Chicago Tribune – Chicago Newstips by Community Media Workshop Chicago Community Stories Mon, 08 Jan 2018 18:45:05 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Will higher wages hurt the economy? Sun, 04 Aug 2013 19:28:40 +0000 Higher wages for fast food and retail workers could hurt the economy, according to an analysis by the Chicago Tribune.

The analysis includes comments from the Workers Organizing Committee, which led hundreds of workers from national chains, from Wendy’s to Potbelly and from Sears to Victoria’s Secret, in strike actions here last week.  They’re not looking to double wages to $15 an hour overnight; they’re trying to organize a union and address a range of issues.

It also includes a Whole Foods employee who works two additional jobs and still qualifies for food stamps, and a labor economist who is quoted to the effect that high unemployment helps lower wages.

But its major thrust is whether consumers can stand to pay the higher prices that they say higher wages would require.  The economists they ask about this specialize in consumer psychology and marketing behavior.

One crucial piece of information is omitted, curiously:  how big of a price increase are we talking here?

In a column reviewing “the boilerplate argument against higher wages” — which is precisely that it would hurt consumers with “enormous” prices increases — David Sirota fills us in.

Raising the minimum wage to $10.50 would add 5 cents to the price of a Big Mac, according to one analysis.  Another study found that raising McDonalds workers’ hourly rate to $15 would drive the price of a Big Mac up by 22 cents.

Run that by your consumer psychologist.

A recent study by Action Now and Stand Up Chicago found that  raising Chicago retail and restaurant workers’ wages to $15 an hour would cost about $100 million for a sector with $14.2 billion in yearly revenues in the city.  That’s about 2.6 percent of revenue.

“Downtown employers can afford a very significant increase in wages,” they argue.

It’s an important reality check to vague scare talk about higher prices.  That line of arguent works because it involves a “populist insinuation that higher wages would hurt the Average Joe,” according to Sirota.

Here’s another hard economic fact that deserves more attention, courtesy of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability:  the largest, most profitable retailers in Illinois pay the lowest wages.

On average, the huge chains, those with more than 500 employee in the state — about 2 percent of the firms, with about 60 percent of market share — pay 18.5 percent less than smaller companies.

McDonalds’ profits last year were $5.5 billion.  And they don’t want to give their workers a $3-an-hour raise because they’d have to charge 5 cents more for a hamburger?

“Retail and fast food outlets in the Magnificent Mile and the Loop are among the country’s most profitable, but their workers take home poverty wages to the city’s poorest neighborhoods,” said Katelyn Johnson of Action Now in a statement supporting WOC strikers.

“We know that they need and deserve a living wage to support their families. And every dollar invested in a living wage will raise up the economy for all of the city’s neighborhoods.”

CTBA estimates that by increasing consumer spending, raising the minimum wage by two dollars would generate 25,000 jobs in Illinois and increase economic activity in the state by $2.5 billion.

But there’s a much larger question missed by the Trib’s analysis:  can the U.S. economy handle the wholesale replacement of middle-class employment with low-wage jobs?

Middle-income jobs represented 60 percent of job losses from 2008 to 2010 but only 22 percent of job growth in the recovery.  On the other hand, low-wage jobs accounted for 21 percent of lost jobs but 58 percent of subsequent job growth.  (The Tribune has covered this.)

It’s happening in Chicago:  nearly one-third of Chicago workers now work for $12 an hour or less (up from 24 percent in low-wage jobs in 2001) according to a report from Women Employed and Action Now. 

Those are the kinds of jobs where Chicago is “showing strength” — “lesiure, hospitality, food, retail industries,” especially tied to tourism — as Mesirow chief economist Diane Swonk tells the Sun Times.

According to Women Employed and Action Now, those are jobs “paying too little to support an individual, much less a family, without public assistance or charity.”

Meanwhile, as I’ve argued, Mayor Emanuel’s policies seem aimed at turning Chicago from the union town to a low-wage town.

Is this really the direction we want to go?

Maybe Chicago’s retail and fast food workers and the Workers Organizing Committee can do something about that.

Medicaid privatization deal called expensive, inefficient Thu, 25 Jul 2013 21:12:39 +0000 The debate over privatization is currently playing out in a dispute over a contract with a private firm to “scrub” the state’s Medicaid rolls.

In fact, contrary to the privatizers’ claims, it looks like the deal is a huge waste of money.

Last month an arbitrator ordered a $76 million, two-year contract with Maximus Inc. cancelled by the end of the year, finding that it violated subcontracting provisions in state welfare workers’ union contract.  Maximus uses data-mining technology to identify ineligible Medicaid recipients.

Last week, the Alliance for Community Services called on the state to immediately cancel the contract, arguing it has resulted in unjustified disqualification of Medicaid recipients.

The editorial board of the Chicago Tribune, meanwhile, has called on Governor Quinn to appeal the arbitratrator’s ruling — or for the General Assembly to enact a legislative fix — saying the privatization deal is the best way to cut Medicaid costs.

But is it?


In a June 20 ruling, arbitrator Edwin A. Benn found that the Maximus deal violated provisions in the state’s contract with AFSCME restricting the contracting out of bargaining unit work unless there’s a clear advantage in terms of economy and efficiency.  The state hadn’t demonstrated that, he said.

