Republican takeover proposal frustrates school officials

CPS - Lincoln Park HS
CPS schools like Lincoln Park High School are at play in the new Republican takeover bill. (Morgan Gilbard/Medill)

By Morgan Gilbard

The financial future of Chicago Public Schools already looked dire to those on the inside before Republican officials proposed a state takeover of the district last week. Now, many opponents see it as a vibrant political circus.

“Suggesting the state manage the affairs of Chicago Public Schools is like recommending a cocaine addict handle the affairs of an alcoholic,” said Troy LaRaviere, principal of Blaine Elementary and an outspoken critic of Illinois legislative leadership.

The Republican bill would disband the Chicago Board of Education, transfer district control to an independent party and possibly allow the district to file for bankruptcy in an attempt to close a $480 million deficit.

But LaRaviere believes that the takeover proposal is a “bluff” to convince the Chicago Teachers Union to surrender in contract negotiations with city officials that will enter its final phase on Feb. 1 after a seven-month stalemate. To him, it is neither a probable idea nor a good one.

LaRaviere is not alone in his sentiments. Senate President John Cullerton candidly dismissed the prospect of the bill becoming law. Karen Lewis, president of CTU, called Rauner “delusional” and his plan “craziness.” State Board of Education member Lula Ford doubts that the plan will gain traction in the General Assembly and had no knowledge of the proposal before it broke last week: “I think we were all surprised.”

Doubt in Springfield’s ability to fix problems is not the plan’s only weak spot. Rauner’s critics accuse the governor, a former private equity investor, of using the CPS crisis to further charter school expansion.

“These kinds of state takeover models don’t work out in the interests of the people because they are not intended to,” said Adam Gottlieb, an arts and writing instructor for private programs that work with CPS. Gottlieb opposes any model that would tip Chicago’s scale towards more charter schools, citing concerns over corporate interest in public education. However, last week’s takeover proposal did not address how the plan would impact the ongoing battle for funding between CPS and charter schools.

CPS officials announced lay-offs for 227 employees on Friday, plus another 206 terminations in coming weeks. If passed, the Republican proposal would also allow CPS to terminate union contracts.

Education policy experts hesitate to guess how the bill would impact CPS over the long haul, with few examples to draw upon.  Only six districts declared bankruptcy throughout the country since 1954, according to a 2012 book by financial analyst James Spiotto.

The bill also proposes to create an elected Chicago Board of Education after resolving the city’s finances. It’s a change that students like Sherelyn Garduno have advocated for extensively in a grassroots campaign to fix CPS.

The senior at Benito Juarez Community Academy believes that an elected board would be “a crucial first step” in creating a more effective system. She supports an overhaul of CPS, but not at a risk to the livelihood of teachers.

Fellow student activist Nidalis Burgos, a senior at Lincoln Park High School, offered similar criticism. “Chicago Public Schools is a puppet show. There’s nothing else to it,” she said while protesting CPS policies earlier this month. “The board meetings don’t mean anything. Even the board meetings inside Chicago Public Schools are a joke.”

Photo at top: The fate of Chicago Public Schools would rest with an independent outside party in a Republican-proposed takeover bill. Lincoln Park High is shown here. (Morgan Gilbard/Medill)