CN Sep 12, 2013

So why do we keep talking about eradicating the “billion dollar deficit” at CPS by taking away benefits from teachers? Why can’t we lay the blame with Mayor Daley, Paul Vallas and the complicit legislators who allowed tax levies specifically earmarked for pensions to be spent on school operating expenses? In other words, since we taxpayers allowed two decades of “pension holidays”, should we be shocked that the pension system is in chaos? And, we asked Tribune Ed Board member Paul Weingarten, shouldn’t the taxpayers have to shoulder some of the burden of fixing this?

“For us, when we talk about raising taxes and all that, on the Tribune Editorial Board we come from a natural point of being, you know, not usually receptive to that idea,” Weingarten carefully explains.

Weingarten, who most often takes the lead in writing education editorials for the Trib, was not terribly open to our assertion that a major source of urban school system troubles is that, over time, they have become home to large numbers of impoverished children who are victims of at least historic, if not current, racism.

That is something that Karen Lewis has often said… We don’t want our teachers evaluated, we don’t want our kids tested until we solve poverty in America. To me that is a complete cop-out.” he retorts.

So what to do? Is there a way to find new revenue, or do we have to cut our way out of the deficit?

“Things are not gonna get better budget-wise,” he asserts. “If you look at the mountain they’ve gotta climb, they’ve got 5-6 hundred million dollar payments every year…and they start to get into the 650 million range going through the end of the decade. You can’t solve any of these problems until Springfield gets its act together and we have some pension relief, because I think once you see broad pension relief the City of Chicago and CPS will all be a part of it.”

But Community Media Workshop’s Thom Clark thinks new revenue shouldn’t be completely off the table.

“The state has been facing a structural budget deficit for some time,” he says. “And with our flat rate income tax, even the temporary increase we got a few years ago, not only didn’t let us catch up with our bills very much (which was the excuse for doing it), but it really didn’t allow us to get even, much less ahead. We need to reform how we produce revenue to pay for basic services. the flat tax isn’t doing it.”

For example, he says, “this is one of the few states where services are not subjected to sales tax.” In addition. the flat sales taxes and other sin-taxes raise too little money while aggravating the public.

“So we do these annoying things that end up pushing the public away from engagement with trying to make government work better because they’re getting a $100 ticket for going 28 miles in a school zone,” he says.

Weingarten concedes that teachers have paid their dues through the years, while the state and city have not. And that teachers and other school personnel don’t get Social Security, because their pensions were supposed to support them in their retirement.  But there has been, nevertheless strong support in Sprinfield to cut teacher benefits.

“There was a proposal to move some of that onto the teachers. That failed because they rightly said why do we have to take the burden of all this mismanagement. But I think unfortunately when pension reform comes, you’re gonna see a lot of workers getting their benefits cut.”

Deficits aren’t the only education topic, however. Clark laments the way CPS has deliberately moved away from the 90’s model of  Local School Councils.

“The stories of that time were about the four or five schools where there were conflicts,” he explains. “We never heard about the sixty percent of  schools where research showed there was fairly dramatic improvement in performance because of that engagement with parents and community leaders and teachers…the real story we should have gotten out of the 90’s experiment with local school councils was that this was something that was getting folks engaged.”

Today, he says, there’s frustration that engaged parents are being left out of the decision-making.

“I think there’s growing public consensus that there’s been too much teaching to the test, that kids aren’t really learning how to learn, and that standardized tests have gotten out of control,” he says.

We conclude with a conversation about guns in restaurants.  “It may be something Texans are comfortable with, but I am not, as a Chicagoan, comfortable with what we’re being forced to do on concealed carry. It surprised me when it came up, and I can’t believe where we’re headed,” Clark concludes.

The Tribune’s Paul Weingarten sums it up succinctly.

“Allowing guns in public places, I’m not for that. “


About Ken

Ken's the host of Chicago Newsroom. A former news director, reporter and radio program host, he's also a past Vice President of the Chicago Headline Club.
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