What Does Education Look Like in Rahm Emanuel’s ‘New Chicago’?

How Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s education reform policies are affecting Chicago’s youth. By Cameron Albert-Deitch and Quentin Heilbroner.

Young students at CPS’s National Teachers Academy work with iPads and other technology on a regular basis. It’s something that Mayor Emanuel would tout as a new innovation since his election 2011. (Photo: Cameron Albert-Deitch)

Young students at CPS’s National Teachers Academy work with iPads and other technology on a regular basis. It’s something that Mayor Emanuel would tout as a new innovation since he was elected in 2011. (Photo: Cameron Albert-Deitch)

Chicago’s parents are angry. Some because schools are changing too quickly, some because the system hasn’t changed quickly enough, and others because they know that something’s happening to their children’s schools – and they can’t identify the change.

After all, it’s easy to be confused about Emanuel’s plans for education reform.

A Google search of “Rahm education” yields thousands of headlines, ranging from “An Education Worthy of Chicago’s Children” to “Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s War on Teachers and Children.” Emanuel closed a record 49 schools in June 2013, saying the city couldn’t afford to keep “half-empty” buildings open, but he announced plans for an increase in charter schools just two months later and an addition of $90 million to the education budget two months after that. He’s a polarizing figure: Most Chicagoans either love him or hate him.

So it’s easy to say that Emanuel’s handling of education since taking office in 2011 has hardly gone smoothly. Emanuel’s predecessor Richard M. Daley, first elected in 1989, enjoyed 22 strike-free years as mayor after waves of Chicago Teachers Union strikes in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Emanuel is already on his third Chicago Public Schools CEO in four years. Regardless of whether or not these strikes are the result of Emanuel’s actions or national trends, they’re the first CTU strikes Chicago has seen in a generation, and it’s only natural that they’d leave the city on edge.

The mayor’s office and CPS were contacted for this story and responded with a joint statement for print: “The Mayor and Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett have expanded high-quality school options for students and their families throughout the City of Chicago. Under their leadership, CPS has expanded International Baccalaureate and STEM programs in schools, invested tens of millions of dollars into early childhood education and created more comprehensive arts and physical education plans. Public school students across Chicago now have a full school day with additional time dedicated to core subjects like math, science and reading, ensuring that every child is 100% college ready and 100% college bound.”

In other words, neither office wants to say much of anything.

It’s easy for Emanuel’s opponents to claim that he is risking the future of the city’s children and pushing an agenda of a city and schooling system aimed at just the elite. It’s easy for his allies, on the other hand, to claim that the anti-Rahm movement is fueled by those with entrenched interests – like the Chicago Teachers Union – who only want to protect themselves and the status quo. It’s difficult to get to the truth of the matter: Education policy is never simple, and neither is determining its effects.

Public schools vs. charter schools

Paula Scott's children have experienced what both charter schools and public schools have to offer – but they don’t see the issue as an either/or conflict. (Photo: Jeremy Gaines)

Paula Scott’s children have experienced what both charter schools and public schools have to offer – but they don’t see the issue as an either/or conflict. (Photo: Jeremy Gaines)

Paula Scott is 46, has four children in the house and has spent her entire life in Chicago. Her eldest, Victoria, is a high school senior and is in the process of applying to colleges. Her youngest, Triniti, is in 5th grade. Add two middle-schoolers into the mix – a 7th grader named Kenya and an 8th grader named Cencere – and you get a very busy household.

Four years ago, all four children were at CICS Basil, one of the city’s many charter schools. Three of them were excelling – Victoria, Cencere and Triniti all had teachers that went above and beyond to help their students just like they should. Individualized attention, after-school help, they had it all. But Kenya’s teachers, according to Scott, didn’t seem to be putting in the same effort, and it showed.

Kenya, a straight-A student, suddenly started to academically backslide. She was bored, she complained, and she says she wasn’t learning anything new. Scott, who was already considering switching schools due to disagreements with CICS Basil’s new principal, saw Kenya’s experience as a final red flag and pulled all four kids out of CICS Basil at the end of the year.

Over the summer, the Englewood residents conducted a tour-de-schools around the entire Chicago area. Victoria, entering high school at the time, wound up at King College Prep in Kenwood, and her three younger siblings found themselves at the Near South Side’s National Teachers Academy. All four, previously at a charter school, now found themselves in classical public schools – and Scott says that each has excelled in their new environments.

But Scott refuses to classify her decision and her children’s ensuing academic success as a charter school vs. public school issue. Instead, as she tells it, she simply made it her mission to find the right schools for her children.