The state had argued it was required by recent Medicaid reform legislation, called the SMART Act, to contract out Medicaid redeterminations to a private firm; Benn writes that the act allows, but does not require, contracting out.  And though that particular question would have to be settled in court, he says, under AFCME’s contract the state can’t override contractual provisions by passing new laws.

In a June 28 editorial, the Tribune argues that “it would be a huge mistake to dump this contract and try to start over with state employees,” saying “state officials argue that the fastest and most effective way to do this work is through Maximus.”

But in arbitration hearings, state officials didn’t argue that.  They argued that their hands were bound by the SMART Act.

Benn quotes the deputy director for planning of the Department of Healthc and Family Services testifying:

“What I would have preferred is that they held off and let us implement the IES [the Integrated Eligibility System, a new computer system to do just what Maximus is doing, scheduled to roll out over the next few months], which is the long-term solution, rather than having to do [the Maximus] redetermination project on top of this, which has really complicated getting the IES in place.”

Just a week before an earlier Trib editorial with glowing claims for Maximus’s accomplishments, the planning director was testifying that without “a huge increment in productivity” on Maximus’s part, “we’ll have a serious problem.”


Benn also notes the state failed to refute the union’s contention moving the work Maximus is doing in-house would save $18 million a year.

Over the two years of the $76 million contract, that’s a savings of $36 million — nearly 50 percent.

You’d think the deficit hawks at the Tribune — arguing that Maximus is needed because “Illinois doesn’t have money to waste” — would take this into account.  They don’t even mention it.

The state has had to hire 200 additional caseworkers to review Maximus’s recommendations for terminating Medicaid clients, according to Anne Irving of AFSCME Council 31.

That’s because federal regulations require decisions about eligibility be made by civil service-protected employees.  (Maximus’s error rate — along with the seriousness of denying someone health care — seems to validate the wisdom of that rule.)

With an additional 100 caseworkers on top of the 200 already on this task, the state could do the whole job itself, AFSCME demonstrated during arbitration.

Maximus has brought less value to the table than state officials might have expected from its sales pitch, Irving said.  The company touted its sophisticated computer algorithms that would mine data to identify ineligible Medicaid beneficiaries.

It turned out that nearly all the data the Maximus used was already available to the state.  In some cases, Irving said, when the company requested birth certificates or citizenship papers, clients turned to their caseworkers, who had the documents on file.

Then, of course, every recommendation from Maximus to cancel, reduce, or maintain Medicaid benefits had to be reviewed by state workers.  That means the redetermination assessment had to be done not once but twice.  In “a substantial number of cases,” Maximus’s recommendations were found to be in error, Irving said.


According to year-to-date numbers reported by the state through mid-June, Maximus recommendations were rejected in 25 percent of cases where they found recipients ineligible; in cases where they recommended changes in benefit levels, fully 50 percent were found to be in error.

(The Tribune was wrong when it wrote in June that Illinois has removed 60,000 people from its Medicaid rolls this year.  That was the number of terminations Maximus had recommended; the number of terminations finalized is significantly lower.)

Many of Maximus’s errors resulted when the company requested irrelevant or unavailable information and then cancelled benefits when it wasn’t provided, Irving said.  In a good number of cases, Maximus recommended cancelling children’s medical cards when their grandparents or other caregivers didn’t provide their own income data — though that’s entirely irrelevant to the children’s eligibility.

Sometimes Maximus recommended cancelling cases because it hadn’t received information that turned out to be in state files, she said.

Many errors reflected the complexity of the state’s human services system — and the importance of professionally-trained caseworkers making judgments with serious impact on people’s lives, said Diane Stokes, a caseworker who is president of AFSCME Local 2858.

Job postings for Maximus workers for the project required a high school diploma, according to documents provided during arbitration  The company’s call center reps on the project earn $12.25 an hour.

According to Fran Tobin of ACS, Maximus is recommending cancellation of benefits when they encounter disconnected phone numbers.  “Having a working telephone is not a requirement for Medicaid eligibility,” he said.

“There are all kinds of reasons we’re seeing for Maximus to recommend cancellations that aren’t legitimate, that don’t demonstrate ineligibility,” he said. “They’re just looking for technicalities to kick people off.”

The Tribune notes with a tone of shock — as evidence of Medicaid “waste” — that 75 percent of terminations recommended by Maximus occurred when “the recipients just did not respond” to requests for information.

Many of those cases are people who may have moved, lost phone service, or live in circumstances where mail delivery is problematic.  Many of them will reapply as soon as they need to see a doctor or end up in a hospital.

Tobin argues people’s health coverage should not be placed at the mercy of a company whose profits depend on slashing the caseload.


The Tribune is convinced that “hundreds of millions of dollars” in Medicaid “waste, fraud, and abuse” is at stake if the state doesn’t stick with Maximus.  It’s not clear that’s actually the case.

The great bulk of Medicaid expenditures go to a fairly small number of people with very serious health problems, Irving points out.  They’re probably least likely to get a job or move out of state.

They could have their phone cut off — but if their benefits are cut off on that basis, they’ll be sure to reapply very quickly.

And, of course, people who move out of state aren’t very likely to be using their Illinois medical card.

The state has estimated that “scrubbing” the Medicaid rolls will save $350 million in the first year.  But “no one has ever been able to say where that number comes from or what it’s based on,” Irving said.


