The Rev Jessie Jackson and Karen Lewis, president of CTU Local 1, at the Chicago schools protest

Certainly yesterday’s protest by the American Federation of Teachers’ notoriously bellicose Chicago local, the Chicago Teachers Union, and old-school civil rights leaders against the Second City’s closing of 53 schools was at least interesting as a show. There was Chicago AFT president Karen Lewis, indulging in class warfare rhetoric and playing upon her image as a faux progressive, proclaiming that it was time for the city to “rise up” against Second City Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who she called “an unjust leader”. Joining her in the political pantomime was  Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., caricaturing himself (and earning the $50,000 the Chicago AFT’s national parent gave to his Rainbow/PUSH Coalition), while declaring that the city should “Build schools, not jails.” There was also the signs proclaiming strong schools and strong communities (as if many of the schools being closed were doing much for the neighborhoods in which they were located). The only thing missing from the spectacle was the presence of national AFT President Randi Weingarten, who could have gotten herself arrested again as she did earlier this month in Philadelphia during a protest over that district’s move to close 23 schools. But then, Randi would have had to share the spotlight with Lewis and Jackson, who are much-better than her at the playing for the cameras thing.

wpid10020-wpid-this_is_dropout_nation_logo2.pngYet what neither Lewis nor Jackson admit (and what is pointed out on this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast) is that Chicago’s move to close schools is the most-sensible move it can make in order to deal with operating more schools than it can actually afford to do, especially as it continues its efforts at systemic reform in order to serve the dwindling number of kids the district still serves. More importantly, they will never admit that the very policies and  practices Lewis’ union defends (including an unsustainable system of traditional teacher compensation, and opposition to expanding school choice and Parent Power), which Jackson (along with fellow old-school players in the civil rights movement) aids and abets, exacerbates those fiscal problems as well as restricts the expansion of high-quality school opportunities families demand and deserve.

While Chicago isn’t nowhere near where it should be in providing high-quality teaching and curricula to children, the district has steadily improved steadily since 1995, when then-Mayor Richard Daley took control of the district. The percentage of functionally illiterate fourth-graders declined from 60 percent to 52 percent between 2003 and 2011, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress — thanks in part to an eight percentage point decline in the percentage of low-income fourth-graders reading Below Basic proficiency — while the percentage of students reading at Proficient and Advanced levels increased from 14 percent to 18 percent during that time.  Even with better-performing schools, Chicago can’t escape the troubles that come with the massive scale of the traditional district model. As in the case of other big-city districts, Chicago operates too many schools of massive size that don’t serve enough kids to remain fiscally viable.

Chicago’s enrollment of 404,584 children is a third smaller than the number of kids served by the district during the 1960s. Three hundred thirty of the district’s 616 schools — more than half of the district’s portfolio — operate below capacity, with 137 of them half-empty. At some schools,  includes Drake Elementary School in the city’s Bronzeville section, and an elementary school named for hometown hero Emmett Till (whose murder in Mississippi by two men offended by his violation of Jim Crow segregation spurred the modern civil rights movement), just two out of every five seats are filled during the school year. Certainly dissatisfaction among middle class families with Chicago’s slow improvement (one reason why just three out of every five kids born in the city in 2005 attended kindergarten in traditional district schools five years later) is part of the problem. The district’s continued embrace of Zip Code Education policies such as zoned schooling exacerbates matters; some 37,000 seats in the district’s best-performing schools go unfilled because of restrictions on intra-district choice. But even if Chicago became the nation’s best-performing district and allowed for open enrollment throughout the system, it would still have to shut down some of its schools because there aren’t enough children to attend them.

This capacity problem is exacerbated by the district’s — and the Second City’s –long-term fiscal woes. The district is currently struggling with what will likely be a budget shortfall of at least $600 million for its current fiscal year, and must deal with a $1 billion shortfall in 2013-2014. There’s also the district’s defined-benefit pension deficit, which is officially reported as being $8 billion for 2012, but more-likely to be $11 billion, according to Dropout Nation‘s analysis of financial data using a formula developed by Moody’s Investors Service. Thanks to the end of a pension holiday (which allowed the district to skip on some pension contributions), as well as the move by the Government Accounting Standards Board to enact GASB 68, which requires districts and other governments to fully disclose pension liabilities, Chicago will have to find ways to address those woes, along with an officially reported unfunded retired teacher healthcare liability of $3 billion (as of 2011).

Certainly Chicago’s financial woes would have been easier to address if it undertook some smart efforts decades ago. This includes shutting down more underutilized schools during the 1990s and this past decade (when it was clear that enrollment was not going to grow back to 1960s levels) and perhaps leasing smaller buildings that better fit its needs; leasing school space to other city service agencies, especially in the city’s poorest communities, where conveniently locating social services in one place would serve those families well; and even embracing the approach of allowing charters to share space with its traditional district operations that New York City has embraced so wholeheartedly. Emanuel’s blunder last year of folding on his push to require teachers to work an extra 39 minutes a day in order to increase the time kids receive instruction, as well as his decision to not stand tall during the strike launch by the Chicago AFT last year (partly at the behest of an Obama administration concerned mostly about the impact of the work stoppage on the president’s re-election campaign), were also not fiscally smart.

