This is the second of a series on the various proposals, in light of the escalated violence against America’s children, that the nation has discussed to protect America’s children, and this installment will focus on the primary institution that affects children of all ages – schools; and in particular, their changing structure, goals, and objectives.
During President Obama’s recent visit to Chicago he spent much time, publicly touting the ways, and even the possible means, to address the physical safety of the nation’s children, “When a child opens fire on another child, there is a hole in that child’s heart that government can’t fill. Only community, and parents and teachers and clergy can fill that hole,” before a packed audience at the Hyde Park Academy, on Chicago’s South side.
But, the institution that helps shape children, the one that serves as both a laboratory of learning, and a training ground for future leadership, has also come under close scrutiny, whether to meet national standards through test scores or graduation rate.
For many decades, the entry point for the American dream, from California to Maine, was the nation’s school system; it was the determinant, with successful men and women often touting their teachers as both motivators and mentors on their path to success.
As the country’s workforce increasingly transitions to a knowledge based model, education has taken on a more challenging role, than simply that of providing students with the three R’s.
This seems to have reached an apex in Chicago, itself a microcosm of urban America, where Mayor Rham Emanuel, Obama’s former chief-of-staff, wants to close nearly 200 schools; now recently reduced to 129, which he sees as either underenrolled, or underperforming.
According to the Chicago Tribune, “Most of the schools on the list of 129 are on the West, South and Southwest sides, many in impoverished neighborhoods that saw significant population loss over the last decade. Largely spared were the North and Northwest sides.”
Alderman Joe Moore of Chicago’s 49th Ward, was successful in keeping Rogers Park’s Stephen F. Gale Elementary School open, and in an emailed response, told me:
“I think that CPS realized that it didn’t make sense to close Gale because the only school that arguably could have accommodated the Gale students was nearly a mile away. Moreover, the demographics of my neighborhood are constantly changing. Just a few years ago, Gale was bursting at the seams, which is why CPS built an annex. Then in the early 2000’s condominium conversions pushed a lot of families out of the neighborhood.”
Moore also stressed that, “However, many of those condo developments failed and with failed conversions coming back on the market as rental housing, I expect more families to be moving back into the neighborhood with a concurrent increase in enrollment at all the local schools. I think the Board realized that it didn’t make sense to close a school only to reopen it a few years down the road.”
Chicago school Chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett says that she is looking at the reasons why some parents are “making decisions with their feet.”
The final list of closings will not be available till the end of March.
Spared are high schools and those that are in the top tier of academic success, in other words, those with high-ranking state and federal test scores.
Intersection of race and economic class
The intersection of race and social class have become almost hard-wired in the on-going discussions, and as the Tribune noted, the more impoverished areas seem to suffer the most in anticipated closings.
Dr. Cassandra McKay-Jackson, PhD, LCSW, Assistant Professor from the
University of Illinois at Chicago at the Jane Addams College of Social Work, told me recently, that “statistics reveal between 1990 and 2000, the rate of BA (bachelor degree) attainment among wealthy students with at least one parent who had graduated from college rose from 61 percent to 68 percent, while the rate among the most disadvantaged students whose parents were not college graduates, actually fell to 9.5 percent.”
She also stressed that, “School quality is as much a political issue, as a social issue, but one that is wedded to both race, and social-economic class; [and] with that in mind, is education, despite these constraints, still part of the American dream?”
So, for the parents and educators that serve these neighborhoods it certainly seems that this part of the dream is not one to be deferred, as loud, and frequently vocal opposition, with packed crowds of parents voice their resistance to CPS plans.
Adding to the woes for the school system is an unequal tax system for states such as Illinois, where a combination of higher taxes pays for a better school in the well-heeled and affluent area, such as Winnetka, and far less in Chicago where revenue is further decreased by corporate tax breaks.
“Education remains one of the vehicles by which citizens can attain financial and social ability within America. However, it remains politically charged with an increasing potential for widening the school-class divide. In fact, some school reformists note that present schooling is simply the perpetuation of societal inequality,” said McKay-Jackson.
