Editorial: With or without CPS/CTU ‘day of action’ in Springfield, there’s no more money for Chicago schools

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On Wednesday, hundreds of Chicago Public Schools teacher will descend on Springfield to lobby lawmakers in what they’re calling a “day of action” for what they contend is more than $1 billion “owed” to the city’s school system by the state.

CPS is giving those teachers a paid day off from their actual jobs — teaching children — to go begging in the capital. This action follows Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson’s pilgrimage to Springfield last week in which he met with Gov. J.B. Pritzker and lawmakers.

In addition, CPS sent a letter last week to parents in which it explained why it was providing this paid day off to its “CTU partners” to advocate for more cash. “With CPS facing a budget deficit of nearly $400 million going into next school year, the time is now to make our voices heard,” the letter read, adding that CPS would give parents and staff more information on “additional activities” they can pursue to put pressure on the state to pony up.

If there’s anyone left who harbors doubt that CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union essentially are one and the same following the election of former CTU lobbyist Johnson, this letter should put that uncertainty to rest.

None of these tactics should come as a surprise, either. The CTU playbook has been made up of “action days,” incendiary rhetoric and a sea of red shirts for years now. And it’s impossible to dispute the success of those pressure tactics. That the CTU has its own fully captured mayor sitting on the fifth floor is the culmination of a decade’s worth of radical politicization of an organization that after all is — or should be — simply a labor union.

There are signs now, though, that this bullheaded approach has run its course. Johnson’s trip to Springfield — billed in advance as a dramatic push for state financial help with schools and a new Chicago Bears stadium on the lakefront — apparently ended up being little more than an exchange of pleasantries. Johnson didn’t even broach CPS’ demands for more than $1 billion in his meeting with Pritzker. Maybe he was embarrassed?

More importantly, Springfield appears to have little, if any, money to offer CPS even if it were so inclined. Pritzker, facing a balky General Assembly on his own proposals to address an $800 million budget shortfall, has instructed his department heads to begin looking for cost cuts, just in case.

Still, CTU will charge ahead Wednesday. The money grubbing, of course, is shameless given that the union is demanding annual pay raises of at least 9% in its CPS contract negotiations, which are just beginning.

It’s not as if CPS has been suffering a decline — or even a leveling off — of state funds since Pritzker took office in 2019. State contributions to CPS have increased 14% in that time frame to more than $2.1 billion, from less than $1.9 billion. The percentage increase is substantially more when one accounts for the 10.4% decline in students attending Chicago Public Schools over that period. Looked at that way, state contributions per CPS student are up 30%.

Therein lies the main problem with the audacious demands of CPS/CTU. Chicago’s school system has shrunk dramatically — at least in terms of student demand. The union wants to preserve a school system, in terms of number of schools and amount of jobs, built to serve a far larger student population than it does.

The solutions to CPS/CTU’s budgetary woes lie mainly with rightsizing. That’s how school systems in the suburbs and elsewhere respond when facing declining demand, whether from baby-bust cycles or other causes. They consolidate schools. Those actions often are difficult, even gut-wrenching, but they’re taken nonetheless.

Not helping CPS/CTU’s cause, given their inability thus far to shake the money tree in Springfield or anywhere else, is their furtive method of providing more cash to floundering schools in parts of the city where parents are choosing options they consider better for their kids, or from where families with school-age children simply have fled. A new budgeting system has done away with CPS’ past practice of allocating the bulk of an individual school’s annual budget based on enrollment in favor of an opaque approach that accounts mainly for the “needs” of specific schools. Effectively, the result is to shift more resources to schools — often lightly attended — in low-income areas at the expense of well-populated, often better-functioning schools.

CPS has informed schools of their preliminary budgets for next school year but — contrary to past practice — has refused to make those school-by-school budgets public. CPS has gone so far as to deny reporters’ Freedom of Information Act requests under dubious pretenses. A few members of Local School Councils have grumbled to the press about the budget hits they’re taking. But the lack of specifics those LSCs have provided has been striking, perhaps reflecting worry their schools’ finalized budgets will be punished all the more if they “go public.”

For a mayor who speaks often about his commitment to transparency, refusing to make public these school budgets is farcical. It also likely is fruitless, if the motivation is to keep the bad news from further inflaming lawmakers.

Springfield already has responded to these parental fears with a bill that would bar CPS from making significant changes to its selective-enrollment schools until 2027. CTU President Stacy Davis Gates called that measure “racist.” Lawmakers responded to her attack by adding a moratorium on closing Chicago schools until 2027, when there’s a fully elected Chicago School Board in place. They positioned the change as a union concession, but it was meaningless since Johnson likely wouldn’t move to close any schools anyway given his CTU ties. The amendment is unfortunate nonetheless, since it puts off the inevitable need to consolidate.

The Illinois Senate Executive Committee, controlled by chamber President Don Harmon, approved that House-passed bill for floor consideration on the very day Johnson was in Springfield, a move that spoke volumes about how poorly Davis Gates’ racial appeals were received.

Soon enough, the same old CTU tactics will be played out, even with CPS marching alongside this time. Once they are, and a state budget is finalized, CPS and the union are likely to find themselves more or less in the same spot they’re in now. They’d best start getting realistic.

Submit a letter, of no more than 400 words, to the editor here or email letters@chicagotribune.com.