What Happens When an Ayn Rand Devotee Runs a Public School System? Just Ask Chicago.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool has spent his career putting free-market ideology over the needs of workers, teachers and students.

Miles Kampf-LassinOctober 14, 2016

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool. (ctaweb / Flickr)

This post first appeared at Jacobin.

The reality is that privatization usually doesn’t increase efficiency, but it does increase inequality—both economic and political.

You can learn a lot about a per­son by whose por­trait they have on their wall. Bernie Sanders hung up a pho­to of Amer­i­can social­ist leader Eugene V. Debs. Mar­tin Luther King worked under a pic­ture of Mohan­das Gandhi.

And Chica­go Pub­lic Schools (CPS) CEO For­rest Clay­pool? He chose a shot of Ayn Rand, the founder of Objec­tivism whose cru­sade against pub­lic edu­ca­tion has helped ani­mate a gen­er­a­tion of mar­ket-pos­sessed school reform­ers.”

Claypool’s embrace of Rand and her über-cap­i­tal­ist phi­los­o­phy goes a long way in explain­ing why CPS came to the brink of a sec­ond teach­ers’ strike in four years.

I think the thing that moti­vates me most is a fun­da­men­tal belief in the indi­vid­ual. The indi­vid­ual, not the col­lec­tive and not the state, is what mat­ters,” he told the Windy City Times in 2005 when explain­ing Rand’s por­trait in his office.

It’s no won­der, then, why a neolib­er­al may­or like Rahm Emanuel would choose some­one like Clay­pool to run CPS. The head of the nation’s third-largest pub­lic school sys­tem has worked for years to dis­man­tle pub­lic ser­vices like schools rather than strength­en­ing them.

This is the back­drop behind Chica­go Teach­ers Union (CTU) vice pres­i­dent Jesse Sharkey’s claim that For­rest Clay­pool is unfit” to serve as CPS CEO, a shot across the bow to the head of the city’s school system.

Pri­va­tize, Pri­va­tize, Privatize

Clay­pool has a long his­to­ry in pub­lic ser­vice — or per­haps more accu­rate­ly, a long his­to­ry of pri­va­tiz­ing pub­lic services.

Before being appoint­ed to run CPS, Clay­pool head­ed two oth­er city agen­cies: the Chica­go Park Dis­trict (CPD) and the Chica­go Tran­sit Author­i­ty (CTA). In each of these posi­tions, he relent­less­ly pri­va­tized pub­lic goods.

When Clay­pool took over the park dis­trict in 1993, he quick­ly sold off the six city-run golf cours­es to Kem­per Sports Man­age­ment, a pri­vate firm. He then began the grad­ual pri­va­ti­za­tion of var­i­ous ser­vices in Sol­dier Field, the foot­ball sta­di­um for the Chica­go Bears, includ­ing park­ing lots and sta­di­um management.

SMG, the com­pa­ny award­ed the con­tract to man­age the sta­di­um, has since been mired by accu­sa­tions of improp­er­ly keep­ing up the turf. After the com­pa­ny sub­con­tract­ed out secu­ri­ty to Sol­dier Field, in 2015, employ­ees of the hired pri­vate guard com­pa­ny were accused of sell­ing secu­ri­ty wrist­bands to under­cov­er cops, com­pro­mis­ing the safe­ty of the stadium.

The year he left the park dis­trict, Clay­pool summed up how he approached run­ning the agency: Our three prin­ci­ples were down­size, pri­va­tize, and decen­tral­ize … We pri­va­tized our har­bors, garbage col­lec­tion, equip­ment main­te­nance, park­ing lots, our com­put­er sys­tem, med­ical and risk man­age­ment, Sol­dier Field and the zoo, among oth­er things. We also down­sized rad­i­cal­ly, from 4,100 employ­ees to under 3,000.”

These prin­ci­ples of sell­ing off pub­lic ser­vices and gut­ting pub­lic-sec­tor jobs have con­tin­ued to guide Claypool’s approach to man­age­ment through­out his career. Like most pri­va­ti­za­tions, they have failed at pro­vid­ing decent ser­vices time and again.

The real­i­ty is that pri­va­ti­za­tion usu­al­ly doesn’t increase effi­cien­cy, but it does increase inequal­i­ty — both eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal. By intro­duc­ing the prof­it motive into what was pre­vi­ous­ly the government’s job, pri­vate inter­ests put prof­its ahead of the needs of a com­mu­ni­ty. Jobs are cut, unions are tar­get­ed for weak­en­ing or elim­i­na­tion, wages go down, costs go up, reg­u­la­tions are skirt­ed, and cor­rup­tion runs amok.

