Accept grim truth - Illinois is broke

Monday, June 14, 2010

We're Americans, we don't do austerity. Oh, we like conservation -- we embrace the idea of limiting ourselves, voluntarily, of being lean and mean and not wasting quite so much of our bounty, if we so choose.
But the idea of difficult economic conditions being imposed upon us, against our will, the notion of limits being reached and exceeded, confounds us. What, the cupboard's bare? Really? Nah, c'mon! Bare?
We've had years to get used to it, to adjust to Illinois being $13 billion in debt, our credit rating slipping, our bills unpaid. We clutch at any excuse for optimism. These hard times are just a passing dip, a bad patch. Look -- unemployment in Illinois has fallen from 11.5 to 11.3 percent -- happy days are here again!
In 2006 it hit 3.9 percent.
How completely we don't get our current predicament is demonstrated whenever key programs are being cut. What do the people directly affected do? They protest, they demonstrate, they get angry, as if we're still flush and the problem is merely one of allocating our plenty. They seem convinced that if only people understood -- if only the czar knew! -- then funding would immediately be restored. Everything's important, everything's untouchable. We can't cut and we can't raise taxes and we can't earn more -- so what can we do?
The idea that the money isn't there, that broke is the new normal, that a program's being vital and important isn't enough to save it anymore, has yet to sink it. Need isn't the deciding factor, money -- or, rather, lack of money -- is the deciding factor. Get used to it.
A middle-aged man with eyeglasses and a careworn look shuffles into today's virtual classroom. The youthful clatter dials back as the man scoops a piece of chalk out of the long wooden tray and slashes out a dozen words on the dusty green chalkboard.
"The only people . . ." he writes ". . . who can improve . . . our public schools..." -- the chalk clatters -- " . . . are professional educators."
He turns and faces the class.
"'The only people who can improve our public schools are professional educators,'" he repeats, solemnly, glancing from face to face. "The words of Karen Lewis, the newly elected president of the Chicago Teachers Union. What do you think she meant when she said that Saturday?"
Silence. He scans the class.
"Who is she talking to?" he continues. "Who's her intended audience? Is she talking to you, to students?" A boy in a hoodie in the third row shifts forward.
"Yes, Tony?"
"Huh? Ah no, nope, course she's not talking to us. She's talking to the School Board and to the city. They're considering firing teachers and increasing class sizes . . ."
"Yes they are? To what?"
Blank looks.
"What's the average size of a class in Chicago Public Schools? Anybody?" The students all look down, to the left and right of their desks, as if searching for the answer on the floor. "Didn't you guys read chapter 6?"
A puff of exasperation.
"Twenty-eight students per class in the CPS," he says slowly. "Going up to perhaps 34, 36 students per class -- twice the average at some schools in the suburbs. Why are they even considering that? Why is money such a problem in city schools and not, say, Winnetka? Felicia?"
"Well," the girl begins. "Public schools are local responsibilities, but the states help smooth out disparities between rich and poor communities with state funding. But Illinois has been notoriously poor in this regard, causing an undue reliance on local property taxes."
"True. But let's get back to Lewis' original comment. What does she mean by 'professional educators'?''
"Dues-paying members of the teachers union," says Carlos, the wisenheimer at the back, to a burst of laughter.
"No, no, he's right. And why would she single them out?"
"Lewis is vehemently opposed to the effort to create charter schools -- to close failed schools and build new ones," Carlos says, "because those new schools' teachers aren't generally members of the union."
"Why not?"
"Flexibility -- the union makes it harder to fire lousy teachers. Plus they're more expensive and . . . stuff."
"They would say it differently -- they would say they're protecting teachers from careless administrators who, for instance, would force them to teach larger class sizes to save money."
"Larger classes are more chaotic . . ."
"Gotta cut back somehow . . ."
"Harder to discipline . . ."
"One at a time, one at a time," says the man. "You, Leonard. You haven't said anything. What do you think of Ms. Lewis' comments?"
"Kinda arrogant."
"Arrogant? In what way?"
"Well," he says, "she says the only people who can make schools better are the professional educators. Doesn't that negate the crucial role of parents in the learning process? Or the kids, for that matter?"
"And that's wrong because?"
"Well, if the only people who can make the schools better NOW are teachers, then you hafta wonder where they've been all these years, because the problem didn't just show up today. Schools were a mess back when we still had money to pay for them, how are they going to be better now that we don't? Haven't the teachers had their shot? I mean, the teachers were always there. And suddenly, now that there's money to be cut, they're the only ones who can decide how to do it? Seems odd to me."
"Odd indeed. OK class, flip open your books to page . . ."
The secret of teaching is to appear to have known all your life what you learned this afternoon.