Three great friends, who haven’t been on the show for a while, visit to kick around the week’s news.
The students of Douglas High School in Florida have captured our attention, especially after last night’s CNN Town Hall. There’s also Janice Jackson, our new CPS CEO. and the decision not to close those four Englewood high schools all at once. Donald Trump’s fascinating infrastructure plan, which proposes building 1.5 trillion dollars’ worth of roads, bridges, tunnels and airports, without actually having any money on the table. And Block Club Chicago, the newest effort to build a self-sustaining local news journalism site.
To help us sort it out – we have WBEZ’s Sarah Karp, Chicago Public Square’s Charlie Meyerson and NPR’s David Schaper.
“I was in Newtown, Connecticut after the shooting at Sandy Hook,” Schaper begins. “and what struck me—and I’m actually getting goose bumps just thinking about it—is the profound silence in that community. The people were just so devastated. People couldn’t put their thoughts to words in… I mean, there were people out there that were speaking, but there was just this overall sense of just devastation and of loss, and a profound sadness. And as a result, I don’t think that the message got out as well and wasn’t carried as well…families retrench, schools retrench, kids pull together and we’re constantly told, you know, stop putting a microphone in my face. Go away, let us grieve, let us grieve, let us deal with this in our own way. And you want to respect that. But at the same time I think in a lot of incidents in previous times maybe some people haven’t taken advantage of the spotlight that they had until it was too late.”
There’s an irony in the fact that Donald Trump appears more distant, and less empathetic than previous presidents, and we wonder if that has contributed to this sudden, surprising activism. “This is one of so many unanticipated consequences of the Trump presidency.,” Meyerson asserts. “It is in many ways an empowered population of civilians and voters. People are more engaged at all levels and in all political orientations in the process than I think surely would have happened had Hillary Clinton won the election.”
“And,” Karp adds, “I think that there have been Chicago Public School students who have been speaking out about gang violence and gun violence in their neighborhoods and have been trying to capture an audience in the way that these kids have. And I kind of wonder if there’s any sadness or frustration on their part that they haven’t gotten the same attention when Hadiya Pendleton was killed.”
Social media, Schaper says, is a major factor, and it’s paying a huge role in the current debates over countless social issues.
“I think the immigration issue is another issue,” he claims, “that, for a lot of people in urban areas and suburban areas are having a much more sympathetic view towards those who are coming to this country without documentation because they’re knowing them, they’re seeing them, and they’re seeing how their kids interact with their kids. And it’s changing the dynamic. And this is another issue where, again, the kids are leading and the adults are following.”
We ask Sarah Karp about Janice Jackson. She appears to be popular with parents and politicians alike, and she’s been able to perform a couple of policy reversals, such as the decision not to immediately close the four Englewood-area high schools, as had been announced.
“You don’t get to the top by not being a person that can compromise, that can make decisions, and that can maintain sort of a distance from sort of being too friendly with people, or too much of somebody’s person,” Karp explains. “So I will say that that is impressive about her. Even being chief education officer, she was basically No. 2 to Forrest Claypool. She didn’t become attached to him. She didn’t go down with his ship, you know? And she’s maintained sort of what her job is.
Now, I mean, there’s going to be challenges coming up. Even just a couple weeks ago, it was maybe last week or the week before, when Governor Rauner announced his budget and he said he wants to take the pension pickup away from Chicago Public Schools. Well, this will leave a big hole in the Chicago Public Schools’ budget, hundreds of millions. Now coming into this, one of the advantages that she had is that Forrest had, I mean, say what you may about his tenure, I mean, he dealt with a lot of financial issues, he pushed back against the state, and they won some victories. Now if she now wakes up and says okay, now I have to start cutting because I have this hole, well, I think that ends the honeymoon pretty quickly.”
