Progress, Problems and Politics in the Chicago Public Schools

Last weekend, I bought a subscription to the Chicago Sun-Times, which recently instituted a paywall. I love the gritty, bare-knuckles reporting and cut-through-the-noise columnists of the self-described “Hardest-Working Paper in America.” I’m even getting home delivery.

Monday morning, the paper arrived with a lengthy story on “fiascoes” in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) that could become a headache for Mayor Rahm Emanuel in the upcoming mayoral election. Given the nation-leading gains in America’s third-largest school district and the positive buzz over the appointment of parent, teacher, administrator and former student Janice Jackson as chief executive officer, the headline caught my attention.

Sure enough, the story offered up lots of hard-hitting quotes from political opponents of the mayor, along with charged rhetoric from the CPS inspector general, but context is always helpful, so let’s review them.

  1. The Barbara Byrd-Bennett episode certainly counts as a full-blown scandal, with no-bid contracts, kickbacks and a bribery conviction that landed the former CEO in prison. As the person who appointed her, Mayor Emanuel bears some responsibility, but it’s hardly disqualifying. There is no involvement on his part.
  2. The ethics investigation that prompted CPS CEO Forrest Claypool to resign, on the other hand, was nothing more than a lapse in judgement from an accomplished and dedicated public servant. No crimes occurred, and none were alleged, yet Claypool paid an enormous political and personal price for hiring at a considerable discount a law firm employing longtime colleagues to sue the state for more funding.
  3. Another ethics investigation, this one involving one-time board member and education technology investor Deborah Quazzo, also turned up no explicit wrongdoing but plenty of headline-generating innuendo in the inspector general’s report. Quazzo also stepped down under a cloud.
  4. The special education reforms, championed by Claypool, were an unqualified policy misstep that triggered a major WBEZ expose, state hearings and a decision to put the entire program under state oversight for three years. CPS learned the hard way one of the cardinal rules of education politics: Don’t mess with special education parents. They know their rights, they know the law, and they will not be denied. That said, the problems Claypool sought to solve, remain unsolved and costly.
  5. Next on the list are the 2013 closings of 50 schools. A study by the Chicago Consortium on School Research concluded the closings were not well-implemented and correlated with some temporary drops in test scores and a slight increase in student mobility.

    Mayor Emanuel can, perhaps, be faulted for closing too many schools at once, but given the extreme under-enrollment in the system, closing schools is the only responsible option for a cash-strapped school district. The plain fact is that the system is built to serve 500,000 but enrolls only 370,000 and the number is expected to keep dropping. The mayor’s political opponents loudly condemn school closures, but should any of them be elected, they too will have to close schools. They might do it slower or better, but they will do it.

  6. Another item on the list—the “filthy schools” investigation by the Sun-Times—reflects badly on the district’s decision to privatize the custodial staff. Again, most of the quotes come from the mayor’s political opponents and teachers union leaders.

    Should schools be clean? Of course. Are they dirtier than before, when unionized janitors were responsible for maintenance? Who knows? A decade ago, under Arne Duncan, the system temporarily closed down 600 school cafeterias after surprise inspections revealed mouse droppings in a handful of them.

  7. Similarly, “manipulated graduation figures”—based on an investigation by WBEZ and the Better Government Association—is also overblown. Graduation rates are notoriously fudgy, but it is beyond debate that Chicago has dramatically boosted its graduation rate. Arguing over a point or two is beside the point.
  8. Lastly, we come to, in the words of CEO Jackson, a “sick to my stomach” sex abuse exposé from the Chicago Tribune. In a yearlong investigation, the paper dug up records on 532 sex abuse cases in the last decade involving CPS personnel and dug deep on 108 to find examples of mishandling, cover-ups and, in some cases, justice.

    Unforgivable as this is, it’s unclear if CPS is an outlier or if it is simply stumbling through the same legally treacherous territory as everyone else. As the #MeToo movement shows, sex abuse is a national problem and, it seems that everyone from the Catholic Church to Hollywood is mishandling it. The Tribune series points at several flaws in the system.

    First of all, as this USA Today expose shows, school-based harassers are regularly rehired in other states, districts, and even schools in the same district because many abuse suspects are dismissed without filing criminal charges or a definitive finding. At most, the incident is noted only in personnel records, which are confidential under state laws, and don’t show up in background checks.

    Second, the district and the unions both have a legal incentive to discredit the accusers. CPS lawyers must protect taxpayers from lawsuits; union lawyers must protect members from discipline. The victims, many of whom are traumatized adolescents or teens, wither under questioning and often choose to drop their claims.

    A third problem is that many “mandated reporters” required by law to report sex abuse incidents—including teachers, principals and other adults working in the schools—simply don’t report and there is little enforcement. Maybe they’re unsure if the behavior crosses the line. Maybe they are covering up for a friend. Either way, the victims lose.

    Where the administration mishandled some cases, it’s the mayor’s job to address it, but it’s unreasonable to hold him directly responsible for the bad behavior of adults working in the schools. The real culprits are the abusers themselves and their school-based colleagues who look the other way.

    To its credit, CPS brought in outside counsel to unpack the whole tragic mess and make recommendations. CPS has also proposed shifting oversight of sex abuse cases to the inspector general, who is now investigating past abuses back to the year 2000.

    We can undoubtedly expect more horror stories, but, with nine announced candidates for mayor in a city where politics is our most popular contact sport, it might be too much to expect an honest and thoughtful debate on the best way to address the issue.

Separating fact from fiction and fumble from fiasco will be an ongoing challenge for Chicago voters set to decide the city’s political future. Hopefully, the problems and the politics won’t completely overshadow Chicago’s progress in the classroom.

Can’t wait to read tomorrow’s paper.

Peter Cunningham is the executive director of Education Post, which funds Chicago Unheard. He is also the former director of communications for the Chicago Public Schools.

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Peter Cunningham

Peter Cunningham is the executive director of Education Post, which funds Chicago Unheard. He is also the former director of communications for the Chicago Public Schools.