Chicago’s Messed Up “Public” School Situation

After sitting on it for a couple weeks (well, more than a couple…), I suppose now’s as good as ever to being my musings on the current state of “public” K-12 education in Chicago. (Why the “quotes”? We’ll get to that.) Over the course of this summer, the city government has decided to close some 50 under-attended public schools. Next, and which is a pretty sneaky move, the district is hiring Teach for America instructors to replace those teachers that were fired when the schools were closed. And lastly, the district has decided to open at least 4 new charters (since, apparently, the schools weren’t that under-attended). All of this gives off an unpleasant aroma. I won’t bore you with a lengthy recap of stuff found easily in the news. But here’s the basics: Mayor Rahm “Middle-Finger” Emanuel has opted to close 50 public schools in a bid to save the city some $500 billion (with a b). The move has affected some 30,000 students. A little more than 1000 teachers have been laid off. It turns out that part of the fiscal strategy involves bringing in cheaper labor to plaster over any cracks (Teach for America) and to continue the national trend of opening up charters.

Right off the bat (and this will probably piss some people off), when the story was first breaking, I was actually sympathetic to the financial situation of the city government. As The Economist reported, the pension systems in America are tragically underfunded and city governments–Chicago foremost among them–are struggling to make ends meet (this needs to be its own post). Now, the reasons for that are all over the place (it ain’t just pensions as many news outlets report), but my only point is that if schools are under-attended (for whatever reason) then it makes some sense to close them if that’ll save the city real money.

With that said, there are serious issues with Emanuel’s specific approach to solving the city’s fiscal shortcomings. The first is racial inequality: 90% of those 30,000 kids are African American. Some parents have protested the closings, but it appears this battle may already be lost.

Moreover, part of the problem with closing so many schools is that these kids will have to traverse sometimes dangerous neighborhoods for longer distances to make it to their schools. Arguably, that’s not a problem schools should be solving, but they’re certainly part of the whole issue. (For example, the suburbs of Chicago–you know, those places where middle-class and rich people live who say they’re from Chicago–have a responsibility to help address these problems–again, another post for another day.)

But should the schools be shouldering the burden of solving Chicago’s deficit problem? You know, the institution that people consistently nominate to solve ALL OF THE PROBLEMS? Maybe it’s not a great idea to radically limit the institution that is often cited in reducing crime, training workers, socializing individuals, providing daycare and meals, offering sports programs, holding various extra curricular activities from Glee Club to the school paper, and molding democratic citizens (to name some of the first that came to mind). Conversely, schools take up most of a city’s budget (ever since about 1900 for most cities), so one can make a case that you should go to where the money is.

But I’ve long been suspicious of Teach of America as an actual solution. To use the old cliche, I’ve always pictured it as a bandaid over a bullet hole. Originally, in my salad days, I had first thought of the organization as, although well-intentioned, an absolutely imperfect choice for the mostly under-privileged kids they seek to serve. That was my first priority to be honest (as it probably should be). Now, we should consider the labor side of the equation just as strongly.

On top of the Teach for America issue, the opening of of more charters in light of these closings is pretty awful. Teachers who are employed at the privately-run-but-publicly-funded charters cannot join the teachers union. Via NPR’s WBEZ, district spokesperson Becky Carroll said Tuesday that “while there were significant population declines in some parts of the city, there were also increases in other parts of the city…. There are many schools that are overcrowded or are facing overcrowding and we need to address that issue as we do any other.” OK, that all makes sense. But why not a shift of teachers and resources rather than lopping off a huge chunk of your system . . . only to be replaced by another type of system?

Finally, although I haven’t had the time to think through the issue thoroughly, I find it interesting that the teachers unions did not strike to stop the school closures. If these unions, as many suggest, really run the school systems or have the school system by the sensitive area, why aren’t they calling the shots? In these times, the policy influence of unions, I suspect, is often overstated. Something to think about.

Which finally brings me to why the “quotes” around “public.” I put them there because these policy decisions mean the district is no longer supporting public education. As Steven Conn argues, writing over on HuffPost Politics, “Because in the end, public schools serve an important function not just for the students sitting in the classrooms. They provide an education for all of us in the importance of public institutions — when we participate in their life, when we demand that they improve, when we are asked to pay for them. They teach citizenship to grown-ups perhaps even more than they do to the kids. This is what the current consumer-satisfaction model of education neglects.” Firing teachers to replace them with under-trained temps is not in the public interest. Neither is closing a high number of public schools to replace them with charters. We can have a separate argument about whether or not charters are a good idea or not. But “public” schools they are not.

Recently, education scholar Debra Pickett wrote that the “Chicago public schools [are] not just heartbreaking, [but are] actually broken.” As is my usual M.O., I was suspicious (people are always already saying the public schools are failing, in crisis, etc.), but I’m seriously starting to agree.

In the middle of her article, Pickett writes, “This is what it’s come to in Chicago: a school system where all parents want is that their kids stay alive and it’s too much to ask for.” Indeed.

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