Despite these cor­ro­sive effects, privatization’s boost­ers — espe­cial­ly those with friends who stand to gain hand­some­ly — still preach its gospel. For­rest Clay­pool is no exception.

Thanks to his expe­ri­ence award­ing pri­vate con­tracts and dras­ti­cal­ly cut­ting staff at the park dis­trict, Clay­pool labeled him­self a reformer” and soon ran for elect­ed office, win­ning a seat on the Cook Coun­ty Board in 2001. There, he made his name by fight­ing against tax increas­es meant to fund coun­ty ser­vices such as health care, posi­tion­ing him­self well in the eyes of the Chicagoland cham­ber of com­merce, reform” Democ­rats, and coun­ty Republicans.

Claypool’s alter­na­tive to the tax increas­es? The answer is to cut spend­ing,” he told the Heart­land Insti­tute in 2003.

He went on to run in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry for pres­i­dent of the board in 2006. He lost to incum­bent John Stroger, who was inca­pac­i­tat­ed fol­low­ing a stroke at the time of the election.

Fol­low­ing anoth­er embar­rass­ing elec­toral loss in the 2010 race for coun­ty asses­sor, Clay­pool returned to what he knew best: cut­ting pub­lic agen­cies’ bud­gets to the bone.

Upon his appoint­ment to lead the Chica­go Tran­sit Author­i­ty (CTA) in 2011, Clay­pool promised to make hard deci­sions.” This amount­ed to fir­ing nine hun­dred of the agency’s employ­ees — near­ly all of whom were union mem­bers — over his four-year term, effec­tive­ly cut­ting the work­force by over 8 per­cent and erod­ing the tran­sit work­ers’ bar­gain­ing unit.

These cuts affect­ed work­ers across the agency, but they put par­tic­u­lar strain on the pub­lic tran­sit system’s front­line work­ers — dri­vers and con­duc­tors whose work­loads and hours on the job swelled fol­low­ing this mas­sive staff reduction.

The out­come was laid bare in April 2014, when a CTA pas­sen­ger train tore through a bumper at the O’Hare Air­port sta­tion, derail­ing and crash­ing into an ele­va­tor. Thir­ty-three pas­sen­gers were injured, along with the train’s con­duc­tor, who had worked a stag­ger­ing six­ty-nine hours the pre­vi­ous week. Despite the employ­ee clear­ly being over­worked — stem­ming from the dec­i­ma­tion of con­duc­tors’ ranks — she was fired immediately.

Claypool’s oth­er lega­cy at the CTA was the pri­va­ti­za­tion of fare-card ser­vices, a fias­co that threat­ened to fall apart before it was even ful­ly implemented.

The tran­si­tion from a city-run tran­sit fare card sys­tem to the pri­vate­ly run Ven­tra sys­tem was marked by con­fu­sion, break­downs, mas­sive delays, and pub­lic frus­tra­tion. When the Ven­tra cards worked — which was rare — they often dou­ble-charged cus­tomers. They also were, and remain, rid­dled with hid­den charges like dor­man­cy” fees that prey upon low-income pub­lic tran­sit users.

While the pub­lic decried these extra fees and unre­li­able ser­vices, a cadre of rich investors made a whole lot of money.

As of ear­ly 2015, the many set­backs the Ven­tra sys­tem faced dur­ing its roll­out had already cost the city an extra $65 mil­lion over the orig­i­nal con­tract. In total, Cubic, the com­pa­ny man­ag­ing the Ven­tra sys­tem, has made at least $519 mil­lion off of the deal, while Chicago’s pub­lic cof­fers remain starved of revenue.

For these her­culean feats of pub­lic mis­man­age­ment, Clay­pool was made chief of staff to Chica­go may­or Rahm Emanuel, anoth­er true believ­er in the promis­es of privatization.

Sher­iff Claypool

Emanuel, Claypool’s long­time friend, has over­seen a mas­sive sell-off of Chicago’s assets and ser­vices. From solid­i­fy­ing the pri­va­ti­za­tion of city park­ing meters, result­ing in steep rate hikes and the loss of mil­lions in tax­pay­er dol­lars to reselling the Chica­go Sky­way, now one of the most expen­sive toll­ways in the coun­try, to insti­tut­ing the Ven­tra deal, Chica­go — as led by Emanuel — has earned its rep­u­ta­tion as the arche­type of urban privatization.