The Trib has repeatedly marvelled at the state’s inability to police its Medicaid rolls.  In March the editorial board asked, “If Illinois officials knew, or suspected, that thousands of people were improperly receiving Medicaid coverage, why didn’t they act years ago to save hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars??”

In an editorial just this week — warning of the costs of expanding Medicaid under Obamacare — it charges that “Illinois has never made much of an effort to check if people getting benefits continued to qualify for them.”

That’s not exactly true.

“Maximus isn’t doing anything we weren’t doing for decades,” says Steve Edwards, a retired caseworker who’s active with ACS.

“The caseworkers’ month revolved around the cutoff date,” said Edwards. “We’d put a notice in the mail, and if they didn’t respond the case was cancelled.”

It wasn’t the best system, he says.  It created a lot of “churn” — people being tossed off the rolls, sometimes due to something as simple as misdelivered mail, and forced to reapply when they needed care. (There’s likely to be a good bit of churn in the numbers highlighted by the Tribune.)

Churn creates inconvenience and anxiety for clients, and it creates administrative inefficiencies when caseworkers have to help people reapply.

In any case, for many years annual redeterminations of eligibility proceeded apace.  But then the state started cutting caseworkers, even as demand for public benefits grew dramatically, with Medicaid expansion early in the last decade, and then the Great Recession.

Caseloads grew to three or four times the size of previous decades, said Stokes.  “When I started I had a caseload of 450,” she says.  “Now it’s 1,700.”

So the backlog in redeterminations of Medicaid eligibility was due to extreme staff shortages.

“The problem was created by the state when it failed to have enough workers,” said Edwards.  “They created this crisis, and now they say there’s no way out except to pay a private company $75 million.”

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Charter waiting list inflation Thu, 04 Apr 2013 22:48:15 +0000 The Chicago Tribune isn’t going to admit error with their claim that 19,000 students are languishing on charter school waiting lists, “yearning” to be free of CPS. But they may not throw the number around with the same panache after WBEZ’s expose.

As Becky Vevea showed, the 19,000 number counts applications, not students — and students typically apply for multiple schools — and it also includes over 3,0000 students who’ve dropped out and are seeking admission to alternative schools.

The Tribune now cites Andrew Broy of the Illinois Charter Schools for the “estimate” (though as Michael Miner points out, they claimed the number as fact in their editorials) , and Broy has regrouped quite nicely.

Wednesday he was saying the real number was probably “around 65 percent” of 19,000, based on his own “spot checks.” Thursday he insisted that 19,000 is a “conservative estimate” — the real number probably higher than that, he now says — since it excludes non-reporting charters and new charters that are just ramping up.

But if families are applying to charters at the same rate they’re applying to selective enrollment and magnet schools — admittedly a big “if,” but they would be if there were such a “yearning” out there — the number of actual students waiting for places is probably closer to 4,000. Vevea’s numbers suggest that for CPS schools requiring applications, there are about four applications from every student.

The number only matters to charter proponents because it’s the only argument they have left, points out Julie Woestehoff of Parents United for Reponsible Education.

They used to say that charter schools were needed because students performed better there, she said.  Then research started coming in, and it consistently debunked that claim.  The only argument left was the popular demand for charters supposedly demonstrated by waiting lists.

“The Tribune hit those numbers very hard, as if they’re scientific numbers and they prove the need for more charters,” said Woestehoff.  “It’s like everything else in the corporate reform movement — the numbers are not real. They’re imaginary numbers. And the whole argument falls apart when you scrutinize it.”

In 2008, PURE’s report on charter accountability — in which two-thirds of the city’s charter schools and networks ignored a letter from the attorney general saying they had to respond to the group’s FOIA request — showed that many charters “do not have waiting lists” and “some struggle to keep up their enrollment.”

In fact, as WBEZ reports, CPS says there are currently 3,000 to 5,000 open places in charter schools, and during  last year’s strike, charter groups said a third of the city’s charters had seats available.

What’s most remarkable, as Miner and Steve Rhodes point out, is that while charters could claim 16,000 applications, and maybe more, selective enrollment and magnet schools together boast over 99,000 applications.

What that shows is the opposite of what the Tribune wishes the numbers showed, Woestehoff said: “People really want their kids in public schools, and they’re not very interested in charters.”

Teachers demand respect Mon, 17 Sep 2012 23:54:57 +0000 Entirely aside from what the school strike has revealed about Mayor Emanuel’s executive incompetence – or how he intends to spin the eventual outcome – and far more important, there are several layers of historic significance to the teachers’ fight.

Here are three:  it’s marshalled broad popular support in a period when public-sector unions are under assault on many fronts; it’s dramatized and exposed the costs and compromises of the corporate school reform agenda; and – particularly going forward, as the outcome unfolds – it represents a signal battle in the fight against the austerity agenda of the world’s elites.

They’re also teaching us about an old-fashioned value that we may hope is not yet out of date: respect.

The Chicago Tribune actually editorialized that the teachers were on the wrong side of history, fighting the inevitability of corporate reform.  On any given day, the editors could have looked out their window and seen the streets filled with multitudes of red-shirted teachers who were actually making history.


The paper seemed to become unhinged after its pet cause of merit pay was abandoned as Emanuel sought to avoid a strike.  (That may have been the most startling revelation in the paper’s behind-the-scenes report – that the mayor actually feared a strike.  For a whole year it had seemed clear that he was actively courting one.)