Karp tells us about a recent story she wrote for WBEZ about Hope High School. “When I first started covering CPS, which was like 15, 17 years ago, it was known as a good school on the South Side. And I remember going there. You know who was the principal? Mahalia Hines. Mahalia Hines was the principal that brought that school into being good. And one of the first people I met there was a guy named Chip Johnson. Well, now Chip Johnson is the head of CPS outreach. He is the guy that is presiding over the school closing hearings, closing a school that is very dear to his heart.”
Today, according to Karp, of the 638 high-school aged students who live in Hope’s neighborhood, 602 have elected to leave. But that doesn’t tell the full story. The Englewood kids have scattered all over the city, while other children, mostly people with special education needs, have pooled in the school. Special Ed now serves more than half of the population. And those former Hope kids? They’re in a mix of alternative schools, charters and traditional neighborhood schools – in other neighborhoods.
“In fact only 8% go to selective enrollment schools,” Karp explains. “And I can tell you from looking at the data that very, very few are actually at the Peytons and the Joneses and the really, really good schools. Most of the kids that are in selective enrollment schools are in places like King High School, South Shore High School. These are good selective enrollment schools, but they’re not like the stars of the system….So not many are getting to really, really tremendously better schools.” But they’re having to leave their neighborhoods to get even that incremental improvement.
And meanwhile at Hope High School, which will remain open for another three years because the community insisted on it, the former bustling, championship-winning school is a distant memory. “I mean, would you want your child in a school that doesn’t have much of anything? I mean, not even like—you talk about electives. Like let’s not even talk about after school. Let’s just talk about can you take German, Spanish, French, or…no. You can take Spanish online. That’s it. That’s your choice. That’s it. I mean, gym online. Online gym.
“You know, this is the thing, Karp says. “Some of this is about the kids. You know, you can change the school’s structure. But kids are coming with their socioeconomic backgrounds and educating them is a difficult job.”
“I remember a series that I edited that Jody Becker did for WBEZ back in the late ‘90s about Orr High School,” Schaper recalls. “And she embedded in Orr High School, as it went through one of these transformations and the difficulty of really changing a culture. You can change the staff all you want, and to some degree the challenges that the students are facing remain the same. And resources always becomes a question. And these schools, you know, they kind of reinvent the same problems, in some way, and not the solutions.”
Karp tells us about a recent report issued by the Inspector General for CPS. He found widespread abuse of the system that’s supposed to allocate seats in the neighborhood schools more fairly.
“And so basically, you know, if you have extra space, you can open those seats up,” she explains. “But people are supposed to apply. There’s supposed to be a lottery. Then you get on a waiting list and maybe you get into the school.”
“But principals are sort of not using that process and using their own process. And what they’re doing is some of them are looking at attendance records to see if they want the kids. Some of them are looking at grades. Some of them are looking at whether the kid has been suspended. And why are they doing that? I mean, it makes perfect sense. Why would you take a kid that you don’t need to take if the kid has got attendance problems? Why would you do that?
“I feel like if Janice Jackson was truly honest,” Karp continues, “she would look in the face of the people in Englewood and say listen, you guys are the losers. Your schools are the losers. That’s all there is to it…And going back to the Inspector General’s report, where people are letting kids in, you know, through the side door. Why? Well, one’s incentive—so you have this disincentive to let in kids that are, you know, might drag down your ratings, but you also have this huge incentive because you need that money.”
“That money” refers to the CPS practice of budgeting each school by the number of children enrolled, rather than funding specific programs and services in the school. So if you’re a principal and you’re losing enrollment, you’re losing money.
“On behalf of those parents who still have kids in schools, I mourn the loss of or the undermining of the neighborhood school,” says Meyerson. “I mean, the historic neighborhood school is a place where parents in a neighborhood met one another…And now that they’re sending their kids elsewhere, those neighborhood ties don’t exist. They’re not being formed.
“From the outside looking in,” he explains, “the school ratings game seems like a scam. And I say this as the parent of three sons who are now grown and out of schools and who went to, I think, an excellent school, but one that consistently wound up dinged in the ratings because, in large case because it was a diverse school with a lot of kids with socioeconomic disadvantages.
