Tension was running high this spring at R.H. Lee Elementary School in the city’s West Lawn neighborhood.
Rumors had been swirling that the assistant principal was leaving. The threat of a teachers’ strike loomed. And teachers were unsure what to do about grades if a strike cut the school year short.
Alexandra Escobar, the assistant principal, tearfully confirmed to colleagues assembled in Lee’s media center that she was taking a job as a principal in a wealthy district in nearby Highland Park.
It wasn’t an opportunity she ever intended to seek. Escobar got into education over a decade ago to work in urban school systems like Chicago. But with no end in sight to the district’s financial problems, Escobar is banking her future on a more stable district.
Escobar, 33, is not the only one leaving Lee. A teacher is retiring at the end of the school year, earlier than the teacher had planned. Others are anxious, and Lee’s principal, Lisa Epstein, encouraged them to call the pension fund to figure out the implications of retiring this year or later.
Lee Elementary is a microcosm of what’s happening in schools across the city as teachers, principals, students, and parents weigh their futures in a district teetering on the edge of financial insolvency.
As the district tries to scrounge up money to plug a $1 billion structural deficit next year and find reliable funding for the future, it’s in danger of losing talented professionals: young educators like Escobar who are unsure whether to gamble their careers in a system always verging on running out of money, and veterans, who are mulling cashing out early because the year-to-year uncertainty has become too nerve-wracking.
Having begged for state aid and borrowed millions at untenable rates, the Chicago school district is rapidly approaching fiscal insolvency.
Some parents, too, are searching for stability and packing for the suburbs. Others are counting the days until their children graduate. Those who remain ask: Will schools open on time? Will schools still offer arts and after-school programs? And, most of all, how will this never-ending drama affect their children’s education?
“I feel like I have been hyper-documenting the Titanic for the last six years,” said Wendy Katten, the director of Raise Your Hand Illinois whose group has been scrutinizing district and state education spending.
Who Is to Blame?
Parents here say there is plenty of blame to go around: the state, the school district, and, to a lesser extent, the teachers’ union.
Many parents interviewed for this story said they understand that the state’s K-12 funding formula is partially to blame for the district’s predicament, and that they don’t have the appetite for a strike. Still others believe a strike may create an opportunity for a fresh start.
But some of those same parents also made one thing clear: If teachers are to strike over the disputed labor contract, they would be more likely to side with them, rather than a city-run school system many don’t trust.
“The last thing we want to do is scramble for child care or have our school year interrupted yet again,” said Jeff Jenkins, an activist and a parent on the Local School Council at John C. Coonley Elementary School in the city’s Lincoln Square neighborhood.
“But a lot of parents know that this is a marathon, not a sprint,” he continued. “Teachers have made a commitment to our families for the long-term, and when they tell us, ‘This contract is bad. It’s bad for the long-term, it doesn’t serve us, and, in turn, it doesn’t serve you and your family,’ we tend to trust them.”
The distrust of the city’s school system can be traced to numerous factors. There’s lingering bitterness from the district’s decision in 2013 to close nearly 50 schools, amid widespread protests. Then came the $23 million in no-bid contracts for professional development for principals that led to the indictment of former district CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett. That the board is appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel is a perennial sticking point.
This yawning divide between the district and some parents poses a challenge for the district’s CEO Forrest Claypool, who is now trying to make the case that his team can steer the district through its financial morass. Claypool needs to convince parents to join the effort to pressure Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican, and legislators in the state capital to cough up more money for Chicago’s schools.
Photographer Alyssa Schukar shares her favorite images and her experiences working on a recent story about the Chicago schools’ funding crisis for Education Week.“A Photographer’s View of Chicago Schools’ Fiscal Crisis”
“It’s a huge obstacle,” Claypool acknowledged. “I understand the cynicism and the lack of credibility ... I am, however, amused by the premise within that skepticism that [the Chicago district] is an organic institution that has a culture that cannot change, and has patterns of behavior that are independent of leadership.”
That some of the best educator talent will bypass Chicago for more stable school systems worries the district. Despite the political ping-pong, schools have been improving, and the funding challenges threaten to upend that progress.
Graduation rates have increased in recent years, along with the college-going rates and numbers of students taking Advanced Placement exams. In 2015, the district had some of the highest gains in 4th and 8th grade reading and math among big-city school systems on national exams.
Claypool, a former Cook County commissioner, gets some credit for openly laying out the funding challenges and trying to build community support.
“I like Claypool,” said Chrystal Kyles, an assistant pastor at the Promise Church of Chicago in the Austin neighborhood, one of dozens of religious leaders who attended a recent gathering as part of the district’s plan to drum up community support. “He wants to negotiate. He’s willing to hear both sides. And he understands the budget.”
