As a kid, I had a love-hate relationship with "A Christmas Carol," the Charles Dickens tale that plays out in black and white TV every December.
I loved the character of Tiny Tim, a poor sickly boy whose kindness and grit gets rewarded at the end, but I spent most of the time despising mean old Ebenezer Scrooge who hated everything about Christmas. Plus I loathed the idea of ghosts appearing on Christmas Eve; they frightened me--and fear is for Halloween, not Christmas!!
If I could do an education-based parody of "A Christmas Carol," I would have to cast Chicago Public Schools as Scrooge (though the competition is stiff). It's not that CPS doesn't have any redeemable qualities--graduation rates are on the rise, more of its students are going to college, and some of its schools rival the best in the nation. But historically the district has mismanaged funds and failed to meet the needs of its most vulnerable students.
Instead of having the scary ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, I'd cast a jaw-dropping cast of male angels that look a lot like The Rock.
And the spirit that comes to CPS on Christmas Eve wouldn't be that of Scrooge's greedy dead business partner but instead a voice--a chorus of prayers that have been sent up to heaven by my organization, Teachers Who Pray.
My 'Christmas Carol' Remix
On Christmas Eve, grouchy old CPS Scrooge is up late counting its pennies and debating with itself whether to fire 5,000 teachers by February. It hears carolers singing beneath its downtown office and shouts down, "Bah, humbug!"
After all, there's a half-billion dollar hole in the budget from promising unsustainable teacher pension benefits and then underfunding the pension fund; making risky financial investments that cost the district millions when the stock market crashed; and being the unfortunate resident of Illinois, which ranks 49th out of 50 in state spending on education.
So now CPS must pick its poison to avoid bankruptcy: slash 20 percent of its teaching force, or lower every teacher's take-home pay by 7 percent while also putting the district in even deeper debt by taking out millions in loans.
Then CPS again hears singing ... no, it's prayers. This chorus of prayer is so powerful that the district falls to its brick-and-mortar knees. The prayers are of teachers warning of dark days to come, but prophesies that it's not too late to change ... change ... change ...
"Please, Somebody, make it stop!" he cries bitterly.
Then the Angel of Christmas Past appears. He shows CPS a vision of the time when the district refused to racially integrate schools and share its public resources equitably with all its children ... when CPS promised teachers pension benefits in union contracts but then took so-called pension holidays, using those designated dollars to fund other projects ... when a top district leader closed 50 schools under the guise of saving money while simultaneously making shady deals with contractors to steal millions from the system for her own personal gain.
CPS is sad, but says that all happened long before its current administration got there.
Then the Angel of Christmas Present appears. He and CPS soar through Chicago, peering into schools with startling racial disparities of school resources. One integrated downtown high school has a seventh floor, Olympic-sized swimming pool abutted by floor-to-ceiling glass panes through which sunrays cast a heavenly glow. It also has a collegiate library stocked with thousands of new books and the latest technology, plus a 500-seat, state-of-the-art auditorium for school musicals and assemblies.
Then CPS travels to Tiny Tim High School on the far South Side whose dank, dirty pool has been broken for more than a decade; it hasn't had a librarian in about as long, and the outdated books that line the shelves are covered in dust. The auditorium, which was beautiful in its heyday, is now decrepit and dark; students were locked out after the music and theatre departments, who once managed the space, were cut. This school is has all black students.
It wasn't until CPS peeked into the classrooms that he breaks down and weeps: the downtown kids are learning AP Calculus on a SMART Board, and the far South Side kids are taking remedial pre-algebra with eraser-less wooden pencils and worksheets.
Then the Angel of Christmas Future appears. He gives CPS a glimpse of the not-so-distant yet-to-come. CPS can barely stand to watch.
There are 60 students in every classroom. All the art and music classes are gone; old, rusty instruments and dried out art supplies are haphazardly tossed into unused weight and locker rooms, as all P.E. and sports programming across the city have also been discontinued.
Teachers just returned from a 97-day strike. They have bags under their eyes and move like zombies as they futilely try to manage un-attentive, overcrowded classes of disillusioned students. The district filed for bankruptcy, and the courts have declared that retired teachers can only get 22 cents on every promised pension dollar.
Businesses and resident leave Chicago and the state of Illinois in droves.
CPS cries out, "What have I done? I'm sorry! I'm so, so sorry!!"
The district jolts out of its slumber. CPS rushes to the window and is relieved that it's still at its downtown location, carolers still singing below.
CPS Scrooge quickly calls his often-combative business partner, the Chicago Teachers Union, and recounts everything that just happened. Contrite in spirit, CTU confesses that at times it too has been overcome with selfishness; that it has at times worsened the plight of underprivileged students by contractually protecting do-nothing teachers and engaging in outdated politics that polarized educators instead of promoting collaborative, progressive practice.
That night the two corporate giants pledge to find an amiable way to close the school budget gap, avert a teachers strike, and promote more equitable student learning.
The CPS-CTU coalition decides to take an express train to Springfield. They go to the governor's mansion and arouse him out of bed, demanding that he call an emergency meeting of the state legislature--yes, on Christmas Eve!
Normally unbudging mortal enemies, Republicans and Democrats work with CPS and CTU to craft a compromise agreement that brings equity and sustainability to school funding in Chicago while also supporting student achievement and teacher satisfaction.
The legislators even provide a special grant to Tiny Tim High School to get its swimming pool fixed; hire a new librarian and buy all library new books and technology; and renovate the auditorium and reinstate the the music and theater department staff. The grant also provides dollars to hire college counselors and institute a more rigorous academic curriculum.
In unison they say, "Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!"
The Moral of the Story
Unlike the Scrooge in the Dickens classic, CPS didn't get itself into this fiscal mess alone, and a simple change of heart by CPS cannot fix it! Actually, the educational Scrooge Chicago has five or six heads. The district needs the help of the CTU, Mayor Rahm Emanuel (who ultimately controls the schools), Gov. Bruce Rauner, House Speaker Michael Madigan, and the entire state legislature to solve its current financial problems. Each party must swallow their pride, put politics aside, and work collaboratively to ensure that public education in Chicago thrives, not just barely survives.
Despite the fact, opinion, and fiction in my parody, I truly believe that an equitable, fully funded and sustainable CPS can become a reality.
This is "A Christmas Carol"--a Christmas miracle--that all Illinoisans would love to see played out in real life, not just on black and white TV!