The horrendous state of the Chicago Public Schools, 1980-2010: the setting for the Byrne-Zorn debate

The Byrne-Zorn Debate on school vouchers


Eric Zorn and Dennis Byrne started an online debate on School Choice-School Vouchers. I made some extended comments. The tone, tenor and substance of the debate, and the numerous comments received on Zorn's site are first rate. It struck me, though, there was one thing lacking:  Any discussion of the setting for the debate. Zorn responded to a few of my comments, taking us somewhat "Into the economic weeds," with an implicit discussion of the concepts and  arithmetic of marginal cost, average total cost, etc.


The performance at CPS has been awful


This journalist will respond specifically, in a day, or so, to Zorn's rebuttal comments. But, before I do, I wanted to provide some setting for the debate.  It is important as Mr. Zorn talks of the other side's "free enterprise fairies," and Mr. Byrnes speaks of the other side's "enslavement [of students] on a plantation," that we remember that at least 200,000 CPS students a year are being tremendously ill served by the Chicago Public Schools ("CPS").  


That is, the performance level for inner city schools for the last three decades, if not longer, has in large part been awful.  In Chicago, the percentage of third graders reading at grade level in the CPS  has ranged from at best, 50%, to 20%, or less.  Nobody can seriously dispute that of the 400,000 students in the CPS, 50% to 75% of them are attending what can only charitably be called "failing schools."


The beginning of the Daley Reform: The Vallas and Chico years


Mayor Richard M. Daley was essentially given control of the CPS in 1995 by the Republican majority state legislature. 1995-96 were the only two years of the last three decades, or so, that Speaker Mike Madigan took a "coffee break," i.e., he did not have control of the State House [and the Republicans also controlled the State Senate at the time]. It is not clear whether the Republican majority was acting out of a belief in the importance of giving someone accountability for the schools, or if they simply wanted to see Mayor Daley fall flat on his face.


In any case, Daley did not do so. At least, not initially. For the first six years of Daley's control, there was progress. Paul Vallas (Mr. Inside, as CEO of the CPS) and Gery Chico (Mr. Outside, as School Board President) were a good team.  School safety was improved. The facilities were improved.  A certain amount of fiscal sanity was brought to the system, teachers unions were brought somewhat in line and test scores surely showed progress.  


Daley pushes Vallas and Chico out


However, Vallas had perhaps done too well.  Daley and those around him thought Vallas was becoming bigger, in name and otherwise, than Daley. Daley pushed Vallas out--or you might say Vallas exited gracefully to run for Governor in a three way Democratic Primary with Blagojevich and Burris. Vallas came in a close second to Blago, and the rest, as they say, is history [Cynics, who see Daley's handprint wherever they look, argue that Vallas, who was popular in the African-American community from his CPS performance, would have been victorious in a one on one with Blagojevich, had the African-American Burris not jumped into the race].


Duncan comes in and the progress at CPS stalls


Arne Duncan replaced Vallas in the summer of 2001 as the CEO of CPS and several others replaced Chico in the last eight years as President. Ron Huberman replaced Duncan when Duncan was invited last year to join his basketball crony, President Obama, in Washington, as the Secretary of Education. 


It is doubtful if a great deal of academic progress was made during Duncan's tenure at CPS. Duncan demonstrated the ability to get along with teachers, Daley, etc. and not the ability to shake up the status quo at CPS, as Vallas had.  Test scores improved at CPS under Duncan, but the tests were changed so much along the way that there can be no confidence in them.


Duncan essentially concedes the invalidity of test scores under his tenure


Education Secretary Duncan, appearing on Face the Nation, in the fall, criticized standardized tests in Chicago and elsewhere, for showing false improvement, at the time he was speaking, as well as before. That is, kids were given more time than previously to take the test, tests were made easier than previously, etc. Bob Schieffer neglected to ask Duncan why Duncan hadn't raised this issue as CEO of the CPS.


Life is no different at CPS under Huberman than Duncan. No credible voices can argue the CPS is currently making substantial improvement.  Indeed, that is perhaps the major common ground between Dennis Byrne and Eric Zorn. 


How can Zorn bet on the CPS status quo, with slight modifications?


Perhaps Zorn is willing to bet that the CPS status quo, as modified by slight increases in the number of charter schools, as well as other marginal changes, will prevent another 30 years of  destruction of two generations of  200,000, or more, kids in the CPS.  However, Rev. Meeks doesn't want to take that bet. Nor does Dennis Byrne. Nor do I.  


Don't misread me. I don't question the motives or desire of Eric Zorn to better the education of the CPS students (Although I do think it was an uncharacteristic low blow by Zorn to argue that "free market conservatives' concern for the poor is suspect.")  But, I do question whether Eric Zorn's patience with the CPS is deserved and I do question the wisdom of his refusal to try something, i.e., school vouchers- school choice,  when there seems to be so little to lose (at least as a pilot, as Rev. Meeks has suggested) and so much to gain by doing so. I will address Zorn's rebuttal comments more specifically in a day or so.



Leave a comment