RYH - A Year in Review

It was about a year ago that parents on the North Side representing many different schools gathered together to form the Raise Your Hand coalition. A multi-page list had gone out to every school from the CEO’s office detailing the devastating cuts that would occur if the state went through with their proposed $1.3 billion in cuts to education. Principals, teachers, and parents alike were in a state of panic at the threat of 37 children to a classroom and the loss of almost every program outside of reading, writing and math. Ron Huberman implored us to act, and act we did. Although, I’m not sure it was in quite the way CPS anticipated.

Every year there had been threats of budget cuts to our schools, but never on the scale of 2010. In prior years, parents had been so busy working to fundraise and improve their schools that either no one seemed to notice or think there was much we could do about it, other than continue to raise more money and make up for the losses. If there was any collective sense of activism about the sorry state of education funding, I wasn’t privy to it. 

To that point, most parents were focused on the funding needs at their individual schools.  In my son’s first year in CPS, I went to a fundraising meeting and found that parents had to raise money for a copy machine. It struck me as odd given that I had grown up in a suburb where not only were copy machines paid for, but we had three women staffing the office of a school the same size as my son’s, where one person was hired to man the whole office, broken copy machine and all. But I shrugged my shoulders and joined the fundraising committee. So what if CPS didn’t offer music, we would raise money. We needed computers, let’s have a fundraiser. No supplies, we’d put up a giving tree. Indeed, despite excellent teachers and a fantastic curriculum, my son’s school still lacks many of the basics that one would expect to see in an elementary school -– a science lab, an auditorium, a library, a safe playground. The list goes on and on.

 Essentially, we were complacent. Then the list came out and a month of panic ensued. Feeling helpless, I decided to plan a rally at the Thompson Center. A parent at a different school helped create a great website (noto37.com) to lobby legislators for level funding by the state. Finally, another parent suggested schools should band together to coordinate efforts and thus the Raise Your Hand coalition was born.

In one month’s time, over 1300 people from different schools across the city participated in two Raise Your Hand rallies. We took a trip to Springfield, started going to Board meetings and sent over 150,000 emails to legislators via the noto37 website. We continued to reach out to parents in different parts of the city, translated our website into Spanish, Polish and Chinese, held an all-school meeting at Ariel Academy in Kenwood, cold-called many schools and more. Our plan to improve the schools for all children was beginning to take shape (despite comments here and there that we were just North Side parents trying to do good for our own schools. But I digress.).

We realized that the issue of funding was not just a state issue. Yes, our state had been woefully underfunding public education for years, but what about our city and their role in diverting money away each year from the schools through tax increment financing (TIF)? I had read about this in The Reader, thanks to Ben Joravsky, but Jonathan Goldman, a parent at Drummond really helped to shed light on this issue.  In June, we gathered nearly 150 parents and students and marched to the 5th floor of city hall to demand Mayor Daley to give the TIF surplus money back to the schools. We sent over 5,000 emails to the mayor and our aldermen asking them to return the TIF surplus. Lo and behold, for the first time ever, a TIF surplus was declared in October  and $90 million was set to be returned to the schools. This act further cemented our belief that there is strength in numbers. What if we could get every parent/guardian in CPS together to advocate on a single issue?

 Next came our Mayoral Forum on Education, a failed income tax increase to education campaign, another trip to Springfield and much more. We have been to countless meetings with City and CPS officials, community groups, pastors, etc., all in a volunteer effort and in addition to most of us having other jobs.

 Our group is now working on a campaign called “Fit For Learning,” which would increase the time currently allotted for recess and lunch for schools that currently have no recess or as little as 10 minutes for recess and lunch. We have found parents and community groups across the city who have been fighting to restore recess in CPS and we will join them in this fight for improved policies around health and wellness for our kids.

And now the agonizing wait for school budgets is here again. We have no idea what the cuts will look like this year, but we do know we face another $720 million deficit.

 As we wait for yet another troubled budget situation, I am reminded of a quote I heard from interim CPS CEO Terry Mazany: “A budget is just a set of priorities.”  We have to keep an eye on the priorities of our school district. We will have a new mayor in a short time and yet another new head of CPS. We probably won’t be receiving any power-point presentations with a list of unfathomable cuts again; that sparked a frenzy of activism amongst Chicago school parents, not seen in some time, especially on the North Side, directed in many different directions. No matter what happens, we need to keep questioning the people who have made and will make decisions about public education in this state and city. The sky did not fall as far as Ron Huberman threatened last year, but every year funding for public education is slowly chipping away. Sometimes a slow erosion over time, not noticed by citizens, is as detrimental - or more so- than a sudden change that does garner attention.  My experience thus far tells me that public education requires us- parents in Chicago who believe every kid has the right to a well-rounded and outstanding education- to fight for it. Let's keep our eye on this ball together. Our children, our future, deserve nothing less.

Wendy Katten