Lessons from Detroit: Why Doing What Feels Wrong May Be the Right Answer For Chicago Public School Families

As a mother of two Chicago public school children, a psychologist, a Local School Council member and a room parent for two classrooms, I believe there is so much good in our public schools. So many of our teachers are talented and committed. Still, it's hard not to be concerned. Families who have opted to stay in the city and make neighborhood schools work -- many having rolled up their sleeves to help in their schools -- are now starting to worry. We are wondering if huge budget cuts, losses of teacher positions and a looming pension crisis will make the public school option untenable for our kids.

Unfortunately, when concerns like these grow, it's tempting to seek simple solutions and scapegoat those who challenge them. I don't have to look farther than the angry emails from parent groups in my Inbox; or the accusations I've read in the newspaper. How can Mayor Emanuel build a sport's stadium/hotel when schools are being closed and our budgets cut? How can he put millions into charter schools? Is he so obsessed with fighting the teacher's union that he is willing to jeopardize our children's education?

The arguments seem so easy for any parent to get behind. Just give us more TIF funds, Mayor Emanuel. Stop being the bad guy. Care about our kids!

But easy answers can be misleading and dangerous. They camouflage real problems that demand complicated but necessary solutions. And there are real problems: This year, 405 million dollars went toward increased pension costs. By 2015, city pension obligations are expected to grow to over one billion dollars. Unsustainable.

So much so, that this summer, Moody's lowered Chicago's and CPS's credit ratings, citing these concerns. More tax dollars will now go toward paying interest and less will go to our schools. The funding crisis is real and cannot just be pushed back again.

...Which brings me to the very question I have been asking myself this past summer: What if Mayor Emanuel is not the bad guy? What if he is doing exactly what he needs to do for Chicago not to end up like Detroit? What if he knows that Karen Lewis' solution to just keep raising property taxes on Chicago families will only drive people from the city, making revenue for our schools that much more difficult for years to come? What if he recognizes that building our city's infrastructure and making it more appealing to tourists and young workers (in fields like computers and technology) would bring growth, business, jobs and sustainable revenue that will actually allow Chicago Public Schools to be funded and flourish long-term? What if he recognizes that 90% of Chicago children in public schools are from low-income homes and that more than half of the city's children are unable to read at grade level? What would his responsibility be to all of them?

For some of us, the longer school day is an annoyance -- it interferes with after-school activities or worse, overburdens our teachers. But what about the majority of Chicago children? What is our responsibility to them? As parents, our job is to worry about our kids and make sure they are safe, well fed and properly educated. But if our responsibility is to all Chicago children, wouldn't it be unconscionable not to support the longer school day? What if our own child was not learning to read? Wouldn't we be crazy not to seek out other options for her? If she was sick and the treatment wasn't working, no matter how much we liked her doctor, wouldn't we be negligent not to consider other treatments? If public schools are underperforming, how can we not look at Charter schools, also?

Of course, we want art and phys-ed. for our schools. We want good teachers keeping their jobs. We want smaller classrooms that allow our children to get the attention they need while not overburdening our teachers. These things are necessary and not too much to demand. But how we achieve them must be realistic and sustainable. The idea that the Mayor can wave a magic wand to make it better this year by using more TIF money, only tricks us into believing that the problem would be solved. And worse, only deepens our debt, leaving us more vulnerable next year when budgets are expected to be tighter as pension costs rise. As parents, we know that spending all that we have today (or worse, what we don't have), risks leaving us vulnerable during tougher times tomorrow. Isn't that what we teach our children?

Too many magic wands have been waved in the past in this city, offering what ultimately could not be delivered.... afraid of offending unions, confusing blind support of union leadership with true support of teachers, police, firemen and women. Now our children are paying the price. Was that leadership? The unions certainly need to make sure that teachers and workers are evaluated and paid fairly, but they also have to think about the long-term success of our schools and city. Nobody will win without reasonable pension reform.

"The future demands what should have been asked in the past" writes the author Colum McCann. Had Detroit's lawmakers been courageous enough to ask questions, make tough decisions, stand up to union leadership, build out the city's infrastructure, would their city have gone bankrupt? Are Detroit's schoolteachers, government workers and students better off today for all of the magic wand yes's they received in the past? Teachers and government workers will now get 17 cents on the dollar- over 4/5 of their pensions wiped out. Unconscionable. Was that good leadership?

I so want to support CPS teachers. So many work harder than anyone I know. I have seen firsthand that when they are supported and motivated, our kids thrive. There is nothing more inspiring for a child than a great teacher. CPS has great teachers and I believe CPS can be great. And I am starting to believe that the Mayor sees this too. But reasonable Illinois pension reform must happen. Sustainable strategies to bring revenue to our city must be explored if CPS is to be a viable option for our city's children. As parents, this needs to be our fight. The teacher's union must recognize that this is necessary for their teachers and students alike. It's not too late to learn from Detroit. But we need to do it differently now. Perhaps that means doing something counterintuitive: getting behind a Mayor who is willing to say things we don't want to hear in order to get it right.