If you’ve been paying any attention to major media outlets in Chicago, you’ve been hearing about how well the mayor is maneuvering CPS these days. Recent Tribune editorials, for example, have lauded increased graduation rates and higher test scores (well, some higher test scores–those PARCC scores are, well, another story for another time).
But if you’re actually a CPS parent, student, or teacher, things might not feel especially…winning. Even if you love your school (and statistically, you probably do), you know the district is facing some challenges. And it’s not really strategy-game level issues we’re talking about.
System-wide, we have catastrophic problems in this district. Fueled by reckless spending, blindly ideological commitments, and ignorance about what education actually is, the firestorm has grown out of control.
Here are my top ten telltale signs that CPS is out of control. You probably have others.
1. The pesky $480M hole in the CPS budget that Rahm has no plan for. His specially chosen fixer Forrest Claypool has no plan either, outside of asking Springfield for money that they’d declined to supply repeatedly for months, before Forrest threw in a disaster scenario for them: We’ll fire 5000 more teachers if you don’t do it, he said. That’s something to look forward to in November, because regardless of whether or not they should cough up cash they don’t have, Springfield is pretty much probably not going to do the thing it has said over and over again, it won’t do.
2. Speaking of holes in the budget. They don’t actually matter much to CPS if CPS feels like spending. Like a dysfunctional teenage Hollywood starlet with a credit card, CPS just keeps racking up debt on shiny new purchases. Despite losing 6000 students since last spring, CPS still wants to add new charters. And far from having the long waitlists of legend and lore, charters in CPS have 12,000 empty seats and are currently advertising for students with glossy flyers being sent to CPS families. CPS is entertaining 12 new charter proposals even now. Reader, let it not be forgotten that Rahm closed 50 schools due to district under-enrollment just three years ago.
3. And because of lower than expected enrollment this year, for the first time budget cuts are being made as the school year is already well underway. This means schools are losing hundreds of thousands of dollars they thought they had and current teachers are being fired. Like, this week. What of their classes? Who knows, who cares. Here in CPS we operate on the basis of that tool for principal empowerment, student-based budgeting, where the money literally follows the kid. Fewer kids, less cash. Lower than expected 10th day enrollment? Then teachers, get out.
4. CPS students aren’t so hot on this last point. They actually like their teachers. In fact on Monday hundreds of students from four neighborhood high schools organized a walkout to protest the loss of their teachers–10 positions here, 8 there–and on and on. How is a high school supposed to reprogram the schedules of hundreds of students, a month into the school year? Who knows, who cares.
5. Neither students nor parents nor teachers have a voice in this district. I mean this quite literally, as the board of education seeks to further limit the time and number of people speaking at board of ed meetings, with new rules. If you’re speaking in Spanish? Forget going over your two minutes–even with a translator. They cut the mic and escort you, to put the politest possible spin on it, away from the podium. And when CPS holds “public hearings,” they manufacture the kind of audience they want, as recently when they filled an auditorium with Noble charter supporters and actually only let in 10 people who support neighborhood schools, leaving hundreds down in the street. Furthermore, principals’ voices are disregarded, and to speak out against any CPS policy as a teacher puts your job in jeopardy.
6. Speaking of silencing. You remember, I trust, those hunger strikers fighting to retain their neighborhood school? They worked for years with the community and national education leaders to create a quality proposal for that school, Dyett High School. Nothing those parents said or did mattered to the mayor or any of the several CPS CEOs and aldermen who have tried to shut these people up. When the Dyett suporters finally chose the most extreme, most radical method of all to get the attention of the mayor, Rahm was so uninterested in actually listening to the people of Bronzeville that he watched them refuse solid food for 34 days–waiting for a conversation with him. The hunger strikers gained supporters all over the world, but to Rahm, because they represented a threat to his agenda, they needed to be ignored–regardless of the shocking cost.
7. All our CPS leaders are committed either to blindly following the mayor’s agenda or to privatization, or both, regardless of how much harm they inflict. We now have a CPS head who has no ed experience whatsoever and is shamefully uninformed about everything to do with schools, children, pedagogy, teaching, and education–he was literally chosen because he is close to Rahm. We have a board of ed president who is a heavily committed charter supporter with a Noble school named for him and whose previous starring role in CPS was in the closings of 50 schools. We have a head of special ed who appears to be guided by a Broad-influenced, for-profit special ed consulting company specializing in “rightsizing” (a word that provokes PTSD around here) special ed spending, the Harvard B-schooler-run District Management Council.
8. “Rightsizing” its special ed spending means CPS is decimating special education. More than 500 special ed teacher and paraprofessional positions were cut over the summer, and hundreds more cuts were just announced, federal law be damned. When school district leaders advance their ideology on the backs of special needs children, you know every shark in the ocean has just been jumped.
9. City council, which almost always goes with the mayor, now has 42 out of 50 aldermen signed onto a one-year charter school moratorium. Even a city council of mostly mayoral rubber stamps understands the problems in continued charter expansion while the system is broke. But one alderman–reliable mayoral lap dog Will Burns (fresh off the job of fueling the Dyett crisis)–has blocked the moratorium from discussion on the council floor. Because he can. No matter how many aldermen may come to oppose Rahm’s school leadership, he won’t be challenged while Will Burns chairs the education committee.
10. CPS pits parents against each other in a sort of desperate Hunger Games scenario. CPS creates the conditions for us to snarl and fight over scant resources. I saw this graphically illustrated just last week in near-riot conditions on the sidewalk outside of CPS the evening of the spectacularly botched charter hearings. I walked up and down through both sides of the crowds (well, until the cops separated the groups with a pile of bicycles) watching, listening to the roar of screaming students, bullhorns, parents, chants, and police, and pondered: Rahm did this. Rahm made this.
That mayor of ours whose graduation stats the city keeps trotting out–those stats were inflated anyway, for years, and CPS now admits it, and whether it is even owing to Rahm is debatable–that mayor of ours is in way over his head here.
And the collateral damage for his failure to know how to run a school district is not a trifling thing. It’s not a matter of approval numbers in a poll or political capital gained or lost. Rather it is the health of our our neighborhoods, our communities, our 660 schools, 21,000 teachers, and nearly 400,000 children. While Rahm plays “School” like a strategy board game, the rules of which are his ideological commitments, our children, especially our most vulnerable, bear the brunt of every wrong move.
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