Patricia Levesque: CEO of the Foundation for Excellence in Education

Dec 23, 2015 by

classroom half full

An Interview with Patricia Levesque: CEO of the Foundation for Excellence in Education

Michael Shaughnessy –

  1. You have recently expressed some concerns about the pending Chicago teachers strike. What are your main concerns?

That children will not be able to go to school and high school seniors will not be able to graduate on time. Families are being used as pawns in a collective bargaining dispute.

2) I suppose there are two sides to every coin. Do you believe that the Chicago teachers have any real legitimate concerns that need to be addressed by the mayor or whoever is in charge in Chicago?

This is the only side of the coin I see. Chicago Public Schools is in a crisis that threatens the very solvency of the organization. It confronts major operating deficits, massive unfunded pension obligations, and is staying afloat by borrowing to pay existing expenses.

Legacy costs are skyrocketing while student numbers are dwindling. Half-empty schools are becoming more commonplace. This is not sustainable. And yet the union simply appears to be falling back on the age-old strategy of digging in its heels and making demands, totaling hundreds of millions of dollars a year. This isn’t serious.

3) The Chicago Teachers Union recently released a statement about the number of librarians in the school district. I lifted it word for word “Just two certified librarians left at virtually all African-American CPS high schools”. If this is true- what can the average parent say to the mayor and what can the average teacher say about the educational system?

What they can say is I want an efficient and effective school district that is driven by the sole mission of advancing the academic achievement of children. And if the CPS schools are not meeting a child’s needs, if a student is assigned to an ineffective teacher protected by tenure provisions, then that child’s parents should have access to a variety of alternatives.

These could include more charters, for which there are long waiting lists, and private school choice programs that are not dependent on household income. It may well be that an alternative school has a librarian because it allocates its resources differently. And if the market responds positively, more schools will make the necessary adjustments to hire librarians.

4) Now, don’t get me wrong- a strike would be disruptive to the students, to the teachers, and to the curriculum. I understand this. But perhaps there comes a time when a strike is necessary after many years of neglect?

Chicago teachers already receive the highest lifetime earnings of teachers in the 10 biggest cities. Pension benefits have been growing at 5 percent a year – far in excess of the inflation rate. Soon this will drain more than $700 million from the school budget. Paying for retirees is crowding out classroom funding, forcing layoffs and program cuts. There was a strike three years ago and the schools are in worst shape today. So, I’m hard pressed to understand the necessity of another one.

5) Often there is some disagreement between what teachers say they want and what the unions may ask for (money). In your estimation, has this been occurring in Chicago?

I really have no inside information on the relationship between teachers and their union in Chicago. It is no secret that nationally, unions are facing falling membership and dues, and more skepticism from traditional Democratic allies, particularly those concerned about the academic advancement of disadvantaged, low-income children. Teachers are paid like assembly line workers. The quality of their work, whether great or dismal, often has no impact on salary, job retention during layoffs or rehires. That’s certainly not a work environment I’d seek out.

6) In your mind, what would it take to improve education in Chicago? Smaller class sizes? Fewer students being mainstreamed? More supplies? Better internet connectivity?

We need more efficiencies, more innovative approaches, more individualized settings, more excellent teachers, more competition and a transparent accountability so parents can make informed decisions.

One solution for Chicago would be an Education Savings Account program. Parents could use a percent of the money that would have been spent on their children in a traditional public school to seek other options.

Here is a rough example of how it would work. It costs $13,322 to send a student to a Chicago public school. For those parents whose children are struggling in a failing public school, 75 percent of those funds could be set aside in an Education Savings Account for parents to find other options.

For example, tuition at a parochial school is about $7,600. And so a parent could send her child to a parochial school and have about $2,400 left over in her account to be used for tutoring, therapy for disabilities or other services. She even could bank it for college. Children would get a better education and taxpayers would save about $3,000. This would create a competitive marketplace of education providers and force the public schools to become more efficient and improve their product.

7) What about a simple request for a counselor in every school? In this day and age, don’t kids deserve a counselor to talk to about their situation?

Yes, I agree counselors can play a very valuable role in schools.

8) In your mind, is class size a reasonable thing to request in this day and age of such testing and accountability?

A more reasonable and more effective thing to request is a highly effective teacher in every classroom. Research is conclusive that teacher quality drives academic gains more than any other factor in a classroom. Ask yourself: Would I rather my child be in a class with 22 kids and an outstanding teacher or 18 kids and a mediocre teacher?

To work toward this goal, we need to identify and compensate great teachers accordingly. Successful teachers who teach in-demand subjects such as math and science should be paid more. So should teachers who take on the challenges of teaching in economically depressed neighborhoods. We need to give the best teachers priority during layoffs and rehires, regardless of seniority.

We also need to remediate less effective teachers, doing our best to turn them into great teachers. And if turns out they simply are not cut out for the profession, we need to move them into another one.

These reforms would have a profound impact on student advancement. But the union blocks them at every opportunity.

9) What would you like to add?

Parents are confronted by the prospect of another teachers’ strike for one reason. They don’t have any power. If the teachers walk out, their kids will have no place to go because there are no options.

Even when there is no strike, parents have no power. If their children are put in a classroom where they aren’t being taught, they can’t do anything about it unless they have the financial resources to pull them out.

We need to give all parents a much bigger say in their children’s education for all the reasons I’ve talked about.

Any strike simply will reinforce that reality and ultimately will only serve to undermine the union that called it.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.