RAHM STEPS UP TO THE PLATE

Chicago Mayor Emanuel pursuing aggressive strategy to fix a broken public school system

BY STEVE GUNN

Editorial submission from Education Action Group

Chicago Mayor Rahm EmanuelCHICAGO – The problem for students in Chicago Public Schools was summed up by the first line of a recent newspaper article:

“Chicago Public Schools officials said they had no choice but to leave a majority of failing schools open because there are no good schools nearby to send students or any that could absorb more students.”

The answer to this dilemma is not to close bad schools, but to “fix” them with the current staffs and counterproductive union rules intact, according to Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis.

As if the schools only started failing last week. As if the union even cared about failing schools and incompetent teachers before reformers started breathing down its neck and charter schools starting eroding its budget.

Then last week, a group of Chicago community organizations urged the city to spend more money on public schools, as if that would cure anything. This group has obviously never noticed that increased “investments” in public schools often lead to higher salaries and more expensive benefits for teachers, not improved student performance.

Thank goodness Mayor Rahm Emanuel is on the job.

As a liberal Democrat and veteran of the Obama administration, Emanuel might be expected to be an old-fashioned ally of organized labor. But since he took office last year, the mayor has displayed a firm understanding of the challenges faced by the city’s public schools and the obstructions placed in the way of reform by the self-serving CTU.

That’s why he recently defied the CTU and insisted on longer academic days in various schools this year and all schools next year.

That’s also why he’s pressing ahead with a plan to close four elementary schools, phase out two high schools, and impose dramatic “turnaround” programs at 10 more schools. The turnaround programs feature the dismissal of current staff and the hiring of outside management companies.

The mayor is also planning to open 12 new charter schools, with outside management, next year. Those are clearly steps in the right direction for kids who need to learn now.

What the fools believe

Lewis and the CTU seem to think that existing public schools and their staffs should be given unlimited time and resources to improve their performance, following decades of consistently dismal results.

There are more than 123,000 students stuck in underperforming schools in the district, according to the Chicago Crusader. Only 8 percent of 11th graders are testing college ready, and the graduation rate in the district is an embarrassing 57 percent, the news report said.

Meanwhile, the achievement gap between white and minority students has risen over the past 20 years, in a district with an overwhelming majority of black and Latino students.

“The conventional thinking at CPS should be how can we improve these schools rather than close them,” Lewis was quoted as saying.

How long should students and families wait for these schools to be fixed? Three years? Five years? What does that do for the kids who are junior or sophomores in high school this year? Will the schools be fixed in time to provide them a quality education?

Urgent turnaround efforts like those being pursued by the mayor do not meet Lewis’ approval, either.

She believes the turnaround program is just an effort by the mayor to turn public schools over to private interests. She was quoted as saying that the “disruptions” caused by turnaround efforts and school closings are “heartbreaking.”

Perhaps they are heartbreaking for the people losing their jobs, but we’re sure it’s just the opposite for the students and families who are looking for schools that get the job done.

Incredibly, Lewis seems to think that the students are the problem, rather than the schools and employees who are supposed to be serving them. By closing more schools and transferring students, she said the city would simply “transfer the problem to another school.”

We’ve got some news for Ms. Lewis. Students are failing in the classroom because the schools are failing them, not the other way around. You won’t be crippling functional schools by sending struggling students their way. On the contrary, the students will benefit from the superior academic and social environment.

We’re similarly baffled by the “group of community organizations” that dared to suggest that “a lot of these schools have not been given adequate resources to be the best that they can be,” according to the Chicago News Cooperative.

Please.

The Chicago school district has an annual operating budget of well over $5 billion per year. It spent a healthy $11,536 per student in the 2009-10 school year. The student/teacher ratio is a very manageable 24/1 in high school and middle schools and 20/1 at the grade school level.

The staff is certainly not underpaid. The average Chicago teacher salary was $74,839 in the 2009-10 academic year, when the union was in the midst of a four-year contract that provided 4 percent annual raises. The average administrative salary was $120,659 that year.

We agree that there is a money problem in Chicago Public Schools. The district is spending too much on labor and not enough on students, particularly in this tough economic time.

Mayor pushing for quality, choice

It’s frightening to think of how bad things could get in Chicago if misguided souls like Lewis and the people running the “community organizations” were calling the shots.

Fortunately Emanuel is firmly in charge and determined to dramatically address failing schools and increase school choice.

We like his approach toward school “turnaround,” which involves “the firing of existing staff and improvements to school curriculum and culture,” according to the Chicago News Cooperative.

Ten schools are slated for turnaround next year, and six of them will be managed by a private organization, the Academy for Urban School Leadership, which already runs 12 Chicago public schools. The other four turnaround schools will be managed by the district’s Office of School Improvement.

Each of the turnaround schools will be given roughly $300,000 in startup money and an additional $420 per pupil each year for the first five years, according to the news report. That way they can’t continue to use underfunding as an excuse for poor or mediocre student learning.

District leaders claim that the turnaround efforts have been successful in other schools, even before Emaneul became mayor, pointing to large gains in standardized test scores for kids attending schools managed by the private AUSL or the Office of School Improvement.

Officials are particularly proud of Christian Fenger Academy High School on the city’s troubled south side, which became a “turnaround school” in 2009 folllowing 13 years on academic probation.

In 2009-10, only 2.9 percent of Fenger students were meeting state academic standards. That figure jumped to 5.4 percent in 2010-11, according to a newspaper report. The average ACT score in the district improved from 13 to 14 in that time, and 68 percent of freshmen are now on track to graduate this year, compared to 60 percent in 2010-11.

“The school has a wonderful young principal who has done some amazing things with the students,” said Jean-Claude Brizard, chief operating officer for the school district. “That school has come a long way and is on its way to recovery.”

The Emanuel administration recently announced that 12 new charter schools will be opened on the city’s south and west sides next year. All of them will be operated contractually by outside school management companies.

And more changes are apparently on the way in future years, according to administration officials. That means the mayor and his staff will keep pushing for better schools and better options for kids, regardless of the selfish protests that continue to stream from defenders of the broken status quo.

“We do know we have many more schools in need,” Brizard was quoted as saying. “We could not do the entire city in one year.”