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2016 Best Public Schools

How to Fix CPS

Illustration: Fernando Volken Togni

How to Fix CPS

Four competing ideologies on solving the district’s fiscal mess

This summer, state legislators pulled Chicago Public Schools from the edge of a fiscal cliff, if just barely, with a stopgap budget measure. But with ballooning pension shortfalls, more than $6 billion in long-term structural debt, and slashed operating budgets, CPS still faces an uncertain future. The solution? Depends on whom you ask.

The Austerity Camp

Who they are: Conservative-leaning politicians and pundits, Governor Rauner

What they’re proposing: Shut off the state taps until real reforms happen at the city level; get major concessions from the teachers’ union, including a salary freeze; replace the ailing pension system with retirement plans such as 401(k)s; change state law to allow CPS to declare bankruptcy. A report by the Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative think tank, summed up the stance: Until the district gets its fiscal house in order, “CPS doesn’t deserve another penny from taxpayers.”

Chance of success: Given the supermajority of Democrats in the state legislature, and with the Illinois Supreme Court having declared teacher pensions essentially untouchable, such severe changes seem unlikely

The Revenue Camp

Who they are: The Chicago Teachers Union, many Democratic state lawmakers, some CPS officials

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What they’re proposing: Raise taxes at the local and state levels; review and possibly rescind “clout contracts” between CPS and private companies such as testing firms and food and facilities services; release additional TIF funds; cut costs in the CPS central office.

Chance of success: With a majority of parents siding with the CTU in its labor dispute with the city (according to recent polls), the mayor showing a willingness to raise taxes, and Rauner blinking in his stare-down with Springfield, this camp will likely see some of its goals fulfilled.

The Corporate Camp

Who they are: Rahm and his acolytes

What they’re proposing: An increase in the role of the private sector in the funding and management of school operations; a greater reliance on charter schools; a more aggressive and (some say) riskier approach to investment and borrowing on the part of CPS.

Chance of success: Given Rahm’s rock-bottom approval rating and the rise of social-justice-minded leaders like outspoken former principal Troy LaRaviere, who is among those calling for a broadly representative elected school board and increased scrutiny of the city’s agreements with lending institutions, the mayor’s corporate vision for the city’s public schools seems to
be evaporating.

The Middle-Roaders

Who they are: Academics, moderate state and city politicians, a broad cross section of parents

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What they’re proposing: Modest tax increases at the state and local levels; some givebacks by labor, such as  limiting salary hikes and reducing or eliminating pension “pickups” by city government (whereby the city pays the employers’ share of pension contributions); a long-term school-funding strategy at the state level; political détente in Springfield. “There has to be a tax strategy here,” says the University of Chicago’s Tim Knowles, “or we’re never going to dig out of it, and there has to be an existential question [answered]: Do we really want to invest in our future or not?”

Chance of success: Compromise seems inevitable, but it may not happen until after the Rahm-Rauner era.

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