When it’s not his children’s school

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel

There is a great deal of anger among Chicago parents about the city’s plan to close some 50 public schools. Here is a powerful piece from parent Matt Farmer, a Chicago trial lawyer  who is a member of the Local School Council at Philip Rogers Elementary School. A version of this appeared on Huffington Post.

By Matt Farmer

Question: When is a Chicago elementary school with 23 kids in a classroom not considered by Mayor Rahm Emanuel to be an “underutilized” school?

Answer: When it’s his kids’ school.

Emanuel plans to close 54 public elementary schools at the end of the 2012-13 school year. The reason, he says, is because the schools are “underutilized.” He bases that claim on an esoteric — and deeply flawed — Chicago Public Schools space utilization formula.

It’s a formula, for example, that will peg a school’s utilization as “efficient” (rather than “overcrowded”) if that school has 36 students in each of its “allotted homerooms.”

Using that same formula, a CPS elementary school with just 23 kids in each of its “allotted homerooms” would find itself on the district’s “underutilized” list, which, in 2013, is the first step on the road to being shut down.

At the mayor’s kids’ school, however, elementary classes are considered “full” if there are 23 students in the classroom.

But rest assured the mayor is not going to add The University of Chicago Laboratory Schools to his school-closings hit list. Nor is he urging Lab management to renegotiate the class-size provisions of its current labor agreement with the AFT Local 2063 teachers who educate his kids.

After all, it’s one thing to push class-size “efficiencies” (not to mention batteries of standardized tests, drill-and-kill instruction, “merit” pay, and fresh-faced Teach For America novices) on other people’s kids, but don’t look for the mayor to urge those “reforms” upon the folks at Lab any time soon.

That’s because Lab is a big-bucks private school for big-bucks Chicagoans — folks who understand that their young kids will tend to fare better in smaller classes. Lab parents write hefty tuition checks knowing their kids’ class sizes are contractually capped at 23 students.

Most CPS parents I know would love to have their kids in classes with no more than 23 kids, but they also know that such a school wouldn’t be long for this world under Emanuel.

Because when it comes to our kids, the mayor and his pals don’t believe large class sizes are even an issue. They’ll tell us it’s all about the teachers. As the mayor’s Communications Officer Becky Carroll recently put it, “It’s the quality of teaching in that classroom. You could have a teacher that is high-quality that could take 40 kids in a class and help them succeed.”

Plenty of parents whose kids are stuck in overcrowded schools on the city’s Northwest and Southwest Sides have had it with Carroll’s brand of foolishness. These are parents who, at this point, would be absolutely thrilled to have only 30 students in their kids’ classrooms.

And a lot of them are also wondering why the mayor and CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett aren’t showering their kids with gifts of air conditioners, iPads, science labs and libraries — things thousands of soon-to-be displaced CPS kids are told they’re going to enjoy at their so-called “welcoming” schools.

Things Byrd-Bennett now calls “fundamentals for our children.”

Part of the problem with a district that changes CEOs on a near-annual basis — CPS is now on its fifth CEO since April 2008 — is the absence of any institutional memory.

Was a school library a CPS “fundamental” in 2010?

Back then, a group of Mexican-American mothers staged a 47-day sit-in at Whittier Elementary School in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. The reason for their sit-in? They wanted a school library for their youngsters.

And 36 days into that sit-in, on October 19, 2010, then-CEO Ron Huberman held a press conference at CPS headquarters and announced that CPS was going to put a library in that school. (I was with Huberman and the Whittier moms at both the negotiating table and the press conference that day.)

A few weeks later, Huberman resigned from CPS. Whittier School still has no library.

And CPS leadership wonders why it has a credibility problem?

Last week, public school parents openly challenged Emanuel to “walk the walk” with respect to his school closings plan. Specifically, they asked him to walk with them down some of the same gang-infested streets he’s now asking their kids to navigate next year to get to their new iPads and air conditioners.

The mayor may not care much that CPS parents actually want him to walk these routes. What should matter to him, though, as the father of this school closings plan is whether he’d be willing to have his own kids make those dangerous treks (sans police escort) each day.

I’ll bet you an iPad he wouldn’t.

Chicago’s school “reform” efforts have always worked best on other people’s children.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · April 19, 2013