Chicago Public Schools has laid off round after round of teachers and other employees over the past couple years. Thousands are gone. District officials and Mayor Rahm Emanuel warn: If the state doesn’t do something by February to help CPS with its $500 million budget hole, there’ll be even more layoffs.
John Cullerton is a Chicago Democrat and state Senate president. He says he has a plan, and that plan—outlined in Senate Bill 318— has something for everyone, including lawmakers, the governor, school districts and unions.
“That’s what a compromise is,” Cullerton said. “That’s what a package is.”
But there’s a hitch. Some of the very people Cullerton wants to help - Chicago teachers - their union is not on board.
“I don’t know the logic of the teachers’ union being opposed to the bill,” Cullerton said. “I think it’s maybe because, you know, the Board of Ed is for it and, therefore they have to be against it. That’s all I can figure, you know? The mayor’s for it, they’re against it because they had a fight with him in the past.”
Remember the 2012 teachers’ strike? That’s the fight Cullerton is referring to. And there’s been talk of a second teachers strike under Emanuel over the district’s current finances.
“Of course this would avoid a strike,” Cullerton said. “There wouldn’t be any need for them to lose their pension pick-up in their contract negotiations. There wouldn’t be any layoffs. I don’t know what else they’re striking about.”
“Three-eighteen is not about stopping a strike. Three-eighteen is about destroying our school system,” said Stacy Davis Gates, the legislative coordinator for the Chicago Teachers Union.
Davis Gates is referring there to something Cullerton himself wants the bill to accomplish. Along with peppering Senate Bill 318 with things like a property tax freeze to get Gov. Bruce Rauner in, and teacher pension payments for Emanuel, Cullerton added a remake of the state’s school funding formula—one of his own major goals. He says under the way state government currently gives money to schools, poor districts like Chicago don’t get the money they should and wealthier districts are getting more than they should.
So Cullerton’s bill puts an expiration date on the current way Illinois funds schools. In effect, he says he wants to end a bad system to make way for a better one. But Davis Gates with the Teachers Union says the union has a big problem with that. You can’t end school funding first coming up with a way to replace it, she argues.
“This bill, again, is irresponsible,” she said. “You cannot say that we are providing a solution to a problem when you eliminate the entire revenue stream to the school district.”
The teachers union also wants big things that aren’t in Cullerton’s bill, like a new income tax system and an elected Chicago school board. In the meantime, the clock is ticking on Chicago Public Schools. District leaders say they have only a few months before cuts will be necessary - right in the middle of the school year.
Becky Vevea contributed to this story. She is an education reporter for WBEZ. You can follow her @WBEZeducation. Tony Arnold covers Illinois politics for WBEZ. Follow him @tonyjarnold.