First the Trib came out for vouchers.  That’s the reformer’s nuclear option: if they can’t run schools without interference from anyone else, they’ll blow up the public education system.  Then, as negotiations began to progress, they actually called on Emanuel to withdraw the latest CPS salary proposal and go back to merit pay – no matter how long it took.  All that concern for children out of school was apparently just for show.

Then they ran an utterly insulting op-ed by Bruce Rauner, Emanuel’s billionaire buddy who dabbles in school reform.  While negotiators were trying to find common ground, Rauner and the Tribune was busy pouring gasoline on the flames.

As if that wasn’t enough, the paper then gave us an endorsement of Emanuel and denunciation of the union by none other than Jeb Bush, a major proponent of charters and of online learning – which, as Mother Jones notes, “siphons money from public institutions into for-profit companies” while it “undercuts public employees [and] their unions.”  Like charters.  (Problem is, also like charters, “many online schools simply aren’t very good.”)

Maybe they thought this demonstrated “bipartisan” support for their agenda, but for a mayor forced to shrug off a full-throated endorsement by Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, a shout-out by the brother of America’s worst president had to be a major embarrassment.

Who needs unions?

There is indeed history being made here, but its final chapter is yet to be written.

Over the past generation, private-sector unionism has been decimated, starting with the Reagan administration’s approval for replacement workers in strikes, and especially with the passage of NAFTA, one of Mayor Emanuel’s signal achievements. (And much as he likes to brag about saving the auto industry, he helped destroy hundreds of thousands of American manufacturing jobs by pushing NAFTA through a reluctant Congress.)

That’s led to an economy where corporate profits soar and the middle class sinks; de-unionization is a key factor in the dramatic growth of inequality since 1980 and the economic stagnation that’s caused.

Public employee unions were only organized in the 1960s (with support from people like Martin Luther King), at a time when public workers made much less than private-sector workers.  Now the situation is reversed, and business leaders see a chance to destroy collective bargaining – and unions as a political counterweight to corporate dominance — once and for all.

Teachers and other public workers are under the gun across the country.  Last year they made a heroic stand in Wisconsin but were unable to overcome the influence of big money, which sought to stir up resentment among regular folks who’ve seen their standard of living tumble.

Democrats against unions

In Chicago teachers confronted an all-out attack by Emanuel, who has campaigned against them since returning here.  His stated goals of closing neighborhood schools and opening charters are clearly aimed at reducing the number of unionized teachers.  And teachers saw a similar motivation behind CPS’s evaluation proposals.

The anti-union animus is clear in some of Emanuel’s major supporters.  Take Democrats For Education Reform, founded by billionaire hedge-fund traders.

“The financial titans, who tend to send their children to private schools, would not seem to be a natural champion of charter schools, which are principally aimed at poor, minority students,” notes the New York Times in an article on DEFR.

“But the money managers are drawn to the businesslike way in which many charter schools are run; their focus on results, primarily measured by test scores; and, not least, their union-free work environments.”

Then there’s Penny Pritzker, the billionaire heiress appointed to the school board by Emanuel, whose family’s Hyatt Hotels face a worldwide boycott due to anti-union practices — among them, replacing union members with minimum-wage temps.

In the face of all this, the Chicago Teachers Union have given the nation a remarkable display of unity, solidarity, and militancy.  They gave Emanuel a very public drubbing. And they’ve brought a new level of unity for all city workers, whose unions have been nibbled away bit by bit by Emanuel for the past year.

Two visions of school reform

The strike also puts two visions of school reform in sharp relief.  As Diane Ravitch delineates, on one side are the billionaires pushing for school closings, charters, and cracking down on teachers.  On the other are teachers and parents opposing the disinvest-and-close approach and demanding investments in smaller classes, social workers, and air conditioning (which Emanuel, in attack mode, ridiculed).

There’s history here too:  as CTU points out, the so-called “accountability” movement (driven as Mark Naison demonstrates by an entirely irrelevant business ethos) superceded an earlier era of reform based on the values of the civil rights movement – equality, inclusiveness, democracy, and public services to alleviate the impact of poverty.

Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, the black-white achievement gap shrank.   As Jitu Brown of KOCO pointed out at Saturday’s rally, that progress has been reversed under mayoral control, under which that gap has steadily grown.

One accomplishment of the strike was to bring parents and community groups out to support teachers around a common agenda.  Not only on the picket lines and in the mass demonstrations, but in the opinion polls too.   As Emanuel moves next to close neighborhood schools and open charters, will that unity and energy keep pace?


At Saturday’s rally (which was amazing), I was struck by the deeper significance of a few of teachers’ slogans.  Especially the demand for “respect.”  You heard it again and again.  And yes, it refers to the way Emanuel and the Tribune and Bruce Rauner and Jeb Bush talk about teachers.

But it’s also about how teachers are treated, and how teaching is treated as a profession.  I ran into an old friend, Josh, who’s spent years in classrooms, most recently teaching social studies, first in a selective enrollment high school, then in an inner-city neighborhood high school.

The contrast was striking, he said.  The first school had plenty of everything – including basic things like books, enough textbooks for every student.  At the second school, kids had to share textbooks or teachers had to prepare their own materials.

