Taking it to the streets

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Linda Lenz

Linda Lenz

What the Chicago Public Schools needs is a strike—not against it by the teachers union, but for it by everyone who cares about the city’s children and understands the importance of their education to the city’s future.

Just imagine: Eden Martin of the Civic Committee and Tim Schwertfeger of the Chicago Public Education Fund marching alongside Idida Perez of West Town United and Mildred Wiley of Bethel New Life. The location, of course, would be the James R. Thompson Center, the Chicago home of state government.

Twenty years ago, hundreds of parents and community activists ringed City Hall to press for an end to the city’s longest teacher strike and the beginning of serious school reform. They got both. Leaders in the African-American community paid calls to the leaders of the school system and the teachers union—also African Americans—threatening to open makeshift schools the next Monday unless the two sides came to an agreement.

Once the strike was settled, then-Mayor Harold Washington created the broad-based summit that spawned the Chicago School Reform Act of 1988. For months, Dick Morrow, then board chairman of Amoco Corp., Ken West, board chairman of Harris Bank, and other civic titans worked with leaders from every slice of the education sector—parents, unions, universities, community groups—to hammer out a plan to reform Chicago schools. Then Morrow, West and other corporate colleagues jetted to Springfield to buttonhole legislators.

It has become abundantly clear that it will take a similar public outcry to get Gov. Rod Blagojevich, Senate President Emil Jones and House Speaker Michael Madigan to work out a reliable, long-term plan to infuse the Chicago school system and other districts with enough money to serve the needs of their largely poor student bodies. As Catalyst Chicago goes to press, some $575 million in extra state dollars are on the table for schools, but the fundamental flaws in school funding remain—Band-Aid revenues and an over-reliance on property taxes.

To get an even shot at success, poor kids, as a group, need more resources than their middle-class peers—more good teachers, more well-trained social workers and counselors, more after-school programs, more early-childhood education. Instead, they get less. And the “you-can’t-just-throw-money-at-the-problem” argument no longer holds, because the Chicago Public Schools no longer is the rat hole where good money follows bad. While far from perfect, the school system has picked some important targets for its time and treasure: leadership and teacher development, for example, and community schools. Besides, the Legislature, it if wishes, can set guidelines for how new money must be used.

The statewide A+ Illinois coalition has talked itself blue in the face about the need for additional school funding and state tax reform. Ralph Martire and the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability have crunched the numbers and explained them in a way that even a politician can grasp. Major media have reported in depth and editorialized. Even the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club has concluded that “to avoid collapse, a tax increase may be inevitable.”

Since all those efforts—and others—have not stirred Springfield to act, what’s left but a massive demonstration, with thousands walking off their jobs, to make clear they are “madder than hell and not going to take it anymore?” Mayor Richard M. Daley might even agree to serve as grand marshal. National and international media would love it.

In an interview with Catalyst Editor-in-Chief, Veronica Anderson—excerpted in this issue—the mayor made this observation about the state’s school funding mess: “It’s not going to end with this session. You have to mobilize, keep mobilizing that education funding is the key.”

For more on the history of Chicago school reform, go to www.catalyst-chicago.org and click on Reform History.

ABOUT US: Editor-in-Chief Veronica Anderson is on sabbatical until mid-November. Deputy Editor Lorraine Forte will serve as editor-in-chief during her absence.