“Both [charter schools and public schools] attempt to provide quality education,” Scott says. “I just liked the different opportunities that CPS offered, Charter schools, they have their place, because everybody needs something different.”

It worked out for Scott, but others are finding the issue to be much more daunting.

The bigger picture

Statistical markers published by CPS show that the bottom is no longer falling out of the CPS system. The percentage of pre-high school CPS students with composite ISAT scores low enough to put them in the “Warn” category dropped dramatically between 2009 and 2013 – 8th graders in particular showed a marked difference, going from 10.5 percent to 6.6 percent in that four-year time span. The high school dropout rate declined similarly over those same years, falling from 9.3 percent to 5.8 percent, and the decrease was even steeper among African-Americans students (from 12.4 percent to 8.8 percent). These trends began under Mayor Daley’s administration and have continued under Emanuel despite the rapid turnover of CPS bosses, the recent changing of testing standards and residual effects of the economic recession.

But while some CPS public schools are clearly improving, others are stuck in the mud. Take north-west Chicago’s Kelvyn Park High School, for example. 18-year-old junior Jesus Velazquez has seen other CPS public high schools excel while Kelvyn Park has suffered. North Grand High School students take mechanics classes while Velazquez spends his chemistry classes staring at a pen and paper. Prosser Career Academy students learn how to cook while Velazquez stares at a pen and paper. Friends at other schools have dissected animals, but to him, it’s something straight out of a television show. And when those other schools get brand new textbooks, he attempts to hold his old ones together.

“If there was money, I’m pretty sure we would have more books,” says Velazquez. “Books for everyone. Updated books, not like books that are half-torn apart.”

Velazquez, who has clearly done his research, holds Mayor Emanuel accountable. “The mayor attended New Trier,” Velazquez says. “That’s a really well-funded school – over $20,000 per student. At Kelvyn Park, we only get around $5,000 per student. There’s a big gap, and they’re holding us accountable to the same test scores. I don’t think that’s fair.”

Comparisons of public schools and charter schools show a different kind of disparity. Studies showing no statistical difference between the two have been highly contested: Removing the highly competitive selective-enrollment high schools from the rest of CPS’s results can give Chicago’s charter schools – which use a lottery system to accept students if more applications than available spots are submitted – a statistical edge over classical publics in more than a few metrics.

Data taken from Chicago Public Schools and the Illinois Network of Charter schools shows that the top 11 non-selective, non-private schools in Chicago on the 2013 ACT were charter schools; the charters scored an average of over 21 points on the ACT compared to CPS’s average of 17.6 and the national average of 20.9. The 17 schools with the largest point gain between their 9th grade Explore and 11th grade ACT scores were charter schools, with the highest-scoring school gaining an average of 6.7 points for students taking the ACT in 2013. This trend is not new: charter schools have continually tested higher than non-selective CPS schools dates since at least 2008.

Taylor Palomino, a 9th grader at Muchin College Prep, a member of the Noble Network of Charter Schools, sees a distinct difference in funding as the reason for charter success. The 14-year-old’s school receives a steady influx of new resources, she says, and when something breaks, it gets fixed immediately. She loves her teachers – she says she couldn’t wish for better ones. “I would say that there are no schools, that I know of, that are better funded than we are,” she says.

 All public and charter schools are now given the same amount of money on a per-student basis – a new practice that could bring the two systems into greater levels of competition. Yet Chicago International Charter Schools CEO Beth Purvis doesn’t see CPS as a challenger but as a colleague. In fact, she has nothing but kind words regarding Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s handling of the CPS system.

“The mayor has done things that I don’t think he gets a lot of credit for,” she notes. “He took the shortest school day in the country – Chicago public school days used to be five hours and 40 minutes – and moved it to seven hours. And he closed [49] schools with the least amount of disruption. Yes, a number of people lost their jobs, and I don’t want to diminish that. But schools are about kids, not about adults.”

Chicago Teachers Union spokesman Jackson Potter disagrees, citing the public backlash to Emanuel’s 49 public school closings and announced openings of seven charter schools as examples of unacceptable disruptions.

“One of the reasons that it’s not 49 [publics] and 49 [charters] is because people are so outraged,” Potter says. “And now you’re getting sort of a backpedaling and a slight diminishing of their program of charter expansion, in response to that anger. But they’re still pursuing their agenda.

“It could have been one charter in an underutilized area and it still wouldn’t have made sense, based on what they were saying,” he says.