The first school’s building was well-maintained and fully air-conditioned; the second school was run down, and only the principal’s office was air-conditioned.  (That’s how it is in many schools listed as air-conditioned by CPS.)

“That’s something that’ll piss a kid off – that’ll piss anybody off,” said Josh.  “The principal’s all comfy and the rest of the school is a heatbox.”

At the second school, kids were dealing with all kinds of issues, every day – getting arrested, getting pregnant, the gamut.  In one section something like 14 out of 18 girls were expecting or new mothers.

The reformers view students more or less like sliders at a fast-food joint, he said – how many can you flip and how fast can you flip them.  But each one is completely different from the next one.  Not only that, each one is different from how they were three months ago.

Since social studies isn’t a tested subject, he was told to work on their reading, an area in which he has no background; he split the difference, teaching them how to examine a primary document – often going over it word by word – and how to think about those kinds of things more deeply.

He worked hard with them and was gratified every time a kid got something.  It wasn’t easy.  The small victories come one student at a time, with hard work.

Then enrollment dropped and his position was terminated.  He spent a year as a cadre sub.  Now he’s day-to-day, with no benefits.  He was really interested in the proposed contract’s job security provisions.

High schools aren’t hiring middle-aged teachers, he said.  Principals want young teachers.  It’s basically because they’re cheaper, Josh says, but it’s also because they’re easier to shape.

The schools don’t want teachers who came up with those civil rights values.  If they get teachers young, the new way of doing things, with its focus on test scores, will be the only framework they know.

And I look at this guy, who’s so sharp, so dedicated, who is exactly the kind of person you would want teaching your child.  And there’s no place for him, because some politicians and business people have decided that the thing to do is destroy the teaching profession.

That’s disrespect on a level far more profound than the kind of language that’s used.

I hope the new contract provides real hope for this kind of teacher.

At the rally, Che “Rhymefest” Smith recalled a science teacher who tried to convince him to buckle down and graduate (while the principal discouraged him) — who signed him up for an alternative school when he dropped out, who later helped him fill out college applications.  “I’ll never forget Ms. Harris,” he said.

“I realized that the system had failed me and the only person trying to get me back in the game was this teacher,” he said.  “Truly I see a system that’s not only failing the children but failing the teachers too.”

Let’s remember Ms. Harris.  And please, let’s give her some respect.

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The Chicago Tribune and CPS’s Big Lie Sun, 29 Jan 2012 19:48:18 +0000 Judging from the Tribune’s attack on its co-chair, the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force must really be raising some hackles among the editorial board’s friends at the Board of Education, in the mayor’s office, and among the coterie of rich folks who are pushing what’s come to be called “school reform.”

Though the task force passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on school closings and other actions, the Trib focuses on Rep. Cynthia Soto.  In their zeal to lash out, the editorialists get a lot wrong.

First of all, of course, it was the task force that issued the call for a moratorium, after a public hearing where – as happens every year – parents and teachers complained about a CPS decision-making process that ignores their input.

Second, the Trib declares that legislators shouldn’t meddle in school closing decisions.  But the task force is mandated by the legislature to monitor compliance with the new school facilities planning requirements, which the legislature passed in 2009.

It includes legislators along with representatives of CPS, teachers, principals, and community groups, and it represents a first step at giving the public a real voice in the process.

Prior to the task force, there was virtually no accountability for CPS decisions — not since mayoral control was established in 1995.  Clearly, some people want to keep it that way.

‘Not in compliance’

“CPS’s historic and continuing lack of transparency and evidence-based criteria for decisions resulted in the pervasive climate of public suspicion about what drives CPS to take school actions and allocate resources, often in ways perceived to be highly inequitable,” as the task force noted in a recent resolution.

The Tribune argues that school closing decisions should be made locally.  Sure they should.  But does that mean they should be made by downtown administrators with no input from the schools and their communities?  The Trib thinks so.  The task force says no.

The Tribune’s argument hinges on ignoring the real reason for the moratorium call.  The editorial cites a quote from Soto about the new administration needing time to get to know communities better.  It ignores the task force resolution, passed this month with only the dissent of the CPS representative, that the school district is “not in compliance” with the requirements of transparency and open process mandated by the law.

The task force maintains that the new CPS guidelines for school actions are just too sweeping.  It makes any school designated by CPS as “level 3” (or probationary) for two years eligible for any of five types of school actions, leaving the field wide open for central office administrators to pick and choose as they like.  There’s no way to tell why one school has been chosen over another, or why it’s being subjected to closure rather than any other action.  That’s not transparent.

The standard also raises serious questions about CPS’s performance policy, which uses arcane and often-shifting formulas under which better-performing schools can end up on probation.  And, as the task force has noted, it raises questions as to whether CPS has met its statutory obligations to plan and assist schools on probation.

The new facilities law requires CPS to consider non-academic factors, but the new guidelines merely list factors to be considered, with no indication of what standards will be applied.  That’s not transparent.

For example, how exactly is CPS “considering” student safety – when it’s closing Crane High School and sending students to other high schools where community leaders and elected officials insist they will be in danger?

A policy of disinvestment

Task force members say CPS violated the law when it took no account of public comments on its school action guidelines, and when it issued revamped school utilization standards that ignore the law’s requirements.

