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Chicago’s Mayoral Candidates Duke It Out on Education

December 20th, 2010 by jacqueline

Also printed in the Huffington Post

As Illinois has the proud distinction of ranking 49th for state education funding — second only to Nevada, a state heavily subsidized by the gaming industry — parents across Chicago rightfully want to know where Chicago’s mayoral candidates stand on education.

Yesterday, I joined a standing-room-only crowd at Walter Payton High School for the first Chicago Mayoral Forum on Education sponsored by Northside Democracy for America, the Illinois Policy Institute, and the less-than-a-year-old Raise Your Hand Coalition (RYH). In this case, the event sponsor was just as interesting as the event itself.

Thanks to RYH, parents have become a powerful force in Illinois politics. Last spring, when drastic budget cuts threatened to raise class sizes to 37 students, RYH helped mobilize over 175,000 Chicago residents to contact their legislators through the No to 37! Campaign. At the eleventh hour, lo and behold, CPS found enough money to keep class sizes at 28. A few months later, RYH successfully lobbied Mayor Daley and the city council to return a $90 million surplus from the city’s notorious TIF slush fund back to its rightful recipient, the public schools. These two rapid-fire, parent-driven bucket campaigns helped turn the four volunteer RYH leaders — Sonia Kwon, Amy Smolensky, Patricia O’Keefe and Wendy Katten — into urban folk heroes.

So, when these supermoms promised a forum to hear each of the candidates’ plans for educating the nearly half million CPS students who attend CPS schools everyday, including their own young children, the news traveled through cyberspace like a game of telephone on steroids. The event, which was live-streamed as well, sold out all 400 seats in less than 48 hours!

Since I was missing Top Chef All-Stars to attend the debate, the entertainment bar was set pretty high; and the evening didn’t disappoint. Andy Shaw, Executive Director of the Better Government Association and former ABC political reporter, moderated a “civilized and sensitive” discussion between Gery Chico, City Clerk Miguel Del Valle, Senator Carol Moseley Braun and State Senator Reverend James Meeks. Two noted absences: Representative Danny Davis and Rahm Emanuel. Davis was called back to the Capital for pending legislation, and Rahm was pulled away to testify at the legal proceedings over his residency, Illinois’ endlessly entertaining three-ring circus that is surely keeping the rest of the country in stitches.

Every candidate at the forum affirmed their personal allegiance to public education. “Everybody up here, we went to Chicago Public Schools,” Meeks said. “So there was a day when Chicago Public Schools used to work. Something happened along the way and we have to fix it.” But how?

Everyone hoped to find a equitable solution to the education funding crisis without raising property taxes. While Chico, Valle and Meeks said a state income tax hike was in the cards, Braun winced at the thought, “I don’t support a tax increase — I think we need to live within our means.” On finding more cash from TIFs, everyone urged more transparency. Braun said that the program has become so corrupt that a wholesale moratorium is in order. Meeks got the biggest applause of the night: “The TIF program is not intended to be the mayor’s private piggy bank, or the City Council’s private piggy bank!” Only Chico defended the program.

Kudos to RYH keeping everyone’s feet to the fire, but let’s pretend for a moment that Illinois actually pulled out of its 50-year nose-dive, and rose to the 47th or even the 42nd worst state in the union for state funding for education. What then? Ultimately, how many extra dollars per student would each school have after the pot was divvied-up across the state? More money will certainly help, but money alone is not the answer.

Every candidate argued that we need to radically change the way CPS does business, offering some version of the standard-issue reform pu-pu platter: more support for early childhood and after-school programming; lengthen the school day and extend the school year; restore art, music, sports and language to the classroom; improve school safety, infrastructure, science and technology; empower parents to play an active role in their child’s education; raise teaching standards; and demand more accountability. Gosh, who wouldn’t want all that?!?

The only marketed difference seemed to be how each candidate handled hot-button issues, such as charters, unions, merit pay, vouchers and whether an educator or a business person should lead CPS (Rhee-0; Vallas-1). Meeks gave CPS a “D under Daley,” and plans to issue private school vouchers to the thousands of students who attend the worst performing schools until he can figure out how to fix the system. On further reflection, he gave the system an F. Chico, who led CPS from 1995 to 2001, gave it a C- (apparently everything tanked just after he left office), and also supports vouchers. Valle thoughtfully graded the system from A to C-, giving extra praise to the city’s elementary schools; “the day we give parents vouchers is the day we throw-up our hands, and give up.”

And, of course, there was the thorny issue of whether public schools are (or were) good enough for the candidates’ own children. Chico and Valle frequently reminded the audience that their own children attended CPS schools, a thinly-veiled slam on the other candidates whose children attend private or parochial schools. News flash: elected officials face the same frustrating public/private school gauntlet as the rest of us. In Chicago, the situation has become so dire that a thriving cottage industry of private consultants has sprung up to help parents navigate the complex public school admissions process. I have yet to meet a private school parent who wouldn’t choose public school if only it would chose them.

Braun was the only candidate who spoke to Chicago’s public/private school crush. Against the drumbeat for increased school choice, Braun tenaciously held on to the dowdy notion that we should just improve our neighborhood schools. “What makes Walter Payton a world class school?” she asked. It isn’t because it’s a magnet or a charter, or because its students have parents who love them more — Walter Payton succeeds because it has talented teachers, involved parents, visionary leadership and appropriate resources. “Why shouldn’t every neighborhood school be of this caliber?” The school podium read: “Curiosity, Character, Courage, Compassion.” Why not, indeed.

The weekend before the debate, Rahm unveiled his comprehensive education plan, which has already been endorsed by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, among others. In full disclosure, Rahm wrote the afterword to my book, How to Walk to School: Blueprint for a Neighborhood School Renaissance, but I’d be a fan regardless. He’s been a champion of my little public elementary school, Nettelhorst, for almost a decade — in fact, his very first act of congress was to cut the ribbon on our community Open House; 300 families came and 78 kids signed up for preschool that day! As ambitious as his plan is, it must be executed well to succeed, and in a hardscrabble town like Chicago, he better be prepared to fight.

All the mayoral candidates demanded parents to step-up to the plate, but parents, particularly in less advantaged neighborhoods, need help accessing existing resources and forging connections (see my post, Political Will). While Nettelhorst parent reformers didn’t necessary know which doors to knock on, we knew the people to ask to find the right ones and we had the audacity to keep knocking — and ringing, and calling, and cajoling, and asking, and asking — until the occupants relented or we found another way in. When people said “no,” we only heard, “not yet…”

Of course, change requires work. Reform is often messy and unpredictable. However, there’s simply no reason why highly energetic parents must keep reinventing the wheel over and over again. Our next mayor must be committed to empowering parent-led reform movements with the relatively simple tools they need to succeed.

If last night’s debate confirmed anything, it was this: Public schools belong to the public, and that’s all of us. Education reform will take leadership from the top, but ultimately it’s our collective responsibility to wrap our arms around our schools, and make them the heart of our communities. If we can’t do that, it won’t matter if we elect Jesus or Bo-Bo the Clown. If we hope to reform education, it’s only going to happen neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block, one school at a time.

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