Fighting Rahm Emanuel’s Privatization of Chicago’s Schools – RAI with LaRaviere (3/4)

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On Reality Asserts Itself with Paul Jay, the president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, Troy LaRaviere, says there’s no evidence that giving corporations tax breaks or putting schools in competition with each other makes for better education; in fact, the evidence says the opposite

Story Transcript

Paul Jay: Welcome back to Reality Asserts Itself on the Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay and we’re joined again in the studio with Troy LaRaviere. He’s the President of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association. He was removed from his job as principal at Blaine Elementary School for speaking out against Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s policy with Chicago Public Schools. He’s now exploring a run for mayor himself. Thanks for joining us again.

Troy LaRaviere: Yes Sir.

Paul Jay: So, we’ve been talking about your history, Chicago schools, let’s kind of go a little bigger picture in terms of schools. How would you characterize Rahm Emanuel’s overall strategy for schools in Chicago, and what would you do differently?

Troy LaRaviere: So, I have an understanding now that I did not have when Emanuel first ran. When he ran for office the first time, I would have voted for him. He seemed like just as appealing option as anyone else. I had no idea what was in store for us. I remember him getting a lot of money from banks. I remember them talking about the California, Hollywood connections and I thought, “Wow. Those people must really love and trust that man to be giving him so much money.”

Paul Jay: Rahm Emanuel is pretty identified with Barack Obama who is from more or less from Chicago-

Troy LaRaviere: But what I did not realize is that the money that the bankers and the investors were pouring into his campaign, that was not a donation. It was an investment, and that they expected a return on their investment, and that’s what Chicago Public Schools is, to get back to your question, to this mayor. It is a return on the investment of the people who donated to that campaign. They expect something in return.

Paul Jay: What are they getting?

Troy LaRaviere: And so, for example, I think I mentioned in one of the previous segments, SodexoMAGIC, a custodial management company, Aramark, another custodial management company, got a multi-million dollar, hundreds of millions of CPS dollars to manage custodial operations. The principals have said by far, it is these schools that are in the worst condition that they’ve ever been in, but he gave them hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts-

Paul Jay: Now, it used to be directly through the public sector?

Troy LaRaviere: Exactly-

Paul Jay: So this is part of the whole privatization strategy?

Troy LaRaviere: Right. They’re getting hundreds of millions of dollars and then right after he gave SodexoMAGIC a contract, one of their top investors turned around and gave him $250,000 in campaign contributions. He takes out his whole strategy for running the city and the school system is to borrow at extremely high. The rates are so high, the common term for them in Chicago is now payday loans, that he takes out payday loans to run the city and run the school system. Well, who pays those payday loans back? Who pays the interest on that? We are, the taxpayers are gonna pay the interest on that.

Paul Jay: I’m assuming the argument is he can’t get cheaper money?

Troy LaRaviere: He can generate revenue. He can generate when he came in. We had something called a Corporate Head Tax in Chicago, where businesses, in order to tax them fairly, they needed a way to figure out how to tax them based on their size, and you can’t go with profit margins because you can play with that. One of the things you can’t play with is the number of employees that you have. So the Head Tax was a per-employee tax that enabled the city to tax a corporation based on how large it was. One of Emanuel’s first acts, when he came in, was to get rid of that tax, and then raise our property taxes. So, instead of generating revenue, he took away revenue. Am I making sense here? There’s also a LaSalle Street-

Paul Jay: By getting rid of the Corporate Head Tax?

Troy LaRaviere: Right, by getting rid of the Corporate Head Tax.

Paul Jay: They gained revenue through increase property taxes?

Troy LaRaviere: But he did not do that immediately, right? What he did was he got rid of the Corporate Head Tax, and then begin to borrow, and borrow, and borrow, and borrow, and waited until after he was re-elected to then raise property taxes. If he had raised them before, when the revenue was needed, he would not have had to borrow as much, and we would not be stuck paying the bill for all he borrowed. So it was a very cowardly move in that he did not want to face the public and say we need to generate revenue before the election, and so, he put himself in a position to have to raise property taxes more than he would have otherwise had to do, because he had generated all of these interest payments that would not have been necessary if the property taxes would have been raised beforehand.

He would not have had to raise them as much, and so, he sacrificed our future income as a political strategy for not having to accept the responsibility for raising taxes until after an election. Everyone knew they had to be raised. He just wasn’t willing to do it until he was safely in office again for another four years. As a result of that, we have three years of additional interest payments on the loans he took out.

Paul Jay: The argument Emanuel gives and others is that the schools and a lot many major American cities, the inner city schools, were, quote un-quote, “failing”. Test scores were terrible, kids weren’t learning to read and write. I think the number, the last time I saw this, Americans, over 30% are functionally illiterate, and that this privatization was needed to break up the inertia of the schools and all that. So, what do you think of that argument?

