Take 5: April 1 strike, UNO spending, opt-out issues

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The Chicago Teachers Union is tying its one-day strike to a call for more funding from the state for Chicago schools. In this file photo from June 2015, a demonstrator at a CTU rally drew attention to school funding inequities.

Photo by Max Herman

The Chicago Teachers Union is tying its one-day strike to a call for more funding from the state for Chicago schools. In this file photo from June 2015, a demonstrator at a CTU rally drew attention to school funding inequities.

Chicago Teachers Union leaders say they want their one-day strike on Friday to be viewed as one part of a broader labor movement to win more revenue from the state for education and social services — in both the short and long term.

The labor action comes amid a state budget impasse that is threatening the survival of social service organizations and universities that depend on state funds. It’s an issue around which both City Hall and the Chicago Public Schools can rally: without additional aid, reaching a contract deal and averting a longer strike may be impossible.

“We understand there needs to be revenue for the schools and not revenue that comes in the middle of next year,” CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey told the Tribune. “That’s not going to help us get school doors open, or prevent a takeover or prevent layoffs when school’s starting next year.”

The CTU says its strike is timed to convince lawmakers that revenue bills coming up for a vote in April need to pass. But some, like Greg Hinz at Crain’s Chicago Business, doubt a one-day strike “is going to move the needle 200 miles south at the Statehouse.” A McHenry County lawmaker told Hinz the union should be lobbying in Springfield instead of marching in Chicago. “I understand the union’s frustrations… I just don’t think it’s going to be swaying many people,” the lawmaker said.

Meanwhile, there are still questions about whether union members can legally strike over what they see as an unfair labor practice: CPS’s unilateral decision to halt “step and lane” raises historically awarded for additional experience and professional development. The union argues that’s allowed under a 1956 U.S. Supreme Court decision that applies to private-sector workers. But CPS attorneys say teachers can strike only under provisions outlined in state law.

It remains to be seen how many teachers will cross the picket line and work on Friday, but CTU policy states that teachers are to be fined for any pay they earn that day. If the fines aren’t paid, members could be suspended or expelled from the union — though they could be reinstated once they pay up, the Sun-Times reports. The union says that during the 2012 strike, 19 people were determined to be strikebreakers, though the district says 100 members went to work.

2. UNO’s secret spending … Juan Rangel, the former leader of the United Neighborhood Organization and its charter school network, spent lavishly on food, parties and travel, using a credit card paid for with tax dollars that were supposed to be spent on the classroom.

A Chicago Sun-Times investigation found that Rangel spent more than $60,000 per year on restaurant-related expenses, about the same on travel and about $150,000 on the grand opening of a Northwest Side school — which included fireworks, a laser-light show and mariachi band.

“Expenses were incurred to advance UNO’s mission and to be a world-class organization that supported our students, our schools and the Hispanic community,” Rangel wrote in a statement.

UNO — which no longer oversees the charter network of some 8,000 mostly low-income and Hispanic students — fought for nearly three years against releasing its spending records to the Sun-Times.

The newspaper has been reporting on a string of questionable spending practices at UNO since 2013, when it found that the nonprofit had dipped into a $98 million school construction grant to hire contractors with close ties to the organization and companies owned by siblings of Rangel’s top deputy.

Organization officials tried to contain the scandal and argued they didn’t have to release records because UNO is a private organization. However, since charters are publicly funded, Illinois law requires them to hold open board meetings and make records public.

The scandal not only cost UNO millions in state funding but also resulted in a federal order for outside oversight of the group’s spending practices.

3. PARCC is underway … Even though about one in 10 CPS students skipped the state’s new standardized test last year, the district has yet to draft a policy on how to handle students who opt out of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, testing that began this week. Activists say the lack of a policy will “perpetuate chaos.”

The Sun-Times reports that students who plan to sit out the exam have been told they will face a range of consequences, such as losing field day privileges. But there is no consistency among district schools.

