Since Chicago teachers voted to authorize a strike last month, contract negotiations “appear to have broadened to include items once thought off the table, possibly including class size,” the Tribune reported recently .
That’s a significant development. Prior to the strike vote, CPS had reportedly refused to entertain CTU proposals on class size  and other issues, including appropriate staffing levels. The union has proposed providing art, music, and world language teachers for every school, in addition to badly needed counselors, social workers, nurses, and psychologists.
Those are among the key issues that grassroots parent groups have raised, too. Raise Your Hand has called on CPS to negotiate over class size  and other issues, and Chicago Parents for Quality Education petitioned Mayor Emanuel  to address issues like a fuller curriculum and more social supports in planning the longer school day.
By law, CPS is only required to negotiate over economic issues. In the past the district has agreed to consider these optional classroom topics; this year, it took a strike authorization vote to force them to do so.
It’s a setback for the agenda of corporate reform groups like Stand For Children and Democrats For Education Reform, which as Ramsin Canon points out  have no real popular base here but outsized influence due to huge bankrolls. They opposed the strike vote.
Smaller class sizes: for and against
Classroom issues do not appear to be on the agenda of these groups. As Erica Clark of Parents For Teachers  pointed out here  in February, they never talk about the issues that matter to parents – class size, curriculum, less standardized testing – but focus solely on trimming collective bargaining rights and increasing testing in the name of “accountability.” If you want a better curriculum or better facilities, you can try to send your kid to a charter school.
The issue of class size is revealing. In forums earlier this year, SFC said the issue wasn’t a priority for them. In fact, most corporate reformers follow Bill Gates, who has called for lifting limits on class sizes .
For them the problem isn’t large classes or underresourced schools, it’s bad teachers. If you could put 60 kids in front of a great teacher , she could work miracles. Actual teachers, who work with actual students, are skeptical  of that view.
In a report issued earlier this year, CTU laid out the choice  in clear terms.
The report reviews the research that consistently shows the difference smaller class sizes make in every measure of student achievement, especially for low-income students. It’s particularly valuable in the early school years.
Unlike most states, Illinois has no legal limits on class size. Chicago has had the same guidelines since 1990, ranging from 28 students in lower grades to 31 in high school. But they are easy to get around, and many CPS classes are actually far larger; class sizes in the upper 30s are common, and there are kindergarten classes with 40 kids.
In contrast, Florida limits range from 18 to 25 students. Private schools average 18 students in a class, often fewer in high schools.
CTU estimates it would cost $170 million to lower K-3 class sizes from 28 to 20. But CPS is broke. Where to get the money?
It turns out that’s just half the amount budgeted for CPS’s Office of New Schools (now the Portfolio Office), which funds charters and turnarounds.
While CPS is broke and classroom spending has been cut every year, that office has seen its budget steadily grow. It’s growing again this year, with charters getting an additional $76 million .
The union asks: why not shift spending away from unproven and all too often unsuccessful experimentation and fund a widely accepted, research-supported solution, aimed not at a select few but at all students, especially those most in need of help?
No art, no playgrounds
The CTU report looks at other classroom issues given short shrift by corporate reformers. Like smaller classes, the academic and social benefits of art, music, language and physical education are widely documented. Those subjects are universally available in suburban and private schools. Yet only 25 percent of CPS neighborhood elementary schools have both music and art teachers; 40 schools have neither.
In addition, over 20 percent of elementary and middle schools have no playground, and CPS annually receives a waiver from a state mandate requiring four years of physical education in high school. Then there’s the lack of libraries at 140 CPS schools, the sparsity of language programs, and a lack of “functioning, up-to-date” computers at many neighborhood schools.
CTU estimates it would cost $200 million to hire enough new music, art, phys ed, language and technology teachers to allow each CPS student to have two such classes per day. That’s less than the amount diverted to TIF subsidies each year.
The numbers of social support staff in the district is shockingly low. Just 202 nurses serve 684 schools; 370 social workers are available to provide 400,000 students with help, working with kids who are abused, neglected, homeless, or involved with gangs or drugs. In some schools counselors have five times the caseload recommended under national guidelines.
CTU recommends that “bringing the number of social workers, counselors, nurses, and psychologists up to the numbers recommended by professional organizations” in schools that are on probation would be “a logical first step” for CPS.
The report looks at a range of additional issues – racial segregation, standardized testing, punitive discipline, early education, special education, teacher turnover (especially high, and especially harmful, in low-income schools), as well as salaries and facility spending.
No air conditioning
On facilities, one example is timely: previous to the strike vote, CPS reportedly refused to accept union proposals on air conditioning for all schools. According to CTU, 90 CPS schools don’t have functioning air conditioning. (And, I’m told, in some schools listed as air conditioned, it’s limited to the principal’s office).
Last week CPS was forced to close 18 schools  without AC when temperatures soared. For teachers it’s both a health and safety issue and an educational issue. They point to a study by the Council of Educational Facility Planners that found students in air-conditioned buildings outscored their peers by 5 to 10 percent.
But CPS has slashed capital spending while funneling millions of dollars into buildings for turnaround and charter schools. Six turnaround schools being taken over by AUSL next year are getting $25 million in capital improvements. (Here’s another case .)
So while CPS pleads poverty — with annual Chicken Little budget projections that more often than not end up in year-end surpluses – there is clearly money in the district’s $6 billion budget for politically favored priorities.
Neighborhood schools just aren’t one of them. Maybe the contract negotiators can talk about that.
One upshot of the classroom cuts reflecting CPS priorities is that the proportion of total operating funds going to teachers’ salaries has steadily declined, from 48 percent in 2004 to 41 percent in 2010, according to a union analysis. That’s over a period when teachers got healthy raises, too.
This makes it hard to argue that CPS can only afford a 2 percent raise over the next five years. But CPS’s credibility on salary issues was seriously damaged last summer when it offered teachers a 2 percent raise to teach longer hours, a day after negotiations concluded over its claim that it couldn’t afford a scheduled pay hike [– and now this ].
The CTU report includes a series of proposals for “fair school funding” – real TIF reform, progressive taxation, and a novel idea: a flat tax of 15 percent on capital gains for those with incomes over $200,000. That could generate $367 million for Chicago schools, the union estimates.
Other states do it. It’s a lot of money. What would happen if powerful politicians took up such an initiative in Springfield?
But don’t expect the millionaires and billionaires funding SFC and the hedge fund traders behind DFER to stand up and cheer. “Fair school funding” doesn’t seem to be a priority for these groups either.