We can’t lay all the blame at Rahm’s feet. Many of these deals began under the city’s last may­or, Richard M. Daley, for whom Clay­pool also served as chief of staff.

But this time, Clay­pool would only spend a few months in city hall, for Emanuel deter­mined that he had a high­er call­ing: to become CEO of the Chica­go Pub­lic Schools, its third in three years.

Clay­pool nev­er worked as an edu­ca­tor, a fact which once prompt­ed Chica­go Teach­ers Union pres­i­dent Karen Lewis to com­ment, I don’t have that much to talk to him about because he doesn’t know any­thing about edu­ca­tion.” But Clay­pool knows how to gut pub­lic bud­gets, mak­ing him the per­fect choice for Emanuel, who has over­seen mas­sive pub­lic school clos­ings, union­ized teacher lay­offs, class­room cuts paired with bal­loon­ing class sizes, a buildup of char­ter schools, and a com­bat­ive stance toward the CTU.

One of Claypool’s first acts as CPS CEO was to tor­pe­do a pro­posed one-year con­tract with the CTU that was being nego­ti­at­ed by his pre­de­ces­sor, instead demand­ing more con­ces­sions and extrac­tions from teach­ers as part of a longer-term con­tract. CTU mem­bers respond­ed with anger and frus­tra­tion: Sher­iff Clay­pool has decid­ed to blow things up and show how tough he can be,” Lewis said in response.

After the CTU reject­ed Claypool’s demand to force teach­ers to pay out an extra 7 per­cent of their pen­sion costs, Clay­pool threat­ened to uni­lat­er­al­ly enact the pay cut. In response, the union orga­nized a one-day walk­out on April 1 to demon­strate their oppo­si­tion — and forced Clay­pool to back down.

Still, he has marched for­ward with cuts and lay­offs. Last fall, Clay­pool fired hun­dreds of CPS staffers. To car­ry out the lay­offs, he hired Car­ol J. Rubin as a con­sul­tant. Rubin was a col­league at both the park dis­trict and tran­sit author­i­ty. Clay­pool direct­ed her to pro­vide rec­om­men­da­tions to restruc­ture to both increase account­abil­i­ty, bet­ter man­age risk, and dri­ve cost efficiency.”

In addi­tion to her con­sult­ing fee, Clay­pool hired Rubin on as direc­tor of CPS’s project man­age­ment office, a new­ly cre­at­ed posi­tion that came with a $170,000 salary. Sal­ly Cson­tos, also an old cowork­er of Claypool’s, received anoth­er new­ly cre­at­ed posi­tion: exec­u­tive direc­tor of change man­age­ment, start­ing at $160,000.

He also hired Ronald Denard as vice pres­i­dent for school finances for $215,000 and Doug Kucia as chief of staff — a new role that pays $175,000. The Chica­go board of edu­ca­tion had to approve these per­son­nel changes, but that’s no prob­lem: Emanuel hand­picks the board.

These hires share a cou­ple of things in com­mon: they are all Claypool’s friends and pre­vi­ous asso­ciates, and none of them are educators.

Clay­pool has defend­ed all of these moves with a hand-wave response: I don’t have to apol­o­gize for hir­ing tal­ent­ed peo­ple.” From Claypool’s per­spec­tive, how­ev­er, this tal­ent doesn’t seem to belong to teach­ers, just under five hun­dred of whom he decid­ed to lay off this August.

This time, jobs were not cut under the guise of effi­cien­cy. Rather, vet­er­an teach­ers, who make high­er salaries — and those who had spo­ken out against the prac­tices of CPS, like Roo­sevelt High School’s Tim­o­thy Mee­gan and Brighton Park Elementary’s Xian Franzinger Bar­rett — were tar­get­ed. After these lay­offs, CPS post­ed hir­ing announce­ments for entry-lev­el teach­ers who would start at a far low­er base-pay salary.

And in ear­ly Octo­ber, anoth­er 140 teach­ers and 109 sup­port staff were let go, adding to the tal­ly of pub­lic-sec­tor jobs elim­i­nat­ed under Claypool’s leadership.