Charter schools to the rescue?
In previous columns, we’ve examined the role of the charter schools, which have had the tacit endorsement of Emanuel who in his mayoral campaign last year touted charter schools as the answer to solving the ills of the nation’s third largest public school system. And, one that has alternately been beset with not only overcrowding, under enrollment, in some cases, and low performance; issues which faced the public in full measure with last fall’s Chicago Teacher’s strike.
While essentially they are seen, by some, as a panacea, they are essentially private schools in a public school system, and paid for with public taxes.
Secondly, and perhaps, most importantly, charter school teachers are paid less, and due to the resulting attrition, many students face the possibility of losing a sense of community.
As Ben Joravsky of The Chicago Reader reported last October, “There are 541 elementary schools in Chicago. Based on the composite ISAT scores for 2011- the last full set available-none of the top ten are charters. None of the top 20, 30, or 40 either.”
The move to charter schools seems to be motivated more by an effort to de-unionize than to enhance public education. As he notes the argument seems to be built on the assumption that the problems of the public schools are based, mostly, on the “countless ‘weak’ teachers [that] keep their jobs thanks to union contracts that protect tenure.” But, he also emphasized, “No matter that tenure no longer exists in the Chicago Public Schools, or that factors like poverty and crime and parental involvement may play some role.”
But, the view from City Hall may not always be as clear cut, as it seems, because as Joravsky said, “CPS uses charters to take care of a community’s educational need during the time poor people are moving out, and wealthier people are moving in. At which point they create a regular public school with unionized teachers who get paid a decent salary, because as everyone knows, you get what you pay for.”
One area of the Emanuel push for charter schools has been the unprecedented state contracts given to the United Neighborhood Organization; (UNO) headed by a close ally and political supporter Juan Rangel.
According to an examination of UNO documents, state records, and other media accounts, UNO received a $98 million state grant to build new schools, which many, including watch-dog organizations believe “to be the largest grant that a charter school network anywhere in the country has received.”
The organization is also financed with $70 million in state-approved tax-exempt bonds, used more, rather than les for capital, than direct funding for education.
To add fuel to the fire, the Chicago Sun-Times on Monday led with a front-page story that UNO supporters are financially tied to the campaign of Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan, and the awarding of the $98 million grant.
The Sun-Times also noted that, “Millions of dollars from the state grant ended up going to family members of UNO’s political allies and of a top executive of the group, Miguel d’Escoto, the Chicago Sun-Times reported earlier this month. The stories prompted d’Escoto to resign his $200,000-a-year UNO post and triggering a state review.”
It also said that, “With support from Springfield and City Hall, UNO has grown in less than a decade from what was primarily a Latino activist organization into one of the largest charter-school operators in the city. In 2005, it had one school. Now, it has 13 locations with about 6,500 students.”
In late 2012 it was announced that a private Catholic girl’s school, on the city’s north side, St. Scholastica, operated by the Benedictine Sisters, was doomed to close due to low enrollment, and the building sold; but in a very short space of time, it was quickly announced that UNO had acquired the building.
Politics aside, the need for increased test scores, despite the debate on their value, is needed for low-income and minority communities, but observers, and educators, and now, the public, are wondering, who is benefitting from the mix of politics and money to support improvements in education.
For Chicago Public Schools, the racial breakdown is 44% Hispanic, 43% Black, 9% White, and 3% Asian, according to the Illinois Interactive Report Card.
Rangel declined an interview with the Sun-Times, but did note, in a written statement that, “It is important that I take every opportunity to brief elected officials about the many issues facing the Hispanic community in Chicago, such as the chronic overcrowding of our neighborhood schools and the need for quality education options.”
As McKay told me, “No doubt there are embedded disparities that plague American education the question is are we willing to further reinforce the oppressive structures which reduce education to a sorting machine or dismantle and rebuild these structures all together with more progressive means of educating youth?”
Some, including educators, observers, and grass-roots organizations are saying that that the cure to these long-standing ills might be worse than the problem.
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