Troy LaRaviere: So, it’s a completely false argument. A 2007 study revealed, and another study that just backed it up, it was replicated, that Chicago Public Schools do better than any other school district in the state with the same kids. What that means is that if you are a poor child, there is nowhere in the state of Illinois that you learn more than in a Chicago Public School. If you are a middle-class child, there is nowhere in the state of Illinois that you learn more than in a Chicago Public School. If you are an upper-class child from a high-income background, you are on average perform higher than upper-class children in any other school district in the state. So, what Chicago Public Schools does, and its teachers do, is teach and help kids to grow better than any other school district. The way they’re able to pin this failing schools argument on us is because we have more of those low-income kids than the average school district.

The average performance of a child who is low-income is pretty low compared to the others. In Chicago Public Schools, our low-income kids do better than any other place, but we have so many of them that our average is lower than those other places. Am I making sense here? So, the question is, I used to be an assistant principal at, I told you in the previous segment, a high-poverty school, Johnson on the West side of North Lawndale. After being an Assistant Principal at Johnson, I went on to become a principal at one of the most affluent schools in the district, Blaine, in the Lakeview Community, one of the richest in the city.

Now, when my kids came to Blaine, they were two years ahead on average in kindergarten than the kids at Johnson. So the kids at Johnson are starting school on day one of kindergarten.

Paul Jay: Alright.

Troy LaRaviere: A year behind. Let me make the point, that how can Johnson be a failing school if the kids start behind on day one? They have been failed long before they ever reached the school system. They’ve been failed by their alderman, their city councilman, failed by their state rep, failed by their state senator, failed by their mayor, failed by their congressman, failed by the business community that didn’t create the kind of job their parents would have needed to have the kind of income to expose them to things that stimulate their cognitive development, the way those kids in Lakeview got theirs stimulated.

So there is a complete failure to get these kids what they need from birth to the day they enter school, right? Somebody has to be held accountable for that failure. It is my belief that we should test kids on day one of kindergarten. Based on the score they get, based on how far ahead or behind they are, that we give a grade but not to the school, we give a grade to that state rep, we give a grade to that state senator, we give a grade to the mayor of the city that allows these kids to show up so far behind. We give a grade to the alderman, or the city councilman, we give a grade to the business community and the Chamber of Commerce for producing the situation that leads to these kids showing up two years behind the kids in another community. Am I making sense here?

Paul Jay: Yeah.

Troy LaRaviere: So the failing schools argument is false on so many levels. I talked about how it’s false on the level of CPS does better, Chicago Public Schools does better, than any other district in the state, when you look at similar kinds of students. I talked about the fact that kids show up on day one behind and so they have been failed on day one by the people who are responsible for that failure, are not held accountable. Even if you say the parents are responsible for their failure, what do we as a city and a community do for those parents to make sure that those kids get what they need no matter what household they’re born into. It still falls back on us.

Paul Jay: Okay, so let’s say, when’s the next election?

Troy LaRaviere: It is 2019.

Paul Jay: 2019. Let’s say you’re mayor. What do you do?

Troy LaRaviere: You invest. Right? You do two things. You invest in communities and you do so based on what the research says works. You don’t invest based on ideology, like this current administration has an ideology-based approach. It is this neoliberal, the corporate sector is going to take care of everything, we give them tax breaks somehow it’s going to trickle down to the poor. We put schools in competition with one another and that’s gonna–With all of these things have absolutely no evidence base whatsoever to support them. In fact, the evidence says the opposite. So, when I became a principal for example, it’s a perfect example, I don’t [know] every aspect of running this school. I’m not an expert in every aspect. I know teacher professional development, I can do that. I didn’t know special ed. I didn’t know a lot of the social, emotional stuff. I didn’t know a lot about budgeting, but I got good people in who do know, and we looked at what the evidence says works in each one of those areas.

Blaine, I mentioned, we took achievement from 79% to 89%. We went from the number four school, a neighborhood school in the district, to the number one neighborhood school in the district. I wish I could say I came in and did all this innovative stuff, and that’s why, we were so innovative, but that’s not what happened. What happened is we did what the research says worked. That’s what we did. The evidence of what works in education is out there, we just had to have the political courage to actually do it. It’s the same in any aspect of city government. You find out what works, number one, and you commit to do it. Number two, you invest. Every time you have a goal, you have to invest something in reaching that goal, or invest something in the strategy that you have toward reaching that goal.

So it’s evidence-based, research-based practice in whatever field of endeavor you have and then there’s investing in every community. Go ahead.