“And they were getting, as far as I could tell, a great education, but they didn’t have the advantage. Their test scores weren’t what they needed to be. And the result was a great school that showed up in the ratings, the state ratings, as not a New Trier level school, or a Peyton level school. And I think that they feel misleading.”
So let’s talk about infrastructure. What, under the proposed Trump infrastructure plan, would be the toll from, say the Edens Junction to downtown on the Kennedy?
“If that was tolled, it could be three, four, five bucks,” deadpans Schaper. It’s the president’s ‘pay as you go” federal concept that, having no money of its own, proposes to sell the expressways to investors, who would fix them and recoup their payments – and a profit – from user fees.
“This Trump infrastructure plan is a $1.5 trillion plan that actually has no actual money,” Schaper explains. “The President talks about, and has proposed, 200 billion coming from the federal government, but he doesn’t identify where that money comes from. And his aides have said, well, we envision budget cuts elsewhere that would—in the federal budget—that would provide extra money that we could then shift to infrastructure at the rate of $20 billion a year, so we keep whittling it down. It’s oh, it’s 1.5 trillion. Well, it’s really 200 billion. Oh, that’s over ten years, so that’s 20 billion a year…The way they get to some of that cost savings elsewhere in the federal budget, a $750 million cut to Amtrak. Huge cuts to transit programs, particularly capital grants that transit systems around the country, including here in Chicago, are in desperate need of. And the end result is, well then how much new money is really going in?
So that’s the other part of the Trump infrastructure plan – cutting 3/4 billion from Amtrak and other legacy public transit systems.
“The big concern I hear from a lot of people,” Schaper concludes, “is there could be widespread disparities then, projects that—projects that can generate revenue—will get funded. And those improvements that could help, you know, provide new transit options for people in underserved communities – may not.”
And in other good news for the president, Sinclair, the broadcast chain that’s made a name for itself promoting the policies of Donald Trump during its newscasts could be about to gain control of all the Tribune television stations, with the possible exception of WPIX in NYC and Chicago’s Own WGN. But there’s a wrinkle.
“Well,” explains Meyerson, “buying it and then selling it off. To a friend. And apparently, Robert Feder noted this morning, apparently they would continue to operate it, but they wouldn’t own it. So it seems like a difference without a distinction. And we should mention that WGN radio is also in the mix, the one radio station owned by Tribune Media…What becomes of WGN television under such a company, whether it owns it or whether it manages it? I think it’s a legitimate question, a legitimate concern, given the historic role that WGN television and radio have played in, you know, the civic discussion of this city.”
And finally, Block Club Chicago. It debuted with a huge splash last week when fans of the predecessor site, DNAInfo, pledged $130,000 in a couple of days to its Kickstarter.
“You know, I think they’re off to a good start,” Meyerson enthuses. “Anything can happen. And once you have content, and once you have an audience, which $130,000 will buy you, enough to get started and begin to build an audience, I think you can begin to develop other revenue streams, continuing membership fees or contributions, an advertiser base. I still think the digital advertising business, the local digital advertising business, is in for a shakeup and a reinvention. There’s money there, and I think it can be tapped by smart organizations.”
“The question is do they have business people really involved,” Karp wonders. “Because the people I know involved are mostly the reporter people. And, you know, even when you look at like the Chicago News Cooperative from I don’t know how long ago that was, which, you know, was a local entity, I think one of their problems was they didn’t have business people.”
“And they didn’t have digitally savvy content people, either,” Meyerson counters. “These guys know they have built an audience at DNAinfo. They understand what works.That’s a big difference, too.”
Schaper, our guest from NPR, says he’s still on board with non-commercial. “I’m not totally convinced that the nonprofit model can’t work,” he asserts. “There’s some way to marry the two together that you are providing sale, services, advertising, in a way. But, you know, public broadcasting has survived. Public radio is doing better than ever.”
And as the conversation winds down, all four panelists agree that, no matter what, you’ve gotta have good content first.
You can listen to this program on SoundCloud Here.
And you can read a full transcript HERE:CN transcript Feb 22 2018