Lessons unlearned

Clay­pool was installed as CPS CEO after Bar­bara Byrd-Ben­nett was indict­ed for accept­ing bribes from the prin­ci­pal-train­ing com­pa­ny SUPES. (She is cur­rent­ly await­ing sen­tenc­ing, and CPS has filed a $65 mil­lion law­suit against her and her coconspirators.)

You might think that Clay­pool would have learned a les­son from the Byrd-Ben­nett ordeal. But his ortho­doxy appar­ent­ly out­weighed any con­cerns of poten­tial impro­pri­ety, and he has car­ried on with the pri­va­ti­za­tion agenda.

Since tak­ing over lead­er­ship of the school sys­tem, Clay­pool con­tin­ued the con­tracts Byrd-Ben­nett made with Ara­mark and Sodexo to pri­va­tize cus­to­di­al ser­vices in city schools. These con­tracts direct­ly led to mass lay­offs of union­ized jan­i­tors and cus­to­di­ans and left schools in hor­rid con­di­tions. Accord­ing to CPS prin­ci­pals, many schools were left infest­ed with rats and roaches.

Clay­pool even seems to be mak­ing new deals that fol­low his predecessor’s mod­el. Two of the com­pa­nies eli­gi­ble for lucra­tive con­sult­ing work with CPS, Ana­lyt­ic Inno­va­tions and Pub­lic Ser­vices PS Inc., received mil­lion-dol­lar, no-bid con­tracts with the CTA while Clay­pool was in charge. Ana­lyt­ic was ulti­mate­ly award­ed a con­tract with CPS worth upwards of $72,000 to assess” spe­cial edu­ca­tion ser­vices, while Pub­lic Ser­vices is owned by Paul Ste­pusin, a long­time cowork­er of Claypool’s.

The shadi­ness of his finan­cial deals at the school sys­tem has not gone unno­ticed: the CPS inspec­tor gen­er­al has now opened an inves­ti­ga­tion into Claypool’s con­tract with a law firm he once worked for, which cost the school sys­tem at least $182,000.

But the biggest pri­va­ti­za­tion scheme in the edu­ca­tion­al sec­tor — char­ter schools — has Clay­pool to thank for their con­tin­ued suc­cess in Chica­go. The first bud­get Clay­pool approved as head of CPS includ­ed sig­nif­i­cant cuts to neigh­bor­hood schools, includ­ing in spe­cial edu­ca­tion and bus­ing. Char­ters, how­ev­er, were spared entire­ly. This despite the fact that stud­ies have shown that char­ter schools over­all do not out­per­form pub­lic ones.

As Chica­go teach­ers face a vote on a new con­tract, it’s impor­tant to rec­og­nize what they are up against. It’s not just a may­or who has scold­ed teach­ers and their union lead­er­ship, and a gov­er­nor who has com­pared pub­lic schools to jails” and said half of CPS teach­ers are vir­tu­al­ly illiterate.”

On top of these adver­saries, they have a CEO who has spent his career strip­ping pub­lic bud­gets, preach­ing the wis­dom of pri­va­ti­za­tion, enrich­ing his friends, and gen­er­al­ly fol­low­ing the phi­los­o­phy of Ayn Rand, a con­ser­v­a­tive ide­o­logue who believed that of all the gov­ern­ment under­tak­ings, none has failed so dis­as­trous­ly as pub­lic education.”

In CTU vice pres­i­dent Sharkey’s dev­as­tat­ing assess­ment of Claypool’s term head­ing CPS, the CEO has run the sys­tem off the edge of a cliff,” earn­ing him the con­tempt of teach­ers and par­ents across the city.” Even with­out going on strike, the teach­ers’ union has made clear that they’re not going to sit back qui­et­ly while an aus­ter­i­ty-push­ing CEO remains in charge.

In the face of oppo­si­tion like this, wrestling more fund­ing for pub­lic schools and resist­ing cuts would be a vic­to­ry not only for teach­ers and stu­dents, but in defense of edu­ca­tion as a pub­lic good against pri­va­ti­za­tion junkies like For­rest Clay­pool and his ilk who would rather put it under cor­po­rate control.

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Miles Kampf-Lassin, a grad­u­ate of New York Uni­ver­si­ty’s Gal­latin School in Delib­er­a­tive Democ­ra­cy and Glob­al­iza­tion, is a Web Edi­tor at In These Times. He is a Chica­go based writer. 


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