October 16, 2012

Shaking up the top of the class

The teachers’ strike may be over, but Chicago Public Schools are still ruled by Mayor Emanuel.

The Chicago teachers’ strike is over. Teachers managed to achieve additional funding, pay raises, reasonable hours, and fairer evaluations. And, just three weeks after the strike, the CEO of Chicago Public Schools (CPS), Jean-Claude Brizard, announced he was stepping down. So everything’s okay now, right? The big bad CEO is gone, the teachers got what they wanted, and students can rejoice? Well, not quite.

It’s easy to dislike Brizard. Before his brief 17-month stint with CPS, he worked as a district superintendent in Rochester, New York, where he received a nearly 95 percent “no-confidence” vote from the teachers. He accepted a raise to his six-figure salary even as CPS claimed they were too underfunded to provide raises for teachers. He took a vacation while teachers were still negotiating for a better contract. That he was utterly incompetent is a given. But with him gone, nothing is going to change. The man who appointed Brizard in the first place, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, is still in office, and he’s been calling the shots all along.

The mayor’s office has ruled CPS since 1995, when the state legislature allowed Mayor Daley to have an appointed school board instead of an elected one; Chicago is the only school district in Illinois that doesn’t hold school board elections. There’s a reason 96 percent of the nation’s school districts have elected boards: The power to appoint school board officials opens the doors for cronyism. Consider, for example, Emanuel’s appointment of wealthy individuals like Penny Pritzker, whose family is known to have contributed generously to Emanuel’s campaign. It’s ridiculous to assume that allowing a mayor to appoint school board officials will result in anything other than political patronage.

Even so, Emanuel’s actions go well beyond controlling the school board. During his mayoral campaign last year, he declared his love for charter schools, claiming that the best high schools in Chicago were charter schools—even though there isn’t a single charter among the top ten test-scoring schools. As mayor, Emanuel diverted money from public schools, which are unionized, to charters, which aren’t, opened up new charters, and made plans to close current public schools.

Charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run, are known to be extremely lucrative for investors due to certain federal tax credits. It therefore comes as no surprise that major banks and wealthy individuals have come to embrace  ‘education reform’ in the past few years, investing in charters or privatized schools and reaping huge profits off them. It’s been suggested that some of the profits from charters end up as campaign contributions for Emanuel, but it’s difficult to prove one way or the other. Regardless of his motives, Emanuel has made it clear that he plans to wage war against public schools and unions in support of charters.

I don’t mean to say public schools and unions are inherently better than charters and profits. In the end, the rhetoric always boils down to what’s best for students, regardless of who else benefits from it. However, charter schools haven’t been shown to perform any better than public schools in terms of standardized testing.

The same parties who support charter schools tend to be the ones who advocate increased standardized testing and merit-based pay. In theory, these ideas make sense: Their application would provide incentives for teachers to perform better, as well as attracting more capable individuals to the field of education. However, they’re flawed in some key ways. For one, students would still have no incentive to do well on standardized tests, and children typically don’t appreciate having to fill in bubbles all day, anyway. What’s more, these measures motivate teachers to fabricate results as a way to boost their own scores. It has happened in the past, probably still happens, and will probably continue to happen as long as teachers are evaluated by their students’ performances on meaningless exams.

I was a CPS student for 13 years. I’ve seen the flaws of the system. My elementary school, known for having the top scores in the state, spent several months each year teaching us how to pass standardized tests instead of covering actual material. Some teachers would even try to give us answers to inflate test scores. It turns out that teachers, like students, are forced to jump through hoops in order to appease administrators. Is that conducive to a proper learning environment? Is that what a ‘top school’ should be like?

It’s clear that the top-down style of administration at CPS breeds ineffectiveness. As it stands, one man with no formal background in education effectively controls the public school system of Chicago. Is he fit to tell teachers what they should be teaching? Are his interests really aligned with those of the students and teachers?

Even after the strike, actions are still being taken against Rahm Emanuel’s de facto control of CPS. Voters in 35 of Chicago’s 50 wards will soon get to vote on whether the school board should be elected or appointed. If the referendum passes, it’ll be an important step toward dismantling the failing regime of CPS.

Ben Huynh is a first-year in the College majoring in economics.