George Schmidt has taught in seventeen of Chicago’s traditional neighborhood high schools. He founded and still writes for Substance News, which has needled CPS for over 30 years. He has a strong reaction to this week’s news (reported by Sarah Karp at Catalyst and Linda Lutton at WBEZ) that enrollment in neighborhood high schools has dropped dramatically as dozens of alternative high schools have opened.
“The problem is that the Board of Education has for at least the past fifty years been sabotaging the neighborhood high schools in different ways,” he claims. “This is not something new. The new piece is the charter schools are given so much preference in ripping off the kids and then sending back the kids they don’t want. After they get their money for the year. You know this is one of the tricks. You get your money in October and then in January you send the kids to Kelvyn Park or Amundsen…You have an almost propaganda campaign coupled with fiscal sabotage.”
The once-proud major high schools that dominated their neighborhoods started being challenged long ago, he says. “If you go all the way back to the sixties there’s been this push for magnet schools, preferential treatment schools, and as a result, the neighborhood high schools have faced these challenges.”
But why has there been this historic push for alternatives? Isn’t it because parents were often dissatisfied with these schools?
In some cases, yes, Schmid says. For the most part, though, he believes the issue was, and remains, under-resourcing. But there’s something else. “There was a kind of vicious, racist component to this,” he says.
“The southwest side is the phrase that Chicago uses to explain where the white people moved to as the black people expanded through the south side. At one point the southwest side ended around Halsted Street, then Racine, then Ashland…well now, at the last Board of Ed meeting, they were talking about the people from the southwest side don’t have a college prep high school. And they’re complaining. Well, at the same time the three college-prep academic magnet high schools on the South Side – Lindbloom, King and Brooks, are under-enrolled. Payton’s over-enrolled. And North-Side College Prep, and Jones. Those are the white part-of-town schools.” If the Board accommodates this separatist thinking, he says, this unsustainable disparity will continue.
The new high schools that have cropped up in recent years aren’t all what you might think of when you imagine a high school. Some, he says, are small, “high-schooly thingies” created for special interests.
“Communities that have a boutique sense of what they want…they get it because they have the clout, sometimes under the table – you don’t see and and then suddenly you have Disney II over there in Old Irving park where you can’t buy a home for less than three quarters of a million dollars. They didn’t need it. Schurz High School is right there. If you’d put the same resources into Schurz you wouldn’t have had to invent Disney II.”
We ask if perhaps the whole idea of a big, general high school is outmoded, and that students are better served by smaller, specialty schools. Schmidt says no. “The general high schools in the suburbs, from Glenbard West to New Trier…are having no problem. It’s the peculiar history and the nature of Chicago politics and education politics that got us into this pickle,” he concludes.
We discuss CPS budgeting, a topic Schmidt has been passionate about for decades. He ridicules the “billion dollar deficit” that was mentioned so often as a reason for closing schools and firing thousands of staff. And he cites a power-point presentation at the July Board meeting. “The Chief Administrative Officer of CPS gets up..basically what he said, we didn’t really have a billion-dollar deficit because we found six hundred million dollars in our reserves. A year earlier they said we didn’t have any reserves.”
Schmidt concedes that there is a giant pension hole in the Chicago teachers Pension fund, a hole he blames on the Daley Administration and former CEO Ron Huberman, as they requested and got “pension holidays” that starved the fund. But the hole is fixable, he says.
“We need progressive taxation, we need a serious review of the way in which property taxes are collected from corporations, we need an end to tax benefits. Boom, suddenly we have more revenue,” he explained. We had to agree to defer until another program the discussion about just how he’d get Congress, the Illinois Legislature and the City Council to go along with his plan.
And what about Labor’s traditional political allies, the Democrats? Mayor Emanuel and president Obama haven’t proven to be friendly to unions.
So what’s next for the CTU and for collective bargaining for public employees? “So now we’re going to be involved more intensely in political action,” he asserts. “And I think there’s gonna be a lot of rewarding friends, because we have some good friends, from here to Springfield and Washington. And really looking at who our enemies are, starting with, of course, Rahm Emanuel.”