This is the first in a series of articles, editorials, and analysis focusing on the politicization, and economics of the Chicago Public School system, following record-breaking school closings.
In the aftermath of the closing of 49 Chicago Public elementary schools, Monday’s start of the new school year seemed poised for intensive scrutiny, by both pundits and the public alike; and especially with the threat of youngsters traveling to their new “welcoming schools” through gang infested streets, a result of the closings.
While there were no incidents, much of the public and some of the local leadership deemed the 1200 strong “Safe-Passage” workers as little more than a hastily assembled public relations effort by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Some even challenged the assumption that the danger was solely attributed to gang violence.
Pastor Marshall Hatch of New Mt. Pilgrim Baptist church said the issues in the city neighborhoods are more complex than gang rivalries. “This is a regional drug market. A lot of people from the tri-state region and the suburbs come off the Eisenhower Expressway and this is where they cop drugs,” according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
But, as the school year continues and the team members doff their vests, at night, what happens next will be of prime importance for the mayor’s detractors, but also for concerned parents and teachers; but perhaps no one more than Barbara Byrd-Bennett, CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, who along with Emanuel is committed to the success of what they are deeming school reform, along with plugging a hole of more than $1 billion in one of the nation’s persistently moribund city budgets, and in a state which has suffered a downgrade in its bond rating.
The stakes are more than high: big city mayor with presidential ambitions using the city to show his skill; large amounts of black students attending traditional neighborhood schools, a recalcitrant teachers union, and its voluble president looking to protect her turf.
Center stage is the budget: slashed in the previous months with draconian efforts, most schools have lost their music and art classes, their special reading instructors, and as Wendy Katten of parent group Raise Your Hand told the Chicago Tribune, “I don’t know how schools are going to run on this budget. How are they going to run with the amount of reduced staffing?”
Indeed with fewer teachers and staffer, CPS will be hamstrung to meet even the most basic educational goals, with more than 3,000 employees laid off. And, in a political paradox, about half of that amount was teachers, but yet the cash-strapped city will hire about 1,000 teachers for those empty slots.
As noted, the political risks are enormous for Emanuel and his team, and its disproportional effect on Chicago’s African American community, in whose neighborhoods the majority of the closings occurred.
Cries of racism resulted when the list was first released, and have not abated, and the mayor’s initial popularity (he swept the black wards) has been decimated by as much as 48 percent.
The mayor, perhaps in anticipation, of the challenges has recently shored up his campaign fund chest for a full-court press in what promises to be a hotly contested mayoral race in 2015.
Irony abounds with almost all of the now “welcoming schools”: at overflow capacity, thus making the goal of classroom reform even more daunting.
Yet supporters insist despite the cuts, and the chaos, and the closings, that a better experience awaits students, or as the Tribune reported, “17 of the schools also are getting stronger academic components through STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – and International Baccalaureate program, which also costs more money.”
The elephant in the room, however, is still the budget, and as the Sun-Times editorialized on Monday, “CPS’ anemic budget and the slow-bleed crisis it has spawned,” are the main culprit, and is not helped by a “404 million increase in the pension bill this year.”
Reserve spending of a one-time windfall of $700 million became analogous to putting a square peg in a round hole, with most of the extra cash going to North Side schools with the exception of one school, thus showing the deep divisions in class, race, and economics that have plagued the city for decades.
Also, without cuts to teacher pensions, and corresponding growth revenue, “CPS does not have enough dollars to go beyond a barebones education.”
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