-C. Albert-Deitch/Q. Heilbroner

Charter school administrators protest. All non-private schools in Chicago, charter and public alike, are primarily funded by government money – in fact, the Perspectives Charter Schools network claims its schools receive 25 percent less per pupil than normal CPS schools. Some charter networks insist they’re given so much publicly funded money that they don’t need to independently fundraise; Chicago International Charter Schools CEO Beth Purvis says her organization doesn’t even prioritize private investing.

“CICS has always had the goal of public education on the public dollar,” Purvis says. “We have never used more than three percent of our operating budget to come through philanthropic funds. The majority of our funds comes through local and state revenue that we get depending on who is enrolled in our schools.”

To understand Purvis’s point, it’s important to note that charter schools are provided government funding on a per-pupil basis. Starting with the 2013-2014 school year, CPS shifted its budgeting practice to give public schools the same amount of money per student as charters receive – perhaps a sign that charter schools and public schools are now competing for the same resource bucket. It’s a cost-cutting move for CPS, and Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education, says it won’t be worth the ensuing dropoff in education quality.

“The way the budgeting used to be handled is that you’d get a certain number of teachers based on the number of students, and those teachers’ salaries could vary from brand-new teacher salaries to a 30-year-experience teacher with a doctorate, and the system would pay for that teacher’s salary,” Woestehoff notes. “There was no disincentive to having experienced teachers on your staff. Now, there is.”

Woestehoff, a longtime education crusader, says Emanuel knows the budgeting shift could hurt the quality of public schools – but is advocating it anyway as part of a push to attract private charter investors.

“It was done – and many, many things are being done by the central office now under mayoral control – simply to save money, even with the understanding that it could have a negative impact on the quality of children’s education,“ she says. “Any budgeting practice that causes you to cut back on experienced staff [works toward] the goals of hedge funds, private investors, fiscal conservatives, anti-tax people to cut back on the cost of public service”

Potter agrees, saying that the primary goal of many charter investors isn’t to help children but to ideologically commit to privatization.

“There’s a notion that it’s fair game to invest parts of their own wealth and fortunes into this project because it will dislodge the last bastion of unionism in this country,” Potter argues. “Once you dislodge the collective power of teachers and educators, you can easily convert their pension systems from defined benefit pensions to defined contribution pensions – and that will result in higher fees for all of the mutual funds that will then take on the investments of individuals.

“Motive behind charter proliferation is to decentralize – to get rid of district-wide protocols and checks and balances,” he says. “And as a result, you have a variety of different situations.”

Diversity in education or a diminishing of resources?

The logic behind Purvis’ attitude toward CPS lies in that exact variety of situations: Curriculum, instructional strategies and the length of the school day are standardized throughout CPS schools, but charter schools have no such restrictions.

This allows for particular kinds of specialization: Betty Shabazz International Charter School has an Afrocentric curriculum and Namaste Charter School employs methods like yoga and fitness breaks to focus on student health. As long as baseline Illinois educational standards are met in core subjects such as math, science, reading, and writing, charter schools can take as much initiative as they want. That diversity in educational choices, Purvis says, is crucial to finding a successful match for each individual child.

Purvis offers up a hypothetical: “A parent may lottery into CICS Irving Park and [Walt] Disney Magnet School. Disney is an outstanding school and CICS Irving Park is an outstanding school. My own kids are on the waiting list there. If a parent says, ‘We’ve decided to put our kid in Disney over CICS,’ I’m not going to say that’s a bad choice. They made a choice.”

“I think the act of choosing is important, and is something in education that has usually only been available to middle and upper-middle class families,” she says. “Charter schools introduce choice into a neighborhood.”

Above all, Purvis says the charter vs. public debate is simply overblown.

“There are 52,000 charter school kids and there are 402,000 CPS kids [including charter students]. There’s a lot of conversation about the charter schools when we’re talking about less than 25 percent of the kids being served by the district,” she complains. “So then I ask the question, is this a real problem or is this a political argument?”

Sally Nuamah, a scholar of the intersection of race, education and politics in Chicago pursuing a PhD in political science at Northwestern University, disagrees with the idea that Emanuel might be playing political games instead of addressing real issues. The mayor’s place at the top of Chicago politics, Nuamah says, is secure. Moreover, she says that Chicago’s solutions must be unique.

“Every school needs to be individualized, and that’s what makes this such a complex problem, because you can’t have a single solution,” Nuamah says. “That’s why when something works for one school and doesn’t work for others, you can’t replicate it. It becomes difficult to figure out what then becomes the policy solution.”

