In recent years, the Chicago Public Schools have teetered on the brink of severe teacher layoffs, devastating budget cuts, and disruptive strikes — pawns in a three-way tug-of-war between CPS, the Chicago Teachers Union, and politicians in Springfield. Interestingly, some fix seems to materialize at the eleventh hour: be it the State’s discovery of millions of dollars to assuage the $1.1 billion budget shortfall for the 2015-16 school year or the CTU’s quiet decision on May 4 to postpone/cancel their threat of a June strike after their one-day strike on April 1, 2016. Of course, such fixes are by no means magical or easy to come by: to avert crises of this magnitude, a lot of smart people put their heads (and bank accounts) together to save our schools from another round of eminent doom.
But that’s exactly the problem: instead of focusing solely on student learning, administrators and teachers are forced to deal with bureaucratic crisis after crisis after crisis. And while it’s great that doomsday headlines are avoided, the M.O. of “crying wolf” has left and will continue to leave an ugly wound on the Chicago Public Schools.
First, the costs for teachers. Insecurity and uncertainty — of teacher’s pensions, strike dates, class sizes, and jobs themselves — drains morale for even the best teachers. “Everytime we go through a round of cuts or threatened cuts, even if they don’t actually transpire, it makes really good teachers question whether this is the place that wants them or not. It’s something that distracts us from the work that we really like doing,” said one anonymous Payton teacher.
“It’s hard not to consider leaving when you feel like you work for a system that doesn’t respect the work that you’re doing on a daily basis,” said another teacher. “I feel like, at some point, a lot of teachers are going to hit a breaking point and move out to the suburbs … I can only do this for so long … [and would consider leaving] probably sooner rather than later,” they said. A third teacher said that they would “high-tail it and run” and “would actively be looking for a job somewhere else” if they were “new to the system.”
For those families new to the system, it’s almost a no-brainer that eighth graders who get into Payton — a free, nationally acclaimed, high school education — simply go. However, increasing uncertainty has made some families opt for private school over Payton. For Mrs. Lynn Litwin, her eighth grade daughter, and the rest of her family, turning down Payton was “was one of the toughest decisions we’ve had to make.” The greatest factor in their decision was “the uncertainty with CPS and what’s going to unfold because everything is so undefined right now.”
Mrs. Nicky Creamer, her eighth grade daughter and family also said “no” to Payton, opting instead for private school. Although Payton “was almost too good to be true,” said Creamer, “the budget crisis was our number one reason for not sending her there.” Additionally, Mrs. Creamer’s daughter has Type 1 diabetes. For their family, “having a nurse at the school or someone available at the school during a crisis situation was important.” Payton does not have a full-time nurse.
These budget-based rejections “should say something rather dramatic to Central Office and Springfield: that … people are choosing to not come to … one of the top high schools in the United States that is free,” said Payton Principal Tim Devine. Joining prospective students and teachers, many principals are exploring other educational options. “I know of five principals specifically … who are leaving because of the chaos that is going on and how it has become so wearisome. I know of many others who are actively thinking … as to whether or not CPS is a short-term, medium-term, or long-term locale for their profession. It’s sad,” said Devine. He estimates that “ 30 to 50% of my day is spent on non-Payton-specific, non-teaching and learning items on average. This time of the year, it gets to about 70%.”