Public education in America exists because of our shared values. We all believe our children need and deserve a quality education. They need and deserve a safe, welcoming school. They need and deserve caring, inspiring and dedicated teachers.
Most of the people working in our schools today embody those values. They work hard, care about our children and take responsibility for student outcomes. They deserve our support and respect.
But public education cannot thrive unless shared responsibility accompanies shared values. Here in Illinois, that has not been the case. Schools have struggled for decades, and our state needs to finally prioritize its responsibility to fund public education.
For too long, Illinois has ranked at the bottom for the state’s share of school funding. Year after year, local school districts have filled in the gap, and Chicago is no exception.
Chicago is particularly hard hit. Alone among school districts in the state, Chicago must take money from its classrooms – $1 billion in the last two years alone — to fund teacher pensions. The state covers those costs for every other school district —from Wilmette to Carbondale.
Chicago raises taxes for schools nearly every year, but it’s not enough to provide our children with the education they deserve. For instance, this year, CPS increased taxes to the maximum amount allowed by law – which generated about $19 million. With a $1.1 billion structural deficit, that’s simply not enough. But every year, we are up against the wall, and the victims are our children.
This year, CPS faces a staggering budget gap that will have real consequences for children and teachers if we don’t come together to solve it. We used one-time budget efforts to close our budget gap, but we still have a $480 million gap. To put that in perspective, every $100 million we spend is equal to about 1,000 teachers.
We at CPS face three competing pressures: protecting children and the educational programs that are important to their success; protecting hard-working teachers in their jobs; and protecting the pensions of our retired teachers. While these challenges are difficult, I know we can solve them.
School principals, teachers and parents should not have to wonder each year whether a program that is making a positive difference for kids will be eliminated. Teachers should not have to wonder every year if their job is safe or if their career is advancing.
Principals should not have to guess each fall how many teachers they will have and be forced to make layoffs and boost class sizes at the last minute. Retired teachers, who have given their entire lives to this important work, should not face stress and anxiety over their pensions.
And parents should not be wondering whether the education their children were promised will come true. They are counting on us to make good on that promise. And I know we can.
Despite dramatic academic gains in the past four years of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration, the district’s troubled finances have created too much uncertainty and instability – and that has to change. We have to stop spending money on things we don’t need. We have to stop borrowing the money to meet our obligations. We have to stop waste and fraud.
We can solve our budget problems, not just for one year with a one-time fix – but for every year. But for that to happen, everyone has to be part of the solution.
We need fairness from Springfield – in the form of pension equity with other districts in the state and a new commitment to prioritize education funding so Illinois no longer ranks at the bottom. But Springfield can’t do it alone.
We need help from Chicago taxpayers – as we continue to raise our property taxes to the cap, as well as consider a dedicated commitment to fund Chicago teachers’ pensions as part of a grand bargain on schools. But they can’t do it alone.
We need savings from the Central Office bureaucracy – building on the hundreds of millions in savings that has been made over the past four years. But we can’t cut our way to strong schools.
We need help from our teachers – as we negotiate a fair contract that continues to pay teachers well while it phases out the unaffordable practice in which the district pays both the employer and employee contribution for teacher pensions. But they can’t do it alone.
Chicago should not have to choose between children, working teachers and retired pensioners. We have an obligation to protect all three and I know we can. But it won’t be easy. We all have to give. We all have to do our part.
In coming weeks, look for us to continue the dialogue about how everyone can play a part.