They say a $660 million capital plan that shovels money to turnarounds and charters and systematically starves struggling schools (making explicit a longtime practice) violates the facilities law’s requirement of equity in the distribution of resources.  CPS is cutting off schools “if we think there’s a chance” they might be closed in five or ten years, chief operating officer Tim Cawley said.

It certainly gives the lie to CPS rhetoric about “a great school for every child.”

On top of it all, the abuses at Guggenheim Elementary, where a new principal was suddenly replaced and an acting principal brought in by CPS set about telling parents the school’s closing is a done deal and they needed to transfer – and the appearance of outsiders paid (by whom?) to support school closings — raise serious questions about the integrity of the public hearing process.

The Tribune can write that “CPS officials followed [the facilities] law.” No doubt they heard that directly from CPS.  But the official body tasked with monitoring compliance with the law doesn’t think so.  That ought to count for something – a mention, at least.

The Trib argues that since it’s impossible to close every school CPS has declared “failing” – nearly of third of its schools – the only alternative is Jean-Claude Brizard’s “smart long-term strategy” of closing schools and creating charters and turnarounds.

Of course there’s another alternative to the CPS disinvest-and-close approach, articulated recently in a Neighborhood Schools Agenda put forward by a number of community groups – groups that have quite arguably had much greater success improving schools than CPS has.  Since the vast majority of CPS students attend neighborhood schools, they argue, CPS is obligated to invest in those schools.

The constant refrain of CPS officials to critics of school closings is that “we can’t wait another year” to send students to better schools.  It’s repeated so often that it bears close examination.

It could qualify as the Big Lie of school reform.  Even accepting the premise – ignoring the fact that 15 years of mayoral control, school closings, reconstitution and turnarounds have had no significant impact on achievement, or studies that show many minority students are actually worse-served by charters – this “smart, long-term strategy” forces the vast majority of students to wait, indeed to finish out their public school educations in schools which are being intentionally neglected.

Soto’s original school facilities legislation (contrary to the impression given by the Tribune) included a one-year moratorium along with thorough reform of facilities planning.  Soto thought it would take time to realign the process so schools and communities could have a real voice.

This year’s experience clearly confirms that judgment. It seems the CPS administration ain’t ready for real school reform.  Maybe, to paraphrase another local saying, they should wait till next year.

On Whittier, the Tribune is duped Thu, 30 Jun 2011 22:24:16 +0000 The Chicago Tribune wants to hold Whittier parents to account for the costs of delaying a new library at the Pilsen elementary school.

There’s another way of looking at it.  You could also hold CPS leadership to account for commencing the project in a manner that seemed designed to foment a confrontation.

You might even ask about contracts being let before the Board of Education approved the project.

And it would be interesting to get a breakdown of the $150,000 that CPS officials claim as the cost of the construction delay – quite arguably due to their mismanagement of a delicate situation.

Gapers Block has its own questions.

One central fact is disputed.  The Tribune is incorrect in reporting that there was an agreement to build the library inside the school, Whittier Parents Committee organizers say.

As Newstips reported yesterday, they maintain that negotiations were cut off when Ron Huberman resigned as CPS chief last year, before the parents committee’s proposal could be considered.  (As the Tribune reports, they have videotapes of the meetings; they say these back them up.)

Aside from that, the Tribune employs a good bit of innuendo (and a bit of red-baiting) suggesting the Whittier parents are dupes.

There’s a dark, vague allusion to the past involvement of two activists with the Pilsen Alliance (which is actually a well-regarded organization, now mainly focused on environmental issues).  This is curious, since it fails to mention that Whittier was a community school, with Pilsen Alliance as its community partner.  Funding for the partnership came through CPS.  That meant ESL and GED classes, along with a women’s economic development project.

There’s a strange reference to a ten-room expansion the parents supposedly “wanted,” which would supposedly cost $1.5 million.  That never happened, said Alejandra Ibanez, former executive director of the Pilsen Alliance and program director at the Oak Park River Forest Community Foundation since 2010.

There was a brainstorming session with UIC architecture students where a three-classroom smaller expansion was one of many ideas, but it was never presented to CPS, she said.  It was never costed out, either, she said.

There’s an odd treatment of Ald. Danny Solis’s allocation of TIF funds for building improvements.  The Tribune says “the group appealed to Solis, who allocated $1.7 million in TIF funds.”

“That was a seven-year fight,” says Ibanez.  Solis finally agreed in 2009 – he actually allocated $1.4 million — at a time when he was getting additional heat from community outrage after CPS turned over the De La Cruz Middle School building to charter school operated by UNO, which Solis founded.  (De La Cruz students were sent to Whittier.)

None of this is in the Tribune’s account, which pretty clearly sets forth the version of events that CPS brass prefers.

Ibanez said she finds insulting the notion that the Whittier parents are being manipulated.  “There’s always been a strong core of parents,” she said. “They’ve been incredibly consistent all the way through.  They have always been the leaders there.”

It was the parents who insisted on maintaining the school’s fieldhouse, she said.

“It’s typical” of a certain mindset “to see loud brown women” and assume “they must not know any better; they must be being led astray.”

Finley Peter Dunne notwithstanding, a lot of journalism serves to comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted.  By such lights, something is just not right when people who are supposed to be powerless come together and demand to be heard.

