Chicago's public schools have been overcrowded and underfunded for a long time. It's about to get a lot worse.
Earlier this year, in May, it was announced that about 10 percent of elementary schools in Chicago would be closed as part of a closure of 50 schools around the city. Last week, the school district announced that it was shedding 3,000 from its rolls (including some 1,000 teachers). And now, with CPS unveiling its budget, we learn that the draconian cuts will continue: $68 million will be slashed from classrooms this year alone.
Illinois has a grotesque pension problem, one that has essentially paralyzed state-level politics and one that has no easy or painless solution. Still, one gets the sense that in Chicago—just as in other cities and towns across the country—it's the education system that's bearing a huge share of the austerity pain.
In Chicago, the decision to increase classroom size, cut afterschool programs and lay off teachers makes no sense in a city grappling with skyrocketing everyday violence. The research is undeniable: better schools equal less violence. A child enrolled in an afterschool program is far less likely to get involved in gangs. Smaller classroom size provides for more individualized attention to help identify and address family problems at home. At a time when CPS should be increase its hiring of afterschool program coordinators, school counselors and other support staff, it's decided that the best way forward to show them the door.
Continue below the fold for more on austerity in Chicago schools.
This makes absolutely no economic sense. Every dollar invested in preschool education saves society $7 down the road in terms of "less violent crime, reduced teen pregnancy rates, improved math and reading skills, better social intelligence, and of course, increased graduation rates." Even investments in elementary school and high school pay dividends on a societal level.
That's what austerity is about, though, isn't it? The short view. It's about a fetish with the ledger columns of today, with impact on future generations be damned.
Chicago and Illinois politicians and policymakers would be best served by taking a look across the Atlantic to Europe, and to Greece in particular. For years, Greece, by way of the IMF, European Central Bank and European Commission, focused almost exclusively on an austerity-only policy. Cuts were needed of course to rein in a bloated public sector. But where a scalpel was needed, the government used a hack saw. And it's still doing so, despite the bloodbath that's resulted from savage cuts across the board.
Just this week, officials in Greece announced that they were closing 118 elementary schools. Meanwhile, 40,000 children have been shuttered out of local nursery schools.
Greece has been playing this austerity path for years now, and the results speak for themselves. The curbing of public services and the swiss-cheesing of the country's social safety net has pulled the rug out of the country's middle class. Now, nearly 1 in 3 Greeks live in poverty. Homeless has skyrocketed. Nearly 60 percent of young adults are out of work. And most tragically, an entire generation is going to grow up without knowing job security or food security. No country—no people—deserve such a fate.
Instead of learning from Greece's tragedy and the broader failed austerity experiment in Europe, elected officials in America (and surely in Chicago) seem destined to repeat it.
There's no guessing as to what happens when you balance the budget on the backs of the poor and middle classes. They break.
There's an old saying I grew up with: "A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in." Investment in future generations matters. When future generations are sacrificed on the mistaken belief that austerity now yields success later, that will be the hardest lesson of all.