needless to say, this was extremely disruptive and often made the “turned around” schools even worse, even by the measure of test scores. Through all this disruption, the turn-arounds also drove more students – and money – out of the neighborhood schools.
At the same time that the Commercial Club and other reformers were promoting charter schools and “data-driven reforms,” the Chicago Public Schools began racking up increasing amounts of debt. This accelerated after 1995, when the Commercial Club-backed CEO of CPS got the state of Illinois to remove the limit on its borrowing. From that time on, year after year, CPS turned to the banks to pay for its operations, setting up the situation of gigantic payments owed to the banks today.
So while they bragged about their business acumen, in fact, the business leaders who increasingly determined school policy since the mid 1990s were exactly the ones who saddled the school system with so much debt.
It was at this same time, in the late 1990s, that CPS and the state stopped paying their share into the pension funds. This was justified by returns earned on the stock market – but the shorting of the pensions accelerated when the stock market crashed in 2001 and then again in 2008.
Not only did this set the stage for today’s giant back-payments into the pension fund, it also set up another political attack on the teachers, since the teachers’ pension is blamed for the schools’ shortage of money.
No surprise – the Commercial Club has led the attacks on the pensions for teachers and other public workers. One former president of the club even reported that members of the Commercial Club pleaded with ratings agencies to lower the ratings of Illinois bonds, in order to justify completely getting rid of public pensions in the state!
These “reforms” in Chicago served as one of the models that were exported to the rest of the country, again backed by business groups like the Chicago Commercial Club. In addition to similar clubs in other cities, the push has been national: in 1996, for instance, the investment bank Lehman Brothers even organized a conference to discuss the possibilities of profiting from investment in the education industry. Foundations also got involved – for decades, the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation has been one of the main backers of charter schools across the country.
In 2002, these policies went full throttle when the Bush Administration, allied with liberal Democrats Ted Kennedy and George Miller, pushed through the so-called “No Child Left Behind” law. This law forced schools everywhere to put in place the types of so-called “reforms” that were already being implemented in Chicago.
Ever since 2002, the federal government has continued to promote the same type of policies. When Barack Obama took office, the name of the policy was changed to “Race to the Top,” dropping the pretense that “No Child” would be left behind, but the so-called “reforms” continued. Obama even appointed Arne Duncan, the former CEO of Chicago Public Schools who had implemented No Child Left Behind in Chicago, to be his Secretary of Education. And of course under Duncan these policies accelerated on the scale of the country.
It has long been obvious that the “reforms” embodied in NCLB and Race to the Top did not help education. Some leading early advocates of education reform like Diane Ravitch have said as much. Ravitch had been appointed to high offices in the education department under presidents H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush, and had been a prominent backer of NCLB when it was first launched. But as results were tallied, she not only shifted her stance, she began to use her authority to expose the fact that all of these “reforms” were attacks. In a 2011 interview, she said “We are destroying our education system, blowing it up with these stupid policies. And handing the schools in low-income neighborhoods over to private entrepreneurs does not... improve them. There’s plenty of evidence now that the kids in these schools do not do better....”
All of these so-called “reforms” made the schools worse. But they also facilitated the looting of the schools by capital. And that was the point all along.
Given all the different budgets at the city, county, state, and federal levels, it’s impossible to trace a specific dollar taken from one fund and put in another. But it is clear that today, the school system is very short of the money it needs, while corporations and banks get increasing billions in subsidies and tax breaks.
At the level of Chicago, the city only began giving open subsidies to developers and corporations in 2001, when it gave Boeing a then-unprecedented 63 million dollars to move its headquarters to the city. Since that time, the level of subsidies and tax breaks, open and hidden, has only increased. According to one study, Illinois and its local governments gave five billion dollars in direct corporate subsidies between 1985 and 2017 (Illinois Economic Policy Institute, Aug 24, 2017). According to the Daily Herald, in 2015 alone, business tax breaks cost Illinois 1.8 billion dollars. One of the first acts of new mayor Lori Lightfoot in April, 2019, was to approve 1.6 billion dollars in subsidies for just two development projects.
Capital increasingly puts its hands on the school money directly. In 2014, CPS contracted out custodial services, to Aramark and SodexhoMagic. This led to a minor scandal about how filthy the schools had become. One custodian emphasized that the basic problem was understaffing since custodial services were privatized:“What I ask is that they bring more personnel to the schools because all the schools are dirty, all of them.” Yet even after this scandal, CPS gave Aramark and SodexhoMagic a larger, 535 million dollar “facilities services” contract that puts these companies in charge of maintenance work.
In 2015, CPS began contracting out nursing, which greatly contributed to the shortage of nurses described above.
Then there are the private companies that administer testing and test prep, the companies that sell textbooks and other supplies, the construction companies – the list goes on and on.
Add up the money taken off the top of the school budget for debt service and back payments to the pensions, add in the money that goes anywhere but to education in the charter schools, and the profits taken out by the privatized nursing, custodial, and maintenance companies, plus the profits of all the schools’ suppliers. It is clear that if the current CPS budget were all used for education, the Chicago schools could begin to reverse the decades of decline.
Almost 20 years after the Chicago model of “reform” went national, the situation is similar, fundamentally, in every other city.
So yes, Chicago was a model – of how to take the money needed for the schools and put it at the disposal of capital.
In fact, it’s no different than other problems we face. We certainly pay enough into the health care system to pay for excellent care for everyone. Workers pay more than enough in taxes to expect safe drinking water, functional sewer systems, and well-maintained roads and transit systems. The problem is not the absolute lack of resources: it’s that the wealth needed for our children’s education has been stolen to keep this capitalist system awash in the cash it needs.
To ensure that our children get the education they need, along with the health care, transportation, and other services we need, we will have to take that wealth back.
The draining of money from the schools has provoked some resistance. Most importantly, there have been a number of strikes by teachers and other school workers, including one in 2012 in Chicago, statewide strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona in 2018, and the 2019 teachers strike in Los Angeles. In these strikes, teachers have raised issues beyond their own pay and benefits, raising the degradation of education for their students. They have also made some attempts to link up with and involve parents.
Given the national scope of the attacks on the schools, rooted as they are in the basic drive of capital to suck dry every public source of revenue, no local, small scale fight of teachers could stem the tide, let alone begin to restore what has been lost. But at the same time, when the working class across the country is facing this magnitude of attack on the future for its children, no one can say when a local, small scale fight might explode, inspire others, and kick off a movement of the working class on a broader scale, that might begin to challenge the root of the problem, the capitalist system that puts profit before everything.
Access to public schools was won by the fights of working people in the first place: by the mobilization of the former slaves during Reconstruction in the South; by the fight against child labor in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; and by the demands of the black population in the 1950s-70s to gain access and funding for schools.
These fights won important gains, yet finally none of them drew the conclusion that it is necessary to overthrow this system that puts profits before the interests of the population. And yet, that is exactly the issue.
The increasing inability of this capitalist society to prepare working class children for the world they will inhabit, an inability produced by the system’s cannibalizing of its own education system, is one of the clearest marks of capitalism’s bankruptcy. When the working class moves again, it will need people who see clearly that securing a future for our children will require getting rid of this capitalist system, and replacing it with one where the development of children is a central priority, one in which, to quote Marx and Engels, “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”