Illinois’ teacher shortage and pension theft.


In spite of the teacher-shortage-deniers, some Illinois school districts are having some serious staffing problems.

Lawmakers request the State Board of Education turns in its research to help address the shortage in just a few months. A group of Senators sent a letter, hopefully to speed up the process.

Members of the Senate Education Committee are asking for ISBE to give the crisis more attention. They would like them to hand over their report of findings and recommendations by March 1.

Initially, ISBE said it could take up to a year to turn the reports in. The findings will include information about pay disparities, what went wrong to create the crisis and how to get more qualified teachers into the classroom.

Lawmakers say, with more than 2,000 teacher vacancies in the state, they can’t wait much longer.

A few days ago there was this in the Peoria Journal Star:

According to a 2015-16 school year survey by the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools, 75 percent of districts surveyed had fewer qualified candidates than in previous years, especially in rural districts and those in central and northwest Illinois.

Furthermore, 16 percent of schools canceled programs or classes because of the lack of teachers — mostly special education, language arts, math and science classes.

According to the Illinois State Board of Education, there are currently 2,013 unfilled positions in the state. The total includes teachers, administrative staff and school support staff.

I could write a dozen or more posts on the reasons for the state’s teacher shortage.

Actually, I have written them.

State Senators like Andy Manar are calling for easing the licensing procedures, but remains silent on Illinois’ use of edTPA, an expensive and educationally unsound pre-teaching scam run as a profit center for Pearson.

Compared to when I first started teaching, evaluation procedures have been developed, with support from the state’s teacher unions, that are demoralizing and de-professionalizing. 

The teacher shortage crisis is not helped by the continuing threats to pensions for incoming teachers.

A recent report shows Illinois is facing a teacher shortage. But changes to teachers’ pensions — including cutbacks on the state’s share of contributions — spells uncertainty for anyone going into the profession.

When the Illinois General Assembly approved a budget last summer, they also agreed to cut back on about $500 million to the state’s pension system. This might sound like a good idea if the money is allocated to pay for other needs in the immediate future. For teachers, however, it means the state might not be able to cover their pensions.

Richard Ingram, executive director for the Teachers’ Retirement System, says these pension changes will only exacerbate the state’s teacher shortage.  “Kids that are coming out of school today, that want to be teachers… are getting the message that hey–if you go and teach in Illinois, you can forget about the certainty of a future pension and you’re going to overpay for it,” he says.

Teachers contribute nine percent of their salary to their funds– but only seven percent is used. The additional two percent is “subsidized” to cover some of what goes into Tier 1,  Ingram says. This is money Tier 2 members will never see.

The teachers’ retirement system is the largest of Illinois’ five pension system. Together they totaled close to $130 billion in unfunded liabilities.



Union talk. Tops and bottoms.

During all the years I was a member of the National Education Association I had what might be called a somewhat mixed relationship with both the state and local leadership of the union.

It must have been confusing for all involved.

Former Illinois Education Association president Bob Haisman frequently declared that I was anti-union because I often was critical of the those at the top.

On the other hand my right-wing trolls are convinced I am a Clinton/Sanders/collectivist/unionist/bolshevik/Stalinist.

They all are wrong.

Life is more nuanced than either of those conclusions.

Like unions of all types, whether representing private sector or public sector workers, the lives of the leadership is very different from that of the rank-and-file membership. Can a union president who makes hundreds of thousands of dollars recall the urgency and the day-to-day life of an urban public school teacher who struggles each day with no support. Or that of a down state teacher in a classroom who may top off at $50,000 a year after 30 years on the job?

This is true even for those leaders who started as teachers, began on the shop floor or on the assembly line years ago.

I was both a loyal supporter of my union, a cheer leader for leadership when they fought for the rank-and-file, but also critic when their distance from the classroom and the school house made it too easy for them to concede too much.

A yearly delegate to the state’s union convention, I was frequently seen as a thorn in the side of the leadership.

As an elected delegate from my local I would rise to ask questions that the leadership often treated with scorn.

One year I rose to challenge the union’s executive director for our support for a new state teacher evaluation system, one which she played a role in writing.

Ken Swanson, the IEA President at the time, simply would not call on me. He claimed he did not see me at the mic. That night I went home, stopping at Target first, to buy the brightest orange sweater I could find.

I refused to be invisible.

Yet there were other times.

On two occasions when I attended the national conventions of the NEA I made it a point to work with the leadership to advance specific proposals and find common ground. In 2012 they supported my motion of support for the Chicago Teachers Union, an affiliate of the other national teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers.

Another year they backed me when I challenged the national union to oppose public displays of the Confederacy. This was in 2015 after the murders of nine members of the AME church in Charleston.

Following the longest debate in NEA Representative Association history my motion was watered down and finally passed. But my state leadership was steadfast in their support  of my (and then our) propsal, and allowed me to be the spokesman for the motion on their behalf.

I write frequently about the problems at the top of our teacher union. Navigating the problems requires careful thought and good tactics.

Two things I’ve learned;

While speaking out means sometimes speaking out alone, we never win anything without winning over the members.

