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How the Trump administration could bankrupt Chicago Public Schools

Plans to pull funding from traditional public education would compound an already dire financial picture in Illinois and Chicago.

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Rahm Emanuel, Donald Trump, and Bruce Rauner - PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY PAUL JOHN HIGGINS
  • Photo illustration by Paul John Higgins
  • Rahm Emanuel, Donald Trump, and Bruce Rauner

Pardon me for sounding paranoid, but it sure looks as though the three most powerful politicians in our universe are teaming up to drive our schools into bankruptcy.

Not that Rauner, Rahm, and Trump have anything against the low-income kids of Chicago—other than that you can score political points by pounding them like a punching bag.

Let's start with President Trump, who's turned pounding the poor of Chicago into a Twitter art form.

It's still not clear what damage he and Betsy DeVos, his education secretary, will do to Chicago Public Schools—beyond threatening the very existence of public education by diverting a good chunk of federal funds to private and religious schools.

Each year Chicago gets hundreds of millions of federal dollars—most funneled through the state—largely intended for schools with high concentrations of low-income students.

So if Trump whittles away at federal educational spending, the poor will suffer the most. Then Trump will tweet about murders in Chicago as though he and his programs had nothing to do with them.

Meanwhile Governor Rauner's already started defunding CPS—the system has become collateral damage in his ongoing fight against teachers' unions and pension funds.

In fact, just today CPS announced that it's sued the state, claiming that its educational spending model unfairly discriminates against Chicago's black and Latino school children. CPS is seeking to force the state to spend more money in Chicago.

But if I know Rauner, he'll probably respond by cutting the amount of money the state spends everywhere else.

If you recall, last year Mayor Emanuel finally tried to make good on obligations to the Chicago teachers' pension fund. Roughly $215 million of the contribution to the fund was to come from the state.

But in December, Rauner vetoed the pension-funding bill on the grounds that it was not "real pension reform." I'll get to that in a bit.

To make up for the $215 million, Forrest Claypool, Rahm's appointed schools CEO, ordered teachers to take four furlough days, thus slicing $35 million from the budget. And last week Claypool cut another $46 million by reducing spending for things like textbooks, technology, after-school programs, and hourly staffers who watch the playground
at recess.

So while Rahm was in California, bragging to the students at Stanford's business school about how he brought back recess to Chicago, his appointee, Claypool, was snatching it away. And it was all thanks to Rauner, Rahm's old wine-drinking, money-making pal.

Claypool also responded by slapping Rauner with the T-word.

"Just like Trump, Rauner is going to score political points with his base by attacking Chicago," Claypool told reporters. "It's the easy thing to do."

Rauner responded by having his educational adviser, Elizabeth Purvis, send a letter to CPS parents blaming everything on Rahm.

"Rather than cutting services," Purvis wrote, "it would be helpful to everyone if CPS would work with all parties to enact a balanced budget package that includes comprehensive pension reform."

(You know, I'm starting to think that the so-called feud between Rahm and Rauner may be for real—though I have no doubt they'd go back to putting together business deals in a heartbeat should they return to the private sector.)

But anyway, pension reform—I told you I'd get back to it. That's shorthand for cuts in pension payments to retirees.

Former governor Pat Quinn and Rahm already tried to cut pensions. Several unions sued, and eventually they won both cases, as the Illinois supreme court unanimously and unambiguously ruled that it's unconstitutional to cut pensions.

In short, Rauner's making school funding to Chicago contingent on pension cuts that neither he nor Rahm has the power to make. It's a pretty cynical move—even by Illinois standards.

Thanks to Rauner's cuts, CPS will undoubtedly have to borrow more money to pay basic bills. That means taking money from the classroom and spending it on bankers and bond lawyers. It's good to know someone's benefiting from Rauner's school "reform."

The city could try to make up for state cuts by raising property taxes. But Rauner wants a statewide freeze on the property taxes. It's part of his "grand bargain"—a deal he's trying to cook up with state senate president John Cullerton.

Property taxes are the largest source of money that locals can raise to fund the things that matter the most—like the education of their children.

As such, Rauner's hometown, Winnetka, taxes the hell out of its property—that explains why New Trier is one of the finest high schools in the state.

I'm not saying I like paying property taxes. On the contrary, I was howling at the moon when I got my bill a few weeks ago.

But with Rauner and Trump looking to cut school aid, what choice do we have? As unfair as it is to make schools dependent on property taxes, right now it's pretty much the only alternative CPS has to bankruptcy.

That brings me to Rahm—the man who ultimately determines how we spend much of those property taxes. As hard as this is to believe, he's the closest thing to a rational actor in this equation. You know you're in trouble when Rahm's behaving like the only grown-up in the room.

My main problem with Rahm is that his priorities are often out of whack. He should be fighting to spend every nickel he has on getting Chicago's kids the kind of Cadillac education he got in his glory days as a young high school scholar at New Trier. But instead, he can't resist siphoning off local funds for stupid shit.

Exhibit A being his recent proposal to revive former Mayor Daley's idea to build an express train to O'Hare so out-of-town business visitors can shave 20 minutes off their commute time to the Loop. Like that should be at the top of our priority list.

Emanuel swears up and down he won't spend public funds on that project. But that's what mayors always tell us about their pet projects when they want to lull us to sleep.

This is no time for sleeping, people. I'd say you should organize to elect a new school board to force the mayor to change his spending priorities. But alas, Chicago remains the only municipality in the state with a mayorally appointed board.

The good news is that we still get a say in electing the governor. Rauner's up for reelection in 2018. As far as our schools are concerned, that election can't get here fast enough.   v


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