But some see Claypool as a flawed messenger.
“If I go down to Springfield, it would be because I want to support the teachers, and I want to support the young people in the buildings,” said Jeanette Taylor, a parent with two children at Irvin C. Mollison Elementary School in the Bronzeville neighborhood. “It will never be on behalf of Chicago Public Schools.”
An Agonizing Choice
Lee Elementary is close to earning the district’s highest ranking. It’s in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood, where most students qualify for free- and reduced-price meals. Students call Epstein, the principal, ‘Ms. Lisa.’
Epstein and Escobar, the assistant principal, started working at Lee in 2012, the year of the last teachers’ strike. Escobar’s deep connections to the school and community made her reluctant to leave. But she changed her mind after learning that she would lead a dual-language school in North Shore 112’s only high-poverty school, and after her graduate school adviser at Loyola University encouraged her to apply.
“It’s the only choice I have,” she said. “I am not going to grow professionally here. I have done what I can. I have had an impact in the schools that I’ve worked for, but it’s time for me to go.”
Epstein empathizes with young educators worried about their futures. Principals—who have less job security than teachers—have also left the system, she said, and although she has 10 years left on the job, she is worried about whether her pension will be there when she retires. District leaders, she said, have been calling high-performing principals to encourage them to stay.
“I know you are tired of coming to school every day, not knowing whether you’ll have a job tomorrow or not,” she told her teachers recently. “But do your best for the kids.”
Lee’s students are attuned to the turmoil. When a round of cuts hit last fall and the school lost an art teacher, a student emailed Epstein to say she wanted to raise money to save her teachers’ jobs.
It’s difficult to soothe students’ fears when educators themselves often don’t have the answers.
“My kids want to be in school, and they want to learn,” said Alejandra Marquez, a 2nd grade teacher. “They don’t want to worry about, ‘Are we going to be off that day, or is my teacher not going to be here?’”
When the district did not receive a budgeted $480 million from the state, it was forced, in February, to make unprecedented midyear cuts to school budgets, putting principals in a tough position.
At Lindblom Math & Science Academy, a selective enrollment school in the city’s West Englewood neighborhood, Principal Wayne Bevis said the budget uncertainties forced the school to compete for grants and deepen partnerships with community organizations and businesses. Some of those partnerships have led to valuable out-of-the-classroom learning experiences, including internships and shadowing opportunities for students, said Bevis, whose first year on the job coincided with the budget crunch.
“The core of our mission is to get many of our students, if not all of our students, into highly-selective colleges,” he said. “That mission does not change. If budget issues continue long-term, my concern is [that there will be] less and less exposure to the enriching opportunities ... getting them out of the building, getting them into the community, getting them [exposed to] the problems that are real-world issues ... .”
He said the funding inequity will ultimately cost the state more.
Bronzeville parents like Taylor, Yolanda Redman, and Angela Ross like that the teachers’ union is linking its fight over a contract to community concerns about jobs and social justice.
The women, active with the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, said the district’s policies have compounded the state funding imbalance, creating a tiered education system where students on the North Side and in selective-enrollment schools get needed resources while those on the West and South sides “get the crumbs.”
Class sizes at Mollison Elementary ballooned after the 2013 school closures, they said. Bathrooms are not being cleaned properly, and nurses attend to students at the security desk, Redman said. Requests for parents to provide paper towels, pencils, and soap are increasing. “These are things that teachers should have,” she said.
The Mollison parents said they are willing to join the union on the picket lines, if necessary. But overall, parents just want a solution so the district can focus on its core mission: educating children.
Students Fight Back
Students are not passive bystanders. Some, like Cameron Miller, a senior at Wendell Phillips Academy High School and a member of the Chicago Students’ Union, have joined the union in its various protests.
While Miller lays the blame squarely at the feet of the governor, he thinks district leaders bear some responsibility for the situation. If the teachers strike, he said, he will join them. But ultimately, he wants the district and the union to continue hashing out their differences until they reach a local solution.
“Both sides have to be willing to be mature, grow up, hear each other, see things from each other’s perspective,” he said. “Neither side has been willing to fully embrace the ideas of the other.”
At Lindblom, a group of students poured their frustrations and talents into composing an anthem about the funding crisis. They performed the song both at the union’s one-day strike on April 1 and at a school board meeting.
Ebere Forbes-Wilson, a senior and one of the students who wrote and produced the song, said leaders’ unwillingness to reach a solution at the state level makes her feel Chicago’s students are invisible and don’t matter.
“If you don’t give equal funding to everyone, you are cheating yourself,” she said. “That same system that you didn’t fund could have had a group of students who could have been revolutionary, who could have changed computer science or medicine.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 18, 2016 edition of Education Week as Steep Human Costs in Battles Over Chicago School Funding