But many of the district’s fiscal woes are tied to the collective bargaining arrangements the city has with the Chicago AFT and state laws governing teacher quality – including the defined-benefit pension deals, seniority-based pay scales, and seniority-based privileges that make it difficult for it to deal smartly with its financial affairs (as well as complicates its systemic reform efforts). And for that, the Chicago AFT and old-school civil rights leaders in the city such as Jackson must share blame.

As seen last year with the Chicago AFT’s month-long work stoppage, the union continues to embrace an old-school industrial union model that ignores both its consequences to children (in the form of perpetuating failed policies that drive the nation’s education crisis) and the demands of younger teachers for a professional association model that better fits the profession. But the consequences of the union’s intransigence is also borne in financial terms, by taxpayers, younger teachers, and children alike. By opposing Chicago’s efforts to move from degree- and seniority-based pay scales to performance-based compensation (as well as demanding pay increases while being unwilling to allow for objective performance management based on student test score growth data), the Chicago AFT has been nothing more than an obstacle to the district’s efforts to make smart decisions that can save money and even keep some schools open. By continuing to defend reverse-seniority layoff rules and opposing efforts by the district to smartly cut headcounts based on performance (including suing over the district’s move a few years ago to lay off 365 low-performing teachers), the Chicago AFT has also made clear that their priorities lie with keeping its coffers fat.

Meanwhile the Chicago AFT’s longstanding campaign against the expansion of public charter school, along with their silence on enacting Parent Trigger provisions that could allow families to take control of failure mils and schools targeted for shutdown, reveals that the union is far  more-concerned with self-preservation than with expanding high-quality school options for Second City children and their families. While Lewis and her counterparts proclaim they are concerned about preserving public education, the reality is that they are fearful of the expansion of charters because those schools  generally eschew the pay scales and other practices at the heart of the Chicago AFT’s influence (and that of the national AFT as a whole). For the Chicago AFT, keeping the union dues flowing is far more important than allowing ChiTown families to choose schools fit for their kids. This stance wouldn’t be more laughable if not for the fact that many of the rank-and-file members the Chicago AFT represents aren’t all that fond of either Chicago’s traditional district schools or counterparts in the surrounding suburbs; 39 percent of Chicago teachers sent their kids to private schools, according to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in a 2004 report, a number that has likely increased since its release.

There’s nothing laudable or acceptable about a union opposing the expansion of choice, especially for poor and minority kids for which is professes so much concern, while it tacitly supports its rank-and-file exercising choice. But then, no one should ever expect an AFT local, especially in Chicago, to be all that supportive of expanding high-quality educational opportunities for kids, especially for kids who are not their own. In the case of Jackson and his fellow old-school civil rights leaders, who are supposed to look out for the futures of black, Latino, and Asian children, it is a different story.

For far too long, Jackson and his colleagues done little on the school reform front. If anything, they, along with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, have been steadfast fellow-travelers with NEA and AFT affiliates in defending the very practices and schools that have ruined the futures of young black children as well as opposing the expansion of school choice that minority families support. Jackson in particular has done almost nothing to advance systemic reform in his own hometown, and save for the occasional appearance on behalf of the NEA and AFT affiliates who fill Rainbow/PUSH’s coffers, has offered little in the way of ideas on how to end an educational crisis that condemns half of all young black men to the economic and social abyss. At a time in which education is the civil rights and economic empowerment issue of our time, Jackson and his old-school civil rights colleagues in Chicago as well as throughout the nation, have abdicated their roles as advocates for brighter futures for black and other minority children. And particularly in the case of Jackson, his stance on the wrong side of history once again serves as a reminder of his increasingly-tarnished reputation as a civil rights leader and patriarch of a once-potent political dynasty.

What Jackson and his colleagues should be doing is joining forces with the new generation of civil rights activists — including Dr. Steve Perry, Gwen Samuel of the Connecticut Parents Union, Kenneth Campbell of Black Alliance for Educational Options, and Better Education for Kids Executive Director Derrell Bradford — who have openly challenged the very traditionalist thinking Lewis and the AFT embrace. This includes demanding Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the city council to enact a Parent Trigger provision that would allow for families to take control of schools in their own neighborhoods, as well as pushing for the city to allow for the expansion of charters, especially in communities that will be most-affected by the school closings. All this, by the way, has been championed by Dropout Nation since last year, and supported by the Chicago Tribune this week in its editorial series. Jackson could even support the efforts of some Illinois legislators to create a school voucher program that would allow for poor and minority Chicago families (as well as others throughout the Prairie State) to choose high-quality schools for their kids. By embracing systemic reform and abandoning their alliances with AFT and National Education Association affiliates, Jackson and his fellow old-school civil rights activists will be helping our children succeed in school and in life, as well as advancing the much-needed integration of minorities in Chicago and elsewhere into the economic mainstream. And, by the way, these moves would also help revive the poorest communities in Chicago, whose fortunes were long-ago brought down in part by the failure mills in their communities.

When it comes to Chicago’s school closings, neither Lewis nor Jackson (as well as their respective groups) deserve to be taken seriously. They put on a really good show of concern. And that’s about it.