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Fact check: Emanuel, Brizard, Pritzker Wed, 20 Apr 2011 00:01:39 +0000 UPDATED – “We will have to come together as one” to solve Chicago’s school problems, said mayor-to-be Rahm Emanuel.

Then he announced the selection of a new schools chief who got a 95 percent disapproval vote from teachers at his current post. Catalyst cites sources in Rochester who say schools chief Jean Claude Brizard talks about collaboration but operates as an autocrat.

The rhetoric continues to outpace the reality: Emanuel praised Brizard for raising the graduation rate in Rochester schools. In fact, though, the 12 percent increase claimed by Brizard occurred before he took his post, according to his predecessor.

Chicago News Cooperative reports that Rochester’s graduation rate has actually declined over four years. A Rochester reporter notes that Brizard seems to confuse graduation rates with absolute numbers – not a good sign in a top executive, whether he’s spinning or not. (PURE points out the Tribune seems to have the same problem.)

On Emanuel’s part, his false claim continues a reign of error, with repeated misstatements regarding performance and graduation rates at charter schools.

Brizard is a product of the Broad Foundation’s superintendent training program, which has recently placed trainees at the top of schools systems in Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Denver.  (Eli Broad donated $25,000 to Emanuel’s campaign, Ramsin Canon points out.) Broad trainees have also been run out of several towns, according to a new guide from Parents Across America:

“A hallmark of the Broad-style leadership is closing existing schools rather than attempting to improve them, increasing class size, opening charter schools, imposing high-stakes test-based accountability systems on teachers and students, and implementing of pay-for-performance schemes. The brusque and often punitive management style of Broad-trained leaders has frequently alienated parents and teachers and sparked protests.”

[Eric Zorn offers corroboration from several Rochester parents, who say Brizard “lacks people skills,” “didn’t listen to parents and doesn’t like being challenged,” is “arrogant and autocratic.”]

“Parents Across America considers Broad’s influence to be inherently undemocratic, as it disenfranchises parents and other stakeholders in an effort to privatize our public schools and imposes corporate-style policies without our consent.”

Broad has published a guide to closing schools; Brizard closed half the city’s high schools without consulting communities. Broad came up with the idea of the “parent trigger,” which Emanuel has praised.  Its philosophy of management is to “invest in disruption,” to promote instability in a system in order to generate “innovation.”

Exciting times ahead.

Brizard clashed not only with teachers and parents but with Rochester’s board of education, which unfortunately for him was elected by Rochester voters. He won’t have that problem in Chicago.

Perhaps Emanuel’s most noteworthy appointment to the board of education is Penny Pritzker, scion of the Hyatt hotel family that’s currently under pressure from religious and community leaders for mistreating its workers.

It’s worth recalling Pritzker’s recent notoriety as a subprime lender, which was probably a factor in her withdrawal from consideration as President Obama’s commerce secretary, after chairing his campaign’s finance committee. After the Pritzkers took over Superior Bank, she headed the board as they plunged into the subprime mortgage market, which eventually swamped the bank.  And under her lead, the bank played signal role in developing the mortage-backed securitization instruments which eventually swamped the nation’s economy.

These securities were call “innovations” at the time.

David Moberg’s 2002 piece has the best overview of Superior’s collapse, which he says was “tainted with all the hallmarks of a mini-Enron scandal.” Accounting tricks were used to turn growing losses into steady profits, allowing dividends to continue to flow to the banks owners.  Maybe Pritzker can help “fix” the CPS budget.

When she was getting bad press a couple years ago, her lawyer said the bank did subprime lending but not the “predatory” kind. According to Moberg, the National Community Reinvestment Coalition accused the bank of “engaging in a variety of predatory practices.”

It’s particularly worth recalling because, as the Tribune recently reported (thanks to PURE for the link), Penny Pritzker is now founding a private equity firm that will focus on buying distressed property.

It’s nice to have money.

In other management feats, Pritzker chaired the Olympic Village subcommittee in the city’s ill-fated bid for the 2016 games.  She bears some responsibility for the $100 million debt incurred in that disaster, which Emanuel is going to have to start paying off in a couple of years.

Pritzker is a major backer of Stand For Children, which pushed union-busting legislation in Springfield. While serving on Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board, she split from the president by opposing card-check labor reform he backed. Add Hyatt to the mix and her anti-union record is complete.

It’s highly unlikely that these people will “bring us together as one.”

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Media metrics at the Tribune Thu, 31 Jul 2008 17:03:09 +0000 The new owners of the Chicago Tribune have revived a media analysis tool pioneered by the paper (and satirized by A.J. Liebling, as noted here) 60 years ago — counting pages and column inches to measure efficiency.

But there’s a more traditional metric that they are violating, as Alan D. Mutter recently pointed out on his blog Reflections of a Newsosaur.  “The unwritten but widely honored rule of thumb in the industry has always been that a newspaper should employ one journalist for every 1,000 in daily circulation.”

The Trib’s layoff of 80 journalists — reducing the staff by 25 percent below 2005 levels — will drop the ratio to 0.88 per thousand.

Eric Alterman takes note of this at the Nation, where he writes of Sam Zell:

“Leaving aside his penchant for potty-mouth rejoinders for those who question his judgment, Zell has done nothing to slow the slide in the company’s fortunes and much to accelerate it.

