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6. Use some TIF money to push school reform
In the mad scramble for TIF cash, first in line should be the public schools, which last year alone would have received an additional $250 million had the property tax revenue not been diverted by TIFs. Daley could use that money to solve one of the thorniest school reform issues: teacher evaluation.
One of the biggest variables affecting student achievement is teacher quality, but the school board does a lousy job of identifying bad teachers, and the Chicago Teachers Union resists any attempt to eliminate job security based on seniority.
Daley should recruit the union to play a bigger role in teacher evaluation. A recent pilot program in 44 Chicago elementary schools found that veteran teachers were the toughest evaluators of talent, rating 8 percent of new nontenured teachers unsatisfactory—much higher than the 0.3 percent of Chicago teachers who get bounced under the board’s current system.
The union would have to give up some of its seniority protections, but in return it would get improved professional development for teachers who need it, paid for in part with TIF funding. In short, teachers would get better job security because they would become better teachers.
Getting the union to commit to a good evaluation system that gets rid of bad teachers but changes the schools’ approach to professional development would be a worthy accomplishment, says Linda Lenz, founder and publisher of Catalyst Chicago, an independent newsmagazine on school reform.
“Paying people because they got another degree doesn’t have any impact whatsoever on student achievement,” Lenz says. “The whole school educates kids. Take that money and use it to develop teachers and everyone else in the school, to deliver for the kids.”
7. Make Chicago the greenest city in the United States
In February 2008, Popular Science magazine deemed Chicago the ninth greenest city in the United States. Not bad, but let’s go for number one.
This one is right in Daley’s wheelhouse. He plants trees and green rooftops to combat air pollution, advocates solar and wind power, and pushes for significantly reducing energy and water consumption in new and retrofitted buildings.
Yet for all his street cred, the mayor still has a real blind spot when it comes to recycling. Remember the blue bag program? Neither does anyone else. We were supposed to use the bags to separate our recyclables, but few of us did, and the program was marred by charges of contract cronyism and inflated estimates of its success.
It took a while, but Daley finally gave up on blue bags, and now we have blue carts that allow residents to put recyclables in a special bin picked up in a separate garbage run. It’s a much better approach. But only 26 wards have blue carts, and the mayor says the city can’t afford to extend the program to the others. Once again, that TIF fund might come in handy to get the program to all 50 wards and sell Chicagoans on the idea. Daley could create additional savings by eliminating the longstanding (and patronage-tainted) practice of three-person garbage trucks (two workers are plenty) and replacing ward-by-ward pickup with a more efficient grid system.
8. Trains, not planes or automobiles
Chicago won’t be truly green until people—politicians included—change the way they think about public transit. Too often, this debate gets characterized as Chicago versus downstate or the city versus the suburbs.
That’s so last century, says Frank Beal, executive director of Chicago Metropolis 2020, a regional planning group. More than a quarter of Chicago Transit Authority riders live in the suburbs, and 36 percent of the ridership of PACE suburban buses is Chicagoans. “That’s the problem with transit,” he says. “The agencies don’t speak with one voice, and, more important, they don’t have a dedicated source of funding.”
First up for the mayor: Lead the charge to consolidate the four transit boards that govern metropolitan transit into one. Combined, the CTA, Metra, Pace, and the Regional Transportation Authority have 47 board members and spend millions on overlapping administrative costs. The agencies can demonstrate their commitment to further cost savings by issuing a single fare card that can be used on any system.
This will take state legislation, but Daley can step up by using the bully pulpit of his office, aligning himself with suburban leaders, and releasing some control over city transit. And while he’s at it, he can give his allies political cover by advocating the unpopular but necessary step of adding a six-county surcharge to the gas tax dedicated to public transit.
Daley can do for transportation what he did for public housing, Beal says. “We can argue about the execution of the details and the timetable, but the mayor saw a major problem, recognized a completely dysfunctional system, went to the feds for help, and got it,” he explains. “We need to do the same thing for our regional transit system.”