That takes patience.

Another lesson is that there is nothing wrong with our unions that the current attack on them by the corporations and the government will fix.

The current Janus case now before the U.S. Supreme Court, which is aimed at taking away agency fees and therefore union representation, is a prime example.

On this issue, there is no top or bottom within our unions.

On the other hand, if the Court rules against us, how the leadership of the unions respond might very well cause a lively conversation.




Sunday week in review.

This week’s drawings.


BERRIOSmedia elitesBROOKSBelieve women


This week’s Hitting Left with the Klonsky Brothers podcast.

With Fritz Kaegi, candidate for Cook County Tax Assessor.


This week’s tweets.






The week’s blog posts.

I’m voting against Joe Berrios, but I don’t know why I should have to.

Maria and the Hawk.

Union talk. The contract is the starting point. We do collective bargaining every day.

Union talk. Protecting and defending the good teachers.

Keeping up with Park Ridge schools. Parents leery of cops in charge of school discipline.

Keeping retirement weird. Our Miss Brooks.

Keeping retirement weird. Our Miss Brooks.


They are honoring a Chicago Treasure this weekend at the Harold Washington Library.

This is the centennial year of the birth of the great Chicago poet, Gwendolyn Brooks.

In the sweet cherrywood auditorium of the Chicago downtown library that seats about 300 a packed house watched a performance of “No Blue Memories: The Life of Gwendolyn Brooks.” The show was produced by Manual Cinema, a Chicago-based company known for theater works combining live action and projections involving shadow puppets,

“No Blue Memories” was written by Eve Ewing and Nate Marshall from a commission by the Poetry Foundation.

Eve is an old/young family friend and has been a guest on our Hitting Left show. You will remember Nate from the documentary film, Louder than a Bomb, a story of Chicago’s young poets and famed poetry slam.

I loved this show. The combination of music, words, shadow puppets and live actors was an artistic revelation.

Gwendolyn Brooks was America’s first African American poet to win the Pulitzer prize.

She died in 2000.

I have three very personal memories of Ms Brooks.

One was when she was asked to read a poem for the inauguration of Chicago’s social justice mayor, Harold Washington.

Screen Shot 2017-11-18 at 8.35.32 AM
Gwendolyn Brooks at Harold’s inauguration. Harold on the left. Studs Terkel on the right.

Gwendolyn Brook’s poem for Harold.

Mayor. Worldman. Historyman. 
Beyond steps that occur and close, 
your steps are echo-makers.

You can never be forgotten.

We begin our health. 
We enter the Age of Alliance. 
This is our senior adventure.

My second personal memory of Gwendolyn Brooks involves my daughter, Jessica.

Acting as Chicago’s Poet Laureate along with her dedication to teaching poetry to young people, Brooks gave an annual award to several young Chicago Public School poets. In 1985 my 13-year old daughter Jessica wrote a poem that was selected by Ms Brooks and published in the Chicago Tribune.

Gwendolyn Brooks and Jessica (right) in 1985.

I can’t remember the exact year. My next encounter with Gwendolyn Brooks was sometime in the early 90s. I was on a District Committee planning for our opening day’s professional development program.

I suggested Gwendolyn Brooks as a guest speaker and if she agreed I also offered to drive to her Hyde Park apartment and bring her to Park Ridge.

I was the city guy on the committee who actually knew how to get to Hyde Park.

It all worked out and I found myself spending two hours, an hour each way, in personal conversation with the the great poet.

The only part of the conversation I can now recall is how happy she was that she no longer had her work published by a white-owned mainstream publisher. She had given over all publication rights to Haki Madhabutti’s Third World Press with the hopes of encouraging Black-owned publishing and as an outlet for African American writers.

We never again had a PD day as good as that one.

Hitting Left with the Klonsky Brothers episode #41. Oil spills, memories of Harold and Fritz Kaegi running for tax man.

We could have done the show at Bridgeport Coffee this morning because no sooner had my brother and I arrived then in walked our guest, Fritz Kaegi.

So we spent the next hour talking about his experiences as a student and researcher in Russia back in the 90s and baseball and other assorted topics we never have time to talk about on the show.

The current Cook County Tax Assessor is Democratic Party Machine boss Joe Berrios. He will spend a million bucks on this campaign.

Imagine. A million bucks running for Tax Assessor.

That’s a lot of favors for contributors. It is one of the things that is wrong with a system like we have in Cook County where we have so many executive positions that are elected and controlled by The Machine.

Fritz thinks this is a good thing because it allows a reform challenge. He asks, “What if the Mayor appointed everybody?”

Good question.

I’m not sure. Elections for what are essentially bureaucratic offices like tax collector, recorder of deeds and the water district are a decades-old creation of a Machine that uses those positions for raising campaign cash, offering patronage jobs and puts Black and Brown faces in a few City and County executive offices without having to deliver anything to Black and Brown neighborhoods.

Still, Berrios holds that office and Kaegi wants to take him on with the hope that voters are sick and tired of the corruption and nepotism that characterize the Assessor’s office now.

It was a lively conversation and you can here it here and on iTunes.