Paul Jay: I would think one of the things one would want to invest in is pre-K. If kids are not showing up at the same levels in kindergarten, we know they’re not, and we know given class background and different opportunities, even pre-K isn’t gonna solve it, but I would think it would go a long way towards it. Whether it’s mandatory or at least available pre-k for every kid, better, as you said, ratio between students and licensed professionals of the schools, then it comes down to a battle over money.

Troy LaRaviere: That’s right. What are these kids worth? That’s what it comes down to battle.

Paul Jay: Yeah. So how do you wage that battle? As Mayor, what are you gonna do?

Troy LaRaviere: So, I think you have to convince people, one, you have to turn around the narrative about these failing schools, right? In the end you have to convince the public, the residents of Chicago, that the school system, of what the school system can do. There’s been a narrative put out there about what it can’t do, and the narrative is completely false. If you want people to invest in something, people don’t invest in what they don’t believe in, right? If you don’t invest, you don’t believe. You invest in the things you believe in, and so the new administration has to begin to create a different narrative, has to begin to cite the kind of things that I just cited, but do so repeatedly and relentlessly, that our school system is the best school system in the state, when it comes to helping students of particular backgrounds grow intellectually and academically when compared to the same students of other backgrounds.

You have to repeat that talking point relentlessly. When Rahm Emanuel came into office, for example, he wanted to lengthen the school day, and he had a talking point that went along with it, right? About negative performance, everybody in Chicago knows this talking point, Chicago has the shortest school day in the country. It’s not even true, but it got repeated so often that he was able to convince the public to buy into the lengthening of the school day. So, it’s a good strategy toward a goal that was questionable. The strategy of convincing the public that something is doable, that it is possible, and that it will generate good results for our system, has to be done. We have to do it in relationship to strategies that have actually been proven to work, and not ideologically based strategies that are not going to make any difference whatsoever.

Paul Jay: As you said earlier, Rahm Emanuel’s policies are very linked to privatization and they are very linked to people who make campaign contributions, wanting something as return on their investment as you said, so to increase revenues and move away from that privatization, I’m assuming you’re advocating, that’s a war, that’s a big battle.

Troy LaRaviere: Right. So the public opinion war.

Paul Jay: It’s a public opinion war, but it’s also a policy war. What kind of policies would you advocate for raising revenue?

Troy LaRaviere: So, I just mentioned the Corporate Head Tax is one possibility.

Paul Jay: How much did that raise?

Troy LaRaviere: If I remember correctly, it was about $60 million, but it all depends on what you set it at, what’s the per-head tax. It’s not the only one. Particularly, I’m more interested in policies that make things fair. So, for example, a study just came out about the Chicago Tribune, that showed that the Cook County property tax system, and Chicago is part of Cook County, it’s heavily weighted in favor of those who are wealthy, and that the poor, and that the working class of Chicago pay and ignoring it, an unbalanced proportion of their income toward property taxes. The system is weighted against them. So I think any new revenue has to take that into account and balance that picture out so that those who are more capable pay their fair share. So, there are plenty of ideas. There’s the LaSalle Street tax, LaSalle Street is a street in Chicago where a lot of the exchanges and the commercial industries are located. So, the LaSalle Street tax, which is a tax on financial transaction, is one possibility.

I believe in Seattle, I just heard about generating revenue through an income tax, but that’s only leveled on folks who have above $250,000 or $500,000, I can’t remember what the number is-

Paul Jay: They’re doing something similar in San Francisco with the transfer tax on more expensive houses.

Troy LaRaviere: I’m not pushing any of these taxes in particular, but each one of them is an example of the kind of creative thinking we can do to generate revenue that is needed so that we can invest in every community and insure the people in those communities, and the communities themselves, get to have the investments they need to realize their potential, right? Those kids in North Lawndale, who end up shooting each other, those kids who show up to school a year behind, when they were born, they weren’t a year behind. When they were born, those kids in North Lawndale, and those kids in Lakeview were on a level playing field.

The capacity of these kids to learn was no different than the capacity, now there may be some individuals within these groups had differences, and individuals between the groups were difference, but when you look at the collective capacity of those children, it’s the same, but they grow up in a city that invests far less in this group of kids than they do in this group of kids. As a result they don’t get to realize their potential, they’re robbed, their communities are robbed as a result, and Chicago is robbed as a result. We have to convince a critical mass of the residents and those in the business community, that investing in these kids, just as much as these kids, is good for us all. So, that’s part of that war you talked about. Right? I think the war in winnable.

Paul Jay: Okay. In the next segment of the interview, we’re gonna talk about the fight inside the Democratic Party, because the fight in Chicago to change the school policy and other issues of defacing the city, in terms of social justice and equality, is a fight against a Democratic Party machine that runs the city. So join us for the next segment on Reality Asserts Itself with Troy LaRaviere on the Real News Network.