Statewide, it remains to be seen how many parents will opt their children out of the PARCC test, though once again there’s a strong movement against the assessment, WBEZ reports.

Last year the state threatened to withhold funding from any school district that did not administer PARCC to at least 95 percent of its students. It didn’t follow through on that, but is now investigating 90 districts, including CPS, to determine why they failed to meet that threshold.

“We’re making a lot of short-term fixes, so we can’t afford any reduction in financing from the state as a result of our failure to administer the test,” CPS chief education officer Janice Jackson told the Sun-Times.

4. No confidence in pension future … Given the ongoing fiscal crisis in CPS, the looming threat of a teachers’ strike and the state’s budget impasse, it may come as no surprise that teachers across Illinois aren’t too optimistic about their future pensions. That’s according to new poll findings released this week by Teach Plus, a nonprofit organization that works to increase teacher voice in policymaking.

The poll found that four out of five teachers in Illinois do not believe their pensions will be paid in full — compared to two out of five teachers in the rest of the country. “The fact that Illinois’ teachers have so little confidence in their pension prospects should come as a real wake-up call for policymakers in our state,” Josh Kaufmann, executive director of Teach Plus Chicago, said in a statement. “It is clear that we need a fiscally responsible, comprehensive solution to the current crisis that both assures teachers of this valued career benefit and protects the much-needed student resources.”

The poll also found that a greater number of Illinois teachers are far more concerned than educators elsewhere that funding for pensions reduces available resources that can be used to serve students.

5. “Fair share” dues remain …  Teachers unions — as well as the broader labor movement — claimed a victory earlier this week when the U.S. Supreme Court deadlocked on a case over whether public-employee unions can charge so-called “fair-share fees” to workers who choose not to join the union and don’t want to pay for collective bargaining activities. The case stemmed from a non-union California teacher who argued that agency fees violated her First Amendment rights.

The deadlock upholds a lower court’s ruling in favor of the union. However, opponents of public-sector unions will likely challenge the law again after a ninth Supreme Court justice is appointed to fill the vacancy left by Justice Antonin Scalia, who died last month.

Gov. Bruce Rauner, who has repeatedly pushed to end these fees in Illinois, called the ruling a “tragic decision.

Illinois state law currently requires non-union members to pay agency fees, based on the argument that non-members benefit from unions’ work. The fees can be spent on lobbying and negotiations that impact all workers, but not political activities.

Last year, Rauner issued an executive order prohibiting “fair share” fees, though he gave up on this approach after being told it was illegal. The governor has also tried the court route with three state employees who opted not to join their union and didn’t want to pay fees. Earlier this week, Rauner told the Associated Press he hopes the Illinois lawsuit eventually reaches the U.S. Supreme Court.

A few last notes… about higher education, which has taken a huge hit due to the state budget impasse.

In preparation for widespread layoffs, Chicago State University officials have told all employees and students to hand in their keys to campus buildings. Like all public universities in the state, CSU hasn’t received any state money for nearly 10 months, and university officials say they can’t cover payroll after April.

Meanwhile, the Illinois Institute of Technology has notified students that they have to “repay” the MAP grants they thought they’d received for the fall semester because the state hasn’t actually given any money to IIT to cover the need-based state grants.

At City Colleges of Chicago, hundreds of faculty and staff are demanding public hearings over tuition hikes and an ongoing initiative to consolidate academic and training programs at certain campuses.

On another note, an analysis by The 74 news site found that school security officers outnumber counselors in four of the nation’s largest school districts, including Chicago, New York City, Miami-Dade County and Houston.

And finally, the New Yorker had an unsettling piece about how the Illinois Principals Association and other education administrator groups are hiring private companies to train school employees on how to interrogate students. A law professor who attended such a training in Chicago described it this way: “Everybody was on the edge of their seat: ‘So this is how we can learn to get the drop on little Billy for writing graffiti on the underside of the lunchroom table.”

  • Concerned Parent

    Who will sue Rangel and UNO for the taxpayers’ money back? Rauner – what are you doing about this? The results are on your watch.