In 1995, the Chicago Public Schools were in crisis. In 1975, the Chicago Public Schools were in crisis. Also in 2005, and probably in 1955 and 1935.
So it’s useful to sit down with a journalist who’s been covering the schools for more than 30 years to ask – are Chicago’s schools actually better today than they used to be?
Linda Lenz was the Sun-Times’ education reporter for years before leaving in 1990 to found Catalyst-Chicago, a news-magazine devoted exclusively to coverage of the Chicago education scene.
Her answer? It depends.
CPS schools, she says, “serve some kids well. Other kids aren’t served well for a whole variety of reasons. They tend to be the most disadvantaged. And if you look at what Chicago Public Schools have done it’s been an awful lot of two steps forward and one step back. So one thing that’s been frustrating for me in covering this has just seeing how decisions have been made without regard to research, solid research or how schools work…”
During Lenz’s tenure there have been two major sweeps of reform. The first, initiated by Harold Washington, was his effort to decentralize the system and create Local School Councils.
“The definition of reform is what you don’t have right now,” she explains. “And what you had back then was a calcified school system where outsiders couldn’t get in, you know non-profit organizations, parents. And so yeah, it pushed forward the decentralization of the school system and there’s some evidence, hard research to show that that it served to improve a lot of schools.”
But decade later, Richard M. Daley was frustrated with the schools, and asked the Legislature for complete control over the system.
“The ’95 legislation returning unfettered control to the Mayor made a lot of changes that enabled the school board to put its hands on more money,” says Lenz.
But as we now know, that money they put their hands on was money that was supposed to be used for pensions and other important matters.
“Things that the accountants had put in the don’t-touch category – some of the pension money and stuff like that. So Gary Chico and Paul Vallas – they were able to start the recentralization which you would expect a lot of people to protest about,” she explains. Nevertheless, what protest there was didn’t have much effect. “With getting rid of red ink in the budget, a 4-year teachers’ contract, new programs, they came up with that at the beginning and it just sort of shut everybody up because there’s something there for everyone…also the economy was different. But there was no new money that came. They just kind of freed stuff up and the economy has made the difference.”
Lenz says there was little protest from the unions, either.
“Everybody was at the party. You know if they opposed it they did it behind closed doors and very quietly. Now, that makes no sense. I mean in theory they objected to that, but at that time actually I think it was like $65-million that was shifted over from pension taxes to general operating. And the system could sort of afford it at that time because the pension fund was much more well funded…but you know then with the economy going south it couldn’t afford that. It’s sort of a fie on all of us for not having caught that, you know. We journalists should have been paying closer attention…”
Our conversation turns to charters, which are claiming great success for their educational model, but Lenz says the charters have a huge advantage right from the start. “The kids who go into the charter schools and the Noble Streets tend to be better prepared than the kids who go into the neighborhood schools – which have become schools of last resort,” she explains.
“You can argue that they have been successful. But the idea of charter schools is that you are supposed to – one of several things, save money, well you haven’t saved money, come up with innovations and spread them – haven’t seen that much. Then sort of prompt competition that would make the other schools better. Well none of those things have happened, and so I am frustrated that there is no plan and what do you do about the kids who are left to the schools of last resort, in these huge buildings?”
But it’s not just charters the are straining the CPS budgets.
“And then you know they’ve started these schools for kids who have dropped out and come back in, and it’s online and they basically put in very little time. There’s very little teacher interaction. I mean that’s verging on being a sham.”
In the past week, Noble Network has announced plans to add many more charter schools in Chicago, despite the chronic under-enrollment in the city’s traditional schools. Noble is currently educating 10% of Chicago’s high schoolers, and with new federal money it just received it plans to advance to 15% in the next few years.
We ask Linda Lenz : are we on the path to the total privatization of Chicago’s high schools?
“I don’t think so,” she responds. “This City is so politically well organized, grassroots organizations who oppose the charter schools and they now have gotten to the aldermen who oppose the charter schools. Certainly the Chicago Teachers Union which has shown its organizing power opposes them, so I just think the politics run against it becoming a total privatization. Now there are very wealthy people who our Mayor plays around with and they are coming in to support these schools, but you know while they have money for a campaign ultimately they don’t have that many votes, you know.”
Lenz says Mayor Emanuel’s accomplishments in the education realm so far have been mixed. But there have been serious mis-steps.
“I think folks like mayors, they want to move quickly,” she tells us. “They don’t want to deal with the messy, sometimes drawn-out process of moving the schools forward. And certainly Mayor Emanuel found that out when he first got into office and just rushed in to do these reforms that everybody wanted, and I presume he thought everybody would applaud them, but he didn’t pay attention to how it gets done.”
Read the full CN Oct 22 transcript