Union: Increase school spending by $713 million

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Despite a sea of red ink in the Chicago Public Schools, the Chicago Teachers Union is calling for $713 million in new spending to beef up local school staffs, plus more changes that the union has not yet priced out.

The union’s proposal comes in the midst of tough negotiations on a contract to replace the one that expires June 30. The board cancelled this year’s negotiated pay raise, due to financial constraints, and is expecting teachers to work longer hours beginning next school year.

Union president Karen Lewis, when asked if teachers would forgo a raise in exchange for the proposals’ implementation, said “that would be a discussion we’d have with our members.”

The union’s call for more classroom resources can be seen as a bid for public support and an answer to attacks on its image by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. But money for the programs is not likely to show up any time soon.

The union’s wish list includes:

*Capping K-3rd grade class sizes at 20 students ($170 million). State Sen. Kimberly Lightford (4th district) and State Rep. Marlow Colvin (33rd district) recently introduced legislation that would cap K-3 class sizes in Chicago at 18 students.

*Hiring 2,100 art, music, P.E. and “specials” teachers so that elementary students can take enrichment classes twicea day instead of three times a week ($200 million)

*Covering the cost of full-day kindergarten for every school in CPS ($75 million)

*Hiring about 850 counselors, 470 school nurses, 900 social workers, and 360 school psychologists, and providing free bus cards to needy students ($268 million)

The union is also calling for – but did not assign dollar costs to – pre-kindergarten for “all working-class and low-income families,” a decreased reliance on testing, increased bilingual education support, large increases in teacher planning and collaboration time, capital improvements, and larger numbers of teaching assistants.

“Our parents are fighting for what children in private schools and privileged settings have,” said Albany ParkNeighborhood Council education organizer Iliana Espinosa-Krehbiel at a Thursday morning press conference unveiling the report.

Monty Neill, the interim executive director of Fairtest (which advocates for less testing of students), slammed CPS policies of basing turnaround and closure decisions on school achievement.

“It’s quickly turning schools into little more than test prep programs,” he said. “Chicago needs to reduce its testing.”

The union would begin funding its proposals with $159 million in surplus dollars from tax-increment finance districts – these are funds diverted from local taxing bodies to support economic development.

In the report, the union says the needed revenue could be made up by a complicated series of state tax increases, which are unlikely to be passed in time for the next school year, if at all. For instance: a 5-percentage-point increase in the tax rate on the wealthiest Illinoisans, a 6-cent state tax on financial transactions, and a new state capital gains tax.

“We have been talking with legislators about a variety of ways to approach this,” Lewis said. Carol Caref, a coordinator of the CTU’s Quest Center and a report author, said that despite having the 5th-largest state economy, Illinois ranks 33rd in the country for the percentage of its gross domestic product that is spent on education.

But even if that money were to materialize, the district faces a harsh fiscal reality in the coming years. In August 2011, schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard said he expected a $362.5 million deficit in fiscal year 2013 and an $861.7 million deficit in fiscal year 2014.

Mary Anderson, executive director of the advocacy group Stand for Children – Illinois, says that the state’s schools are underfunded but adds that not all the system’s problems are due to a lack of money.

“All of us who are involved in education right now want education to be adequately funded,” Anderson said. “We also know that we can’t examine these funding issues in a vacuum. We need to make sure that the funding that already exists for education … is going to reach quality teachers, is going to result in quality principals, and that we’re going to have well-rounded curricula.”

As for teacher compensation, the union’s statement says only that teachers need “competitive salaries and benefits” and notes that teachers earn about 12 percent less than workers in comparable professions. (Teachers in Chicago earn more than those in other major urban districts, but less than those in some suburban schools.)