“Scrambling like mad for cash to service the company’s debt, Zell sold off the profitable Newsday and borrowed $300 million against future earnings, a clear sign of panic.

“To advise him on long-term strategy, he has appointed as ‘chief innovation officer’ Lee Abrams, a man who was apparently surprised to learn that reports datelined ‘Baghdad’ are actually produced by reporters in Baghdad. His suggestion: ‘photos of the reporter with Iraqi kids’ to advertise this fact.”

Mutter has since posted about the Tribune owners’  desperate, costly and “self-defeating” “pay-day loan,” borrowing against future ad revenues; and earlier this summer he wrote a devastating post about Sam Zell’s lack of a plan to revive the Tribune (in sharp contrast to Rupert Murdoch at the Wall Street Journal):

“Mr. Zell has failed to articulate, let alone implement, anything approaching a strategy for growing the company he loaded with debt at the time its primary business, newspaper publishing, has been deteriorating at an unprecedented, incalculable and so far intractable pace. Diversified as Tribune may be in broadcasting and a likely-to-be-sold baseball team, nearly three-quarters of its sales are produced by its newspapers.

“Far from leading and inspiring the employees he maneuvered into a co-ownership plan they neither wanted, approved nor can control, Mr. Zell has spent the last six months haranguing, insulting and terrifying the very people whose support he needs to salvage this troubled deal.

“The absence of an effective strategy at Tribune became manifest last week when Mr. Zell announced that, for want of better ideas, he intends to make sweeping cuts in staffing, pages and news coverage that are bound to further erode the already-tottering franchises of some of the most esteemed newspapers in the country….

“[T]hese initiatives are likely to be perversely counterproductive, because they will undercut the very reason that people buy newspapers and that advertisers advertise in them: the content.

“You can fool some of the people some of the time by slipping an ad on page one, running more wire stories, skinnying down the op-ed section or carrying recruitment ads only two days a week, but wholesale cost cutting…will diminish Tribune’s newspapers to the point that discerning readers (and most of the remaining customers indeed are discerning readers) will begin to ask themselves if the paper is worth buying.

“In a growing number of cases, the answer may be ‘no,’ potentially triggering a spiral of declining readership, falling revenues and deteriorating profits.

“While this self-defeating strategy would seem to make no sense, it appears to be the only alternative available at this point to prevent the Tribune Co. from breaching the terms of its looming debt obligations. The longer Tribune can scrape up enough cash to remain current with its creditors, the more time the company will have to grope, albeit belatedly, for a way to turn around the struggling newspapers that generated 72 percent of the company’s $5 billion in annual revenues in 2007.

“The problem is that no business can remain successful over the long term if the only way it addresses declining sales is by cutting costs. You not only begin to degrade the product but eventually run out of things to cut. Businesses must grow sales and profits to build value. If they go the other way for a sustained period, they will falter and potentially fail.

“Desperate measures would not be required today if more diligence, discipline and foresight had been brought to bear when Mr. Zell was contemplating the Tribune purchase, a process that commenced more than a year ago.

“Nothing has happened in the interim to blindside Mr. Zell. Apart from the precise velocity that advertising sales were to plunge this year, all the problems of the newspaper industry were known well before Sam inked the deal in December that saddled Tribune with a staggering $12.6 billion in debt.

“Tribune’s debt requires the company to dedicate some $1 billion of its annual operating profits to interest payments. In the 12 months ended March 30, those profits, which have been shrinking as costs rose and sales declined, amounted to $1.3 billion, leaving scant margin for backsliding at a time of double-digit drops in newspaper revenues.

“While it is unimaginable that Mr. Zell did not have a detailed and well-conceived plan to build the business when he bought it, it is even more amazing that the institutional lenders who funded this risky and highly leveraged transaction did not insist on seeing one.

“In retrospect, it seems obvious that Sam did not buy Tribune because he had a brilliant vision or burning desire to transform this tradition-bound media company into an innovative, next-generation publishing power. Rather, he seems to have been attracted by the low price for an asset no one else wanted, as well as the handsome tax advantages that the employee-ownership plan delivers to him.

“Caught flat-footed, Sam Zell and his cohorts now appear to be managing Tribune Co. by simply making things up as they go along. But they are playing with live ammo.

“They are responsible for more than $12 billion in debt, the livelihoods of some 19,000 employees and major media outlets serving tens of millions of residents in some of the biggest cities in the land. If the Zellsters don’t get this right, those constituencies will pay a staggering price.”

This was before the Trib announced plans to update the paper’s format.  But hopes for that can’t be great with Clear Channel’s Randy Michaels — who doesn’t know what bylines mean — in charge of innovation.

In his most recent post, Mutter points out that even with sharp declines in ad sales and profit margins, six major publicly-held newspapers had a profit margin over 18 percent, and well ahead of companies like Boeing (11 percent), Wal-Mart (7.7 percent) and Amazon (6 percent).

“If publishers, their shareholders and lenders were wiling to accept significantly lower levels of profitability in the future, then further cuts would not be necessary in staff, newshole, circulation and certain other variable expenses. If this were not the case, which it likely will not be, then more cuts would seem to be on the way.”

But the Trib’s massive debt trumps such considerations.

Mutter started out in the business at the Chicago Daily News (later he was city editor of the Sun-Times) — and his 2005 post on the death of that paper is not to be missed.

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