( Scott Strazzante, Chicago Tribune / April 14, 2011 ) President Barack Obama appears at campaign fundraiser at Navy Pier in Chicago.1
Right back at you, Mr. President.
You think Americans bought your line that you actually "cut" $38 billion out of what remains of fiscal 2011 spending? I'd say the same thing about the Illinois education "reform compromise" that legislators, teachers unions and others sprang on us last week.
All sides tell us that we're on a roll, that Washington's budget "cuts" were "historic" and that the clipping of Illinois teachers' goodies was "landmark" and "game-changing." Just as a starving dog should be grateful to discover a crumb under the table.
First the federal deal: An Associated Press analysis by Andrew Taylor that didn't get enough attention said the $38 billion deal was accomplished "in large part by pruning money left over from previous years, using accounting sleight of hand and going after programs ... Obama had targeted anyway."
By doing so, according to the analysis, Obama saved many of his favorite programs, while Republicans gave up many of the $60 billion in cuts passed by the House. The last-minute deal to avoid a government shutdown "revealed a lot of one-time savings officially 'scored' as cuts to pay for spending elsewhere, but often have little to no actual impact on the deficit."
For example, part of the $38 billion in cuts was unspent 2010 census money, leftover construction funding and unused bonus money for states that enrolled uninsured children in a health care program. Some $10 billion of the cuts come from the elimination of earmarks that Republicans had already banned when taking over the House.
Now, the Illinois deal: Firing bad teachers would be easier, based more on merit than seniority. Chicago teachers would find it harder to strike, and Chicago could more easily increase the school day. Yes, but ...
Take tenure, which teachers "earn" after four years on the job. Now, instead of waiting four years, teachers would get it in three years. To do so, they wouldn't have to mess up their evaluations in two of the three years. Never mind whether they should have tenure at all.
While the deal allows Chicago schools to lengthen the embarrassingly short school day, it still gives the unions the power to stymie this badly needed reform by bargaining for huge pay increases.
The agreement, which passed the Illinois Senate with virtually no scrutiny, also doesn't resolve the biggest financial problem with public schools: pensions. Nor does it eliminate teacher strikes -- the cudgel teachers use to frighten parents and school boards. And if you suppose dismissing incompetent or lazy teachers will be as easy as Donald Trump pointing a finger and saying, "You're fired," you ought to read the legislation (Senate Bill 7), which is a rigmarole of remediations, union evaluators, pre-qualifications, hearing officers and challenges almost beyond comprehension. The bill, now in the House Rules Committee, is chock-full of such devilish details.
All the people who are backing the bill, including editorialists and the free-market Illinois Policy Institute, make persuasive arguments for accepting what we can get now and working later for other improvements. That is indisputable.
Union supporters of the bill say Illinois' example will become a national template for progress, showing states like Wisconsin, afflicted with ugly conflict over public employee policy, how it should be done. Actually, we should thank Wisconsin for scaring the wits out of organized labor and their chummy legislators into finally noticing the pitchforks heading their way.
Grateful though we might be, the Washington and Springfield deals are just practice for the bigger showdowns yet to come: the federal fiscal 2012 budget and real fiscal reform of Chicago and Illinois schools. As tough as it was to wring these halfway reforms (make that one-tenth) out of government, it'll take a lot more to get what America and Illinois really need.
Let us be mindful of what Ken "Hawk" Harrelson, a White Sox TV announcer, says when the team begins a rally to overcome a big deficit: "Don't stop now, boys."
This column also appeared in the Chicago Tribune.