Education Cuts and the Common Good

Nancy Brandt is a lay leader at St. Pauls UCC and member of the Community Renewal Society Board. She was a founding board member of Protestants for the Common Good and served in that capacity until the merger with CRS. She has extensive experience in public policy, with a special focus on adequate and equitable public education funding, and was before retirement a program officer for Continental Bank/Bank of America specializing in education and youth grants.

My reflection on faith has to do with the essential values we find in Christianity: practicing and working towards justice for all, care for the least of these, working for the common good. They roll off the tongue. Indeed, one’s personal faith can blend seamlessly with these articles of public faith.

But where it gets tricky is when one applies this to a real policy issue. I shall be shamelessly opportunistic here and talk about the policy issue with which I have been obsessed for the last two weeks — the dire outlook for our Chicago Public Schools budget next year.

What is the common good, what is justice for all, what is caring for the least of these in the CPS?

We start with the cuts to traditional neighborhood schools this year. They lost art and music teachers, language teachers, librarians. What they lost was a significant layer of enrichment. Do these students not deserve enrichment? A good rule of thumb that someone else devised is that “What we want for our own children’s education should be exactly what we want for everyone else’s children.” Why can’t we achieve that? The answers are multiple and complex, but not impossible to achieve.

Next year, the CPS could be eviscerated, virtually destroyed, losing 3-4,000 teachers, with class sizes in the 40’s – or worse —if solutions are not found at both the local and state level to avoid such destruction. And this is on top of a long list of current unmet needs. A fair, graduated income tax that pays our bills and raises more revenue is the obvious major solution, but could not kick in right away even if it were successful in getting on the ballot during the coming spring session. Perhaps more needs to be done in the interim – now.

And so I ask: what is our responsibility to help all the children in all the CPS avoid this fate? Is it all right to be silent while the City and the CPS district are apparently practicing triage – giving priority to only some students. How does the concept of triage square with the common good? Have the City and CPS given up on the proposition that all children can learn, on fairness and justice for all – or did they ever believe it? Do they need to be led back to that as a primary mission?

A good public education has long been considered to be the bedrock of our democracy and our economy, and both are currently in trouble, in my mind. At the same time, on an individual level, a good education has long been considered to be the best ticket out of poverty and into a life of productivity and fulfillment. Are there going to be tickets only for some? There is nothing more systemic or basic than our public school system, as its successes and failures are reflected in every other governmental system.

I will close with a quote from the late Senator Paul Wellstone,

“That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy. Our chronic refusal as a nation to guarantee that right for all children…. is rooted in a kind of moral blindness, or at least a failure of moral imagination…. It is a failure which threatens our future as a nation of citizens called to a common purpose… tied to one another by a common bond.” — March 31, 2000.

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