Do you favor school reform? Peter Cunningham does. For more than 20 years, he’s been a spokesperson for the Chicago Public Schools and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Now his own non-profit, funded by “pro-reform funders”, helps to “drive positive narratives about education reform.”
We note that “school reform” has become a sort of brand, owned by the well-funded advocates for charter schools and government programs such as Race to the Top. But Cunningham says he keeps an open mind. “I think that there’s a lot of common ground between those on the reform side and those who are opposed to reform,” he explains.
We begin by talking about February 29, which promises to be a very difficult day for both district-run and charter schools. CEO Forrest Claypool has ordered about hundred million dollars in cuts at the school level. But Cunningham says it had to be done.
“I read something the other day about one school that’s got to make up $108,000. That’s in the middle of the year. Now this is a school with probably a 5 to $10-million budget, so it’s a lot of money but it’s not an overwhelming amount of money. These are not really really really deep cuts. These are – everybody’s got to do some sacrificing, everybody’s got to share,” he tells us.
We ask Cunningham for his reaction to the rejection of the tentative agreement. “President Lewis was bargaining in good faith,” Cunningham claims. “She believed it was a pretty good deal. She does believe – I think she is convinced that we are in a higher state of crisis than we had been in the past and that shared sacrifice is required. Notably she had really lowered the rhetoric.”
Cunningham affirms his admiration for Lewis’ rhetorical skills. He notes that the union successfully made the point that it didn’t “trust” CPS.
“You know there’s probably examples in the past where that’s justified,” he concedes. “I know in 2011 one of their annual raises was rescinded, so that’s certainly not something that builds trust. But you have to look at what’s happened in the last couple of months with Forrest. I mean he closed down three charter schools. He opened two. He reopened the neighborhood Dyett High School and agreed to it… He’s fighting very hard to protect their pensions. I mean this is a deal that would protect their pensions. You know I think they have to give him the benefit of the doubt and they should look at his record. He doesn’t have a long record of being a Union buster. He’s got a record of being a strong efficient manager and that’s what the district needs.”
A major point of contention in the tentative agreement was a call by CPS for a buyout of older, more experienced teachers. In order for the proposed contract to succeed, more than 2,000 teachers and para-professionals would have had to agree to it. Teachers complained that the deal would rob the system of its most valued professionals. But Cunningham believes the CTU leadership wanted the deal.
“The folks at CPS told me this, but Karen has not challenged it, is that this was her idea, and the reason why she wanted this was because the step and lane increases stop for older teachers. Some of them are at the top of the pay scale, and this was a way to give something to her older teachers. So you know, that’s what I was told,” he asserts.
Cunningham says that the buyout could have been good for the system. “The goal isn’t to get rid of great teachers, it’s to get rid of the ones who are tired and who want to take this bonus and move on, and a lot of people reach that point,” he explains. “So, it didn’t require all of them to take it, but you know they were very explicit about it. If a whole lot of higher paid teachers took this buyout they would be able to preserve more lower-paid teachers and that would reduce the need for – that would help reduce any pressure to layoff or close positions, etc.”
We differ sharply on the role and value of charter schools, and our conversation gets fairly deeply into the effect of charters on CPS overall. But Cunningham, while expressing some reservations about charters, is an unabashed fan. He reacts to our assertion that in some communities charters are a kind of hostile takeover.
“If it’s a hostile takeover by anybody it’s by parents,” he responds. “Parents are choosing these schools, right. We give parents a choice in making those choices. They are saying, “We are really frustrated with schools where half the kids don’t graduate. We are frustrated with schools where there’s no AP. We’re frustrated with schools that don’t get kids into college. We’re frustrated with schools that send kids to college and find out they need remedial education.”
We react by asserting that in many communities it’s really a false choice when the district-run school is in pathetic condition and a shiny new school opens a block away. And the debate continues.
Cunningham, who has so often been “at the table” for policy duscussions about public education concludes by telling us that the outlook is not good. Americans are gradually disinvesting in public education, because they’re participating in it less and less.
“Public support for public education is declining, and it’s really at risk,” he explains. “I think if you look around the country you see first of all 3-million kids in charters, almost 2-million home schools, and 5-million in private schools. That’s 10-million kids who are not in the traditional public school system. And you have something like 28 states now that are doing some kind of a voucher and you have something like 30 states that are still funding education at pre-recession levels, pre-2008 levels. I think there’s frustration with the education system and taxpayers are saying they’ve had enough. Only about 20% of taxpayers have kids in the public school system.”
“I say this is why we need accountability. We need accountability to be able to make the case that we’re getting results, and without accountability you can’t go to Springfield or state capitals around the country and say, “Listen, we’re doing the right stuff here for kids. You’ve got to do a better job of funding us.” In fact, what most of the politicians are saying is you know we’re frustrated. We give you plenty of money. We spend more than any state/country in the world, blah blah blah, and they don’t want to fund education, so I think it’s a real problem.”
Read a full transcript of today’s show here: CN Transcript Feb 11 2016
other notable links:
A deep dive into Noble Charters at Catalyst
Cunninham in the Trib: Beware of elected school board