With just 35 hours left in Illinois’ spring legislative session, Chicago Public Schools Chief Forrest Claypool issued a dramatic call Tuesday to save the city’s schools from “the brink of insolvency,” and again charged the state with “overt racial discrimination against African-American and Latino school children in Chicago.”
Speaking to business and civic leaders, Claypool used sweeping language to decry Illinois’ school funding system — which forces Chicago alone to carry most of the cost of its teacher pensions.
He said there is nothing the district can do on its own to escape from impending financial doom driven by rising pension costs.
“No amount of budget cuts, no amount of management efficiencies, no amount of tax hikes can make up the difference for long,” Claypool said one day before the legislative session is set to end. “Like the iconic Pac-Man arcade creature, the pensions mandate will rapidly eat up every dollar in its path, in all likelihood costing the district hundreds of millions of dollars more in just the next few years.”
The district last week authorized $389 million in borrowing in order to make this year’s pension payment, due June 30.
“Borrowing as a means of coping is over,” Claypool told the sold-out crowd at the City Club of Chicago.
His appearance came just a week after the Chicago Teachers Union announced that 14,302 teachers — 99 percent of those who cast ballots — had said they had no confidence in Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s hand-picked schools chief.
And it follows reports that Claypool has lost the mayor’s confidence.
Emanuel gave Claypool a warm, lengthy introduction, saying his “friend” has “always left an incredible, indelible mark on the departments he has run, where the people that use the system are better served, and also the department itself is on firmer, stronger financial footing — whether that’s at the Park District or CTA.”
Emanuel touted gains in CPS test scores and graduation rates, noting the achievements despite Illinois placing “dead last” among states in the percentage of school funding paid for by state government.
In his speech, Claypool blamed “accidents of history, changing demographics, state fiscal pressures, and weak political wills” for the current school funding system, but added that “hurtful recent actions by the governor have exacerbated the underlying injustice.” He listed Gov. Bruce Rauner’s veto of $215 million in pension help as an example. Rauner has said he vetoed that assistance because it was contingent on passage of a larger pension reform bill that never happened.
Claypool also took a swing at the Chicago Teachers Union, saying it’s “bewildering” that the union isn’t “locking arms with us in Springfield.”
Ronnie Reese, a spokesman for the CTU, said the union agrees the school funding system is flawed, but said teachers have little trust in Claypool after the district imposed four furlough days.
“He asks us to lock arms with him in Springfield, while in his other arm is an axe to cut more from our classrooms,” Reese wrote in an email. “We find it ironic that Claypool chooses to sue the state for racial discrimination when he cut school budgets at low-income black and Latino schools at twice the rate of wealthier, selective enrollment schools, and leads a district that perpetuates race and class discrimination with regularity.”
In response to Claypool's comments, a spokeswoman for the governor said: “While Forrest gives speeches at the City Club, the governor and his team are in Springfield working to find a solution to our state’s budget crisis. More tired finger-pointing without concrete solutions does nothing to help CPS’ students and teachers.”
Claypool said that when all forms of state school funding are considered — including general state aid, poverty funds meant for poor children, block grant funding, and pension subsidies — Chicago children get 74 cents for every dollar spent on kids “in the predominantly white remainder of the state.”
Claypool estimated that in “four to five years that number will be 65 cents on the dollar, and so on and so on — the gap between white Illinois and black and brown Chicago growing exponentially larger, making the great state of Illinois more akin to Jim Crow Mississippi than to a modern land of Lincoln.”
Claypool said CPS is not asking for a bailout. “It’s not a bailout to receive simply what all other school districts in the state of Illinois receive.”
The governor’s office disputes that Chicago is short-changed.
A bill is moving through the state Legislature to reform the way the state hands out money to schools but Claypool argues it still would not give Chicago parity with other school districts.
Linda Lutton covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation.