On National Day of Action to Reclaim Public Education, Some Chicago Politicians Get Lumps of Coal

Matthew Blake

On December 9, 2013 in Chicago, Brandon Johnson of the Chicago Teachers Union holds up a Christmas list for the city schools. (Matthew Blake)

Those alder­men who sup­port the TIF sur­plus ordi­nance: They are on our good list,” Michael Brun­son, record­ing sec­re­tary for the Chica­go Teach­ers Union, declared to a few dozen pro­test­ers on a freez­ing Mon­day after­noon out­side Chica­go City Hall. How­ev­er, we’re going to tell those who reject­ed the TIF sur­plus ordi­nance they have been naughty.”

The hol­i­day-themed sham­ing was part of a Nation­al Day of Action to Reclaim Pub­lic Edu­ca­tion held by the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers on Decem­ber 9 in some 60 cities. The day was con­ceived as a way for union locals and com­mu­ni­ty groups to act togeth­er on shared edu­ca­tion goals. In New York City, for exam­ple, the call was for uni­ver­sal pre-kinder­garten; in Hous­ton, fair­er teacher evaluations. 

In Chica­go, the main push was to revive the Tax Incre­ment Finance (TIF) sur­plus ordi­nance, a union-sup­port­ed school-fund­ing bill that was shot down in the City Coun­cil last month. The bill called for about $100 mil­lion in local prop­er­ty tax mon­ey to be divert­ed from city TIF dis­tricts — where the mon­ey is used for projects select­ed by the may­or and local alder­men — to Chica­go Pub­lic Schools, which suf­fered $100 mil­lion in cuts to com­mu­ni­ty schools and 3,000 lay­offs this summer.

The bill and the protest were backed by the Chica­go Teach­ers Union, which raised the pro­file of its AFT par­ent in Sep­tem­ber 2012 with a sev­en-day teach­ers strike and this May with fierce oppo­si­tion to May­or Rahm Emanuel and his appoint­ed school board clos­ing 49 ele­men­tary schools.

Well over a year of repeat­ed pub­lic protests have sharp­ened the mes­sage of CTU and its allies into a well-defined wish list of city and state leg­isla­tive actions. In addi­tion to the TIF bill, these include mov­ing the state of Illi­nois to a pro­gres­sive income tax from its cur­rent flat tax in order to improve Illi­nois’ per-pupil fund­ing, which is cur­rent­ly the low­est in the nation. Also, CTU has called for an elect­ed instead of appoint­ed Chica­go school board and a mora­to­ri­um on char­ter school expansion. 

CTU orga­niz­ers pre­sent­ed these ideas Mon­day on giant posters and on one-page fact sheets hand-deliv­ered to aides of May­or Emanuel and Gov. Pat Quinn in their down­town offices.

Brun­son and a few dozen advo­cates pro­ceed­ed to march into City Hall and deliv­er can­dy canes to Alder­man Robert Fioret­ti of the 2nd Ward, the spon­sor of the TIF bill, and Alder­man John Are­na of the 45th Ward, author of a bill push­ing an elect­ed school board in Chicago.

Then CTU mem­bers dis­trib­uted lumps of coal to city leg­isla­tive offi­cials who had the mis­for­tune of being present when pro­test­ers arrived. Two offi­cials glum­ly col­lect­ed lumps of coal intend­ed for alder­men who did not want to vote on the TIF bill.

Chica­go alder­men, often accused of being Emanuel’s lap­dogs, vot­ed 38 – 11 last month against putting the TIF ordi­nance to a vote. Emanuel indi­cat­ed oppo­si­tion to the TIF sur­plus ordi­nance and divert­ed a more mod­est $24 mil­lion in TIF mon­ey to CPS this year. 

The use of TIF dol­lars to sub­si­dize pri­vate projects, such as a new sta­di­um for the DePaul Uni­ver­si­ty bas­ket­ball team, has become a flash­point of con­tro­ver­sy over the last few years. We need to redi­rect that mon­ey the right way — to our pub­lic schools,” Fioret­ti tells Work­ing In These Times.

When alder­men vot­ed against con­sid­er­ing the ordi­nance, many voiced frus­tra­tion with Fioret­ti for using a par­lia­men­tary maneu­ver to con­sid­er the mat­ter after it had lan­guished in com­mit­tee. Alder­man Patrick O’Connor (40th Ward), Emanuel’s floor leader, warned of a return to the Coun­cil Wars” of the 80s, when black May­or Harold Wash­ing­ton per­pet­u­al­ly feud­ed with pow­er­ful white aldermen.

Asked if the lumps of coal might cause fur­ther divi­sions with his col­leagues, Fioret­ti replied that alder­men who do the mayor’s bid­ding … need to face some accountability.”

The alder­man added that he sup­port­ed the day of action, because mak­ing his col­leagues pub­licly account­able will even­tu­al­ly push them to chal­lenge Emanuel’s edu­ca­tion poli­cies. The coals are going to keep the winds of change burn­ing here,” Fioret­ti said. We are going to see change.”

Jitu Brown, an edu­ca­tion orga­niz­er at the Ken­wood Oak­land Com­mu­ni­ty Orga­ni­za­tion on the city’s South Side, said that Monday’s event was part of a strat­e­gy toward long-term change. 

It’s not about doing action and then by mag­ic con­di­tions change,” Brown told Work­ing In These Times out­side of City Hall. We’re set­ting the tone change by hav­ing par­ents, teach­ers and com­mu­ni­ties come togeth­er around a com­mon set of prin­ci­ples. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

Matthew Blake is a free­lance jour­nal­ist based in Chica­go. He has writ­ten for the Chica­go Jour­nal, Wash­ing­ton Month­ly, Wash­ing­ton Inde­pen­dent and The Nation, among oth­er publications.
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