Public Education and the Ability to Do Math in Chicago

On a sunny Chicago morning, I'm engaged in an education debate with an economist friend in NY: Can our children thrive in our cities' public schools? We even get into their math problems:

Daniela has a dollar. Her mother wants 3 apples from the store. Each apple is 39 cents. How many apples can Daniela buy?

My friend laughs saying that an urban public school agenda would teach that the answer is 5. Who cares if you don't have enough money to pay for them?

As a local school council member and mother with children in a Chicago public school, I see so much going right. I'm frustrated, but I also get the joke. Too often, city plans for improving schools have gone nowhere having insufficient resources to back them. Programs and pension plans have been pushed through with a "buy now, pay later" philosophy that's worked for politicians, but set up future generations to pay, leaving teachers' retirement funds at risk, and public schools underfunded with crippling debt. We keep hearing about it. As a parent now, I feel the impact.

Today in Chicago, our children finally have educational opportunities to help them succeed from start to finish: expanded Pre-K, universal full-day kindergarten, longer school days, tuition-free college opportunities. Options like IB and STEM programs are growing as well as programs like Chicago City of Learning to educate beyond the classroom, and keep kids off the streets. Graduation rates are rising. We know we have dire financial challenges. To be clear, parents aren't nervous about a mayor who "rubs some the wrong way," we're nervous that unsustainable budget deficits and pension costs threaten our children's education.

Of course, we owe it to teachers to support them and protect their retirement. They're on the front-lines everyday, rolling up their sleeves and working the hardest for our children. But Chuy Garcia and the Chicago Teacher's Union also owe it to them and our city to be truthful about the pension crisis and not offer false promises that deepen our troubles. That's irresponsible. Students and teachers will lose everything.

The ghosts of Detroit loom large. Next year in Chicago, pension obligations will account for two-thirds of a 1.1 billion dollar CPS' deficit -risking thousands of teacher positions and quality education in our classrooms. The Chicago Teacher's Union can't ignore this. Nobody can. We have tough problems that demand a mayor who is not afraid to push the unions, or risk political favor to generate revenue that keeps cuts away from classrooms. Ultimately, that's what will protect pensions and schools. If Mr. Garcia is beholden to union leadership, how can he do that?

Mayor Emanuel's pension proposal for municipal workers last Spring compromised with unions and property owners and is an important model for all cities going forward. This shared responsibility approach to closing the deficit looks out for Chicago and our schools. His efforts to generate revenue aren't always perfect or popular, but show real commitment to finding reasonable solutions to preserve programs and dig us out of a hole. Call that being progressive and fiscally responsible. In Chicago, we call that protecting our future.

Children deserve educational success. We can't afford to sabotage our momentum with lower credit ratings and insufficient funds. We want to stay and make our schools better. That's what strengthens neighborhoods.

Our challenges are immense and urgent. But we have dedicated educators and families, and a mayor who's proven he'll take the heat to work on our budget. If we responsibly fund education, then even during tough times, we have so much to feel optimistic about.

So to my friend in NY, I say: Daniela can buy 2 apples with that dollar, but in Chicago, we are aiming for being able to buy 3. Better education policy + good math = true progress and better opportunities for our kids.

-Alana Baum, Ph.D.