Keeping up with Park Ridge schools. Parents leery of cops in charge of school discipline.

BOE 2017-19 5-2-17
The Park Ridge guys in charge: From Left: (seated) Secretary Tom Sotos; President Anthony Borrelli; Vice President Rick Biagi; member Eastman Tiu; (standing) members Fred Sanchez, Larry Ryles and Mark Eggemann

Back in my old school district, Park Ridge District 64, parents are concerned about having cops stationed at the two middle schools.

I would be worried too if one of my children has special needs or one with a disability.

Park Ridge is a predominantly white Chicago suburb.

The local district is made up of five K-5 elementary buildings and two middle schools.

Earlier this year the local board brought up the idea of placing local cops at the two middle schools.

There is no solution if there is no problem.

Some parents had bigger concerns.

Parent Ginger Pennington, speaking at Monday’s school board meeting, said there was no data to indicate that officers were needed to address a crime or violence problem in the district’s schools, since only 3 percent of in-school suspensions were related to a violent incident or drugs.

“My concern is that these officers won’t have the proper training,” Pennington said.

Pennington said she was also concerned about whether the officers would be allowed to interview students without a parent present.

“We need more transparency,” Pennington said.

Board President Anthony Borrelli told Pennington that it was “unfair” to have this discussion until the policy has been completed and ready for consideration.

“Your comments have to be placed in context,” Borrelli said. “We are far, far away from passing this.”

The board voted unanimously in August to approve what board members called a pilot program to assign officers to Lincoln and Emerson middle schools. The officers would work to improve relationships between the police departments and middle school students and gather information about issues facing each schools, District 64 Superintendent Laurie Heinz said in August.

The policy could be approved by the District 64 board as soon as Jan. 22, Heinz said.

Pennington told the board that although 14.5 percent of District 64’s student population is made up of disabled students, those students account for about 67 percent of in-school suspensions and 85 percent of out-of-school suspensions, citing 2013-2014 school year data provided by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights.

“We don’t want to see a special-needs student dragged out of school in handcuffs,” Pennington said, adding that officers should be trained in de-escalation and conflict resolution.

Union talk. Protecting and defending the good teachers.

As the weather turns colder my social life picks up a bit.

Dinner with friends. Thanksgiving. Holiday open houses.

When I first started teaching and I would find myself sitting at a dinner next to somebody I didn’t know, we would exchange the usual small talk questions.

One being the inevitable, “So, what do you do?”

When I responded with, “I’m a K-5 Art teacher,” their eyes would open wide and and with a smile they would say, “That must be so much fun.”

I would laugh and say, “Most days.”

And I wasn’t lying.

As the years passed my answer would draw a different response. Complete strangers would narrow their eyes and pepper me with questions about seniority, tenure, pensions and unions.

“Why can’t they fire the bad ones?”

“I just told you I teach little kids art and you want to talk about tenure? Seniority is what you find interesting about what I do?” I would think to myself.

Okay. Maybe sometimes I would say it out loud.

But I understood. Over the course of my career teachers have been turned into scapegoats by political opportunists of all stripes and by both political parties. Urban schools in particular were declared failing and the teachers were the reason. Teaching was among the few careers open to professionals of color and women, easy targets for racism and gender bias. And teaching became viewed as a technocratic exercise. No longer was it understood as a complex combination of science, artistry, subject matter knowledge along with a concern for the well-being of children.

As private sector unions represented a smaller and smaller percentage of the population, public sector unions – like teacher unions – became the last ones standing.

It was all a perfect storm.

“Let me ask you this,” I would say to my dining companion. “New Trier teachers have a union, tenure, seniority and a pension. Just like teachers on the west side.”

New Trier is a public high school on the wealthy north shore of Chicago.

“So, acknowledging those common factors in predicting student performance, the primary difference is poverty.”

There are plenty of studies that show that states with teacher unions have students who perform better on the concrete things that can be easily counted, such as test scores.

Then there are studies that show no consistent correlation between teachers that have collective bargaining and states with right to work laws.

But with a mixed bag of research data, my experience is that teachers having a voice in classroom practice means better outcomes.

You can argue the other side if you want.

“But unions protect bad teachers,” my dinner companion will say. “You have to admit that schools can’t fire a teacher.”

As a union grievance chair and union president for a very long time I am forced to disagree.

“Our collective bargaining agreement is a user manual for getting rid of bad teachers,” I would explain.

Although I have never thought firing somebody is the a one-size-fits-all solution for employees in any field who may be struggling.

More importantly, our collective bargaining agreement gave me a weapon to protect the very good teachers. The idiosyncratic ones. The older, experienced ones who have earned a higher paycheck. The teachers of color. Trans and Gay. Those with disabilities.

And I can testify that more often than not, those were the teachers I found myself sitting across the table and defending.

Sure. There are laws that protect many of those teachers who fit into these and other categories. But the law is never enough. 

What concerns me most these days is how well our teacher unions are willing to stand up and fight to preserve this important role.

And how quickly they seem to be willing to concede ground on what it took years to win.

Because it seems we are all on the defensive these days.

More about all this in coming blog posts.