But the way Potter sees it, Emanuel is risking the fate of CPS by reallocating resources that would otherwise go toward public schools. “You’ve actually created another model that says, ‘Let’s have a thousand different versions of this, and whichever ones do well, they can stick it out. And whichever ones fail, oh well, we can replace them,’” he says. “You’re experimenting on people’s lives in an irresponsible way, and you’re increasing inequality.”

The community uproar

Nuamah takes it a step further. Emanuel may be confident in his long-term vision, she says, but the experimental nature of his policies (and their general lack of a proven track record) is the single-biggest reason why communities have been hesitant to embrace the change.

“This is all new. We don’t know the effects yet,” Nuamah says. “People who follow him say he believes that what he’s doing is correct. He is thinking about the fact that there are short-term consequences for what he’s doing. However, there might also be long-term consequences. The short-term situation is clear to us … the long-term situation is not.”

Almost 30 years ago, in November 1987, Chicago was called out by the White House as having the worst public school system in the nation. “If it’s not the last, I don’t know who is,” William Bennett, the U.S. Secretary of Education at the time, confidently stated. “There can’t be very many more cities that are worse. Chicago is pretty much it.”

Just a decade later, Chicago was again called out by the White House – this time for having some of the best public schools in the country. “Last year in Chicago, they made that decision – not to hold our children back, but to lift them up,” President Bill Clinton proclaimed in his 1998 State of the Union address. “I propose to help other communities follow Chicago’s lead.”

The rapid turnaround is a perfect example of the long history of volatility in the Chicago education system. The lack of consistency by any one leadership team has meant that no generation of Chicago students in recent memory has spent their entire schooling career under one education administration. Surely, Mayor Rahm Emanuel must hope his education reform plans will be the first in a very long time to achieve just that.

-C. Albert-Deitch/Q. Heilbroner

Much of the uproar is also motivated by race and socioeconomics. Recent trends of gentrification and rising real estate prices have increased tensions between longtime residents and wealthy newcomers, and some see the closing of local public schools as one more sign that Chicago is increasingly for the elite alone. Those who can send their children to private schools don’t have to feel as personally invested about a lack of public school options – but less-wealthy families struggle. This is not new to Chicago – the city dealt with similar backlash under Daley – but Emanuel is under heightened pressure not just as a new mayor but as President Obama’s former right-hand man to deliver results like increased graduation rates and test scores, decreased dropout rates, higher job growth, and safer schools.

The shuttered schools are also overwhelmingly in black and Hispanic neighborhoods, a reality that has led to accusations of racial motivations. Nuamah says this is likely an unfortunate yet unintentional consequence of the reality that Chicago’s worst-performing public schools are often in economically disadvantaged minority neighborhoods.

“They’re targeting communities where schools are doing poorly, and that intersects with areas that are underserved and have historically been underserved,” she explains. “These communities that are being underserved have low resources. Some of them are overcrowded – most of them are actually under-crowded or under-enrolled, and a large part of that is because a lot of people can’t afford to live here anymore. They’re moving to the south or the suburbs, but not your typical suburbs. Poor suburbs.”

In the Near West Side, between 1990 and 2000, the African-American population dropped by 14 percent while the white population grew by 7 percent. In the same time span, average home prices spiked by roughly $80,000 and the number of neighborhood children in private school increased by 80 percent.

The local white population is no longer growing, but income and property values still are. And despite the fact that the neighborhood’s median household income is nearly $30,000 above the rest of Chicago’s, it still has a higher percentage of families – nearly 30 percent – below the federal poverty line ($23,850 for a family of four). The neighborhood’s wealthier children almost entirely stay in private schools: A full 45 percent of Near West Side children are enrolled in private schools, compared to just 13 percent citywide. And as many of the neighborhood’s public school families get poorer, they perpetuate a negative image of public education.

The Near South Side has seen similar trends: average home value jumped nearly tenfold in the 1980s, and continues to grow today. The percentage of the neighborhood’s private school students has tripled, and correspondingly, the neighborhood’s share of its original African-American population has sharply declined – another example of wealthy families expanding outwards from the Chicago’s core. In the eyes of many of Emanuel’s critics, each closed school – previously not just an educational facility but a community center and a safe public space – is one more reason for already uncomfortable African-American families to move away from their dangerous and increasingly expensive neighborhoods.

Early childhood development

If the public school vs. charter school debate is more politicized than substantive, it’s at least well-publicized. The same might not be said for another domain of Chicago education: early childhood education for children ages zero to five. Interestingly, despite the relative lack of publicity, it’s an area where Emanuel is credited with making significant progress.

Nancy Radner is the director of Illinois policy for the Ounce of Protection Fund, an organization that focuses on early childhood experiences. While she won’t commit to giving Emanuel a positive or negative grade, saying the issue is too complex to be boiled down so simply, she does readily allow that Emanuel has made early childhood education a priority.

“He’s put together some very smart people who have given him some very smart recommendations,” Radner says, referring to the members of the mayor’s Early Childhood Task Force and Early Learning Executive Council – a temporary measure launched in July 2011 to create early childhood education policy recommendations and a permanent advisory body to the mayor established in September 2011 that works to implement those recommendations and continue action on the issue, respectively.

Radner says the advisory body has focused on three ideals: serving the highest need children in the highest need communities with the highest quality of early childhood education.

To achieve those goals, the council embarked on a mission in 2012 to streamline the city’s early childhood education funds, which were being controlled separately by Chicago Public Schools and the Department of Family and Support Services. The city obtained extra funding from the Illinois State Board of Education and partitioned more of Chicago’s education budget toward early childhood education to create the “Chicago: Ready to Learn!” preschool partnership program.

Ready to Learn has been Emanuel’s flagship early childhood education initiative, and while it may be too early to judge its results, few disagree that the pairing of top preschools with community agencies (and the extra funds providing higher quality education to more students) can hardly hurt.

Interestingly, despite the relative lack of publicity, early childhood education is an area where Emanuel is credited with making significant progress.

Emanuel has also added more full-day preschools to go along with the city’s half-day preschools; according to Radner, there’s no effective advantage of one over the other – it simply follows Emanuel’s agenda of diversifying options for students and parents. But the biggest news in Chicago early childhood education (aside from Ready to Learn) is the 2012 institution of the Quality Rating Improvement System, a five-star rating system that aims to help parents evaluate preschools while incentivizing quality for early childhood educators. Like many of Emanuel’s education reforms, the program is too young to have a proven track record.

“It’s all just beginning,” Radner says, speaking about both Ready to Learn and the new rating system. “I think the good intentions were there. We’ll find out how it came out.”

The system is modeled on a state program developed under the $42.8 million awarded to Illinois in the 2012 federal Race to the Top grant for quality initiatives in early childhood education, and with the recent focus on early childhood development in President Obama’s most recent State of the Union speech and Illinois Governor Pat Quinn’s State of the State speech, it’s not out of the question to expect more on both the state and city levels in coming months.

Radner hopes that the next area to be addressed is special education.

“There’s always more to do with how the city is handling special education for kids zero to five,” she says. “There has been a huge backlog in the number of kids that need to be evaluated and then served for special education. Special education is so important zero to five because when you can catch these things early, you can address them sometimes to the point where you’re done with it. You can correct the problem.”

A matter of legacy

Chicago doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and neither do Emanuel’s actions on education. Chicago’s image in the post-Daley era is still being molded, and as arguably the country’s most famous mayor, Emanuel is under the spotlight nationwide. In a way, it’s symbolic of a greater issue in Chicago: it’s no longer America’s second city. Chicago’s employment growth rate lags slightly behind the national average, and falls dramatically behind cities like Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas, Atlanta and Washington D.C. (Houston’s growth literally doubles Chicago’s). In the decade before 2010, for example, Chicago lost nearly seven percent of its population. Americans – especially educated youth and immigrants – are moving south and west, meaning the largest, richest city in the Midwest is being threatened by cities like Austin, Texas that aren’t even a third its size.

Perhaps in order to stay dynamic and relevant, Chicago needs something more than a pretty skyline, millions of residents, and a famous history. Emanuel is working toward that sense of future – but his plans for that “New Chicago” have often been accused of being at the expense of the Chicago of today.

“He has said publicly that he doesn’t want to just follow the trajectory of the market – he wants to accelerate beyond that,” Potter says. “And what does that mean? It means heavily investing in downtown, it means removing problem communities that have high incidence of crime, violence, robbery, foreclosure, and building off the global city reputation of Chicago … even if that means you’re displacing whole segments of people who don’t have a way of benefiting from those new economic priorities.”

But it makes sense that a man who knows he’d be remembered as a hero if he could change how America sees Chicago might be more concerned with his legacy in the future than his present-day problems.

“He really thinks that he can make decisions that will transform the nation, and that people will understand later that what he did was right for them,” says Nuamah. “That’s how you hear people characterize it – people who follow him say that he believes that what he’s doing is correct and is right.”


Cameron Albert-Deitch // Quentin Heilbroner

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