Minority Students in Chicago: Hostages of the Democratic Party
Oppressive Democrat-union alliance leaves few options for the youth of the Windy City.
In 2009, the Chicago Public School system (CPS) was rocked by a grade inflation scandal. A Chicago Sun-Times report revealed that one-fifth of the CPS teachers felt “pressured” to change grades. “There's definitely a sense of, 'We've gotta move these kids through.' Even though they're not even close to grade level,” said English teacher Caitlin Ring at the time. Apparently no one learned their lesson. In 2010, led by Hyde Park Academy High, a number of schools in Chicago changed the grades of thousands of students once again. NBC Chicago speculated the moves were made to avoid another round of controversial closures of failing schools similar to those that occurred in 2010. Such failure is endemic to the CPS – and once again, it is black and Hispanic students who overwhelmingly suffer the consequences of another failing Democrat-run, major metropolitan school system.
The statistics are distressingly aligned with those of other failing, big city public school systems. In July 2012, a self-congratulatory CPS release touting the “highest graduation rate on record" revealed that 60.6 percent of students were earning a diploma. That such a stat means almost two-in-five students don't graduate or, more accurately, drop out, is apparently no reason to dampen the enthusiasm. "These results are impressive, but we have more work to do in ensuring that every child in our district graduates ready for college and career,” said former Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard in a news release.
What Brizard didn't mention, nor was he asked to explain, is the reality that even the 60.6% “graduation” rate is a sham. CPS calculates five-year graduation rates to reach that figure, and has been doing so for fourteen years, despite a state requirement that four-year graduation rates must be used for official counts sent to parents. Essentially, this gimmick allows the school to include in the graduation rate students who require extra time to graduate. Furthermore, the uptick of 2.3 percent was lower than the five-year gains posted in 2006 or 2010. Brizard can no longer explain anything. After only 17 months on the job, his $250,000 contract was terminated by “mutual agreement” with Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
In a piece for the Chicago Tribune, Brizard highlighted some of the grim realities of the CPS, noting that “fewer than 24 percent of Chicago Public Schools graduates were prepared to attend a four-year college, and only 1 in 7 African-American students tested college-ready.” He also contended that “the public school district is an outdated model that is not flexible or responsive enough to serve the needs of all students.” Brizard then reveals the ultimate bankruptcy of that model. “Twenty-five years of reform have not produced a sufficient number of quality schools in Chicago,” he concludes.
When the latest graduation rates were revealed, CPS spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler claimed that CPS students are better prepared entering high school, “due to investments we've made at the elementary level.” According to the U.S. Department of Education, such “investments” cannot be squared with reality. A full 79 percent of eighth graders are not grade-level proficient in reading, and 80 percent are not grade-proficient in math. Thus, a student body that is 41.6 percent black and 44.1 percent Hispanic is getting shafted, even as education officials are patting themselves on the back.
Yet it is black children who are faring the worst. During the same 25 years Brizard cites as a failure regarding reform efforts, the racial achievement gap has widened in the CPS system, surpassing national trends. Black students have lost ground to white, Hispanic and Asian students, and the dropout rate for blacks is ten points higher that the 40 percent rate that afflicts the system overall. A 2011 report by the CPS itself reveals other damning stats, including the reality that only 7.9 percent of eleventh graders are college ready, and that over the course of two decades, reading scores have remain flat, and math scores have made only marginal gains. Yet the most staggering statistic of all is the 44-point achievement gap – chasm is more like it – between black and white high school student performance.
Such epic failure no doubt explains another dubious statistic: a 2004 study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute revealed that 39 percent of Chicago public school teachers send their own children to private schools. So does Windy City Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Such hypocrisy is amplified in a report compiled by researchers working for the teachers union that characterized the effort to close neighborhood public schools and replace them with privately-run charter schools as “educational apartheid.” Naturally, the union's interest was self-serving: charter schools are non-union, and their existence, along with their expansion, threatens the status quo.
However, it is the teacher union itself that promotes apartheid. It is their unrelenting efforts to keep minority children in failing public schools rather than give them a chance to succeed in another setting that constitutes genuine segregation. While union leaders and the politicians they support send their kids to private schools, in 2010, the union blocked a pilot program set up by former state Sen. James Meeks aimed at getting more than 20,000 students out of substandard Chicago public schools. The bill was passed in the Senate, but died in the House. In the last three years, no other bill has come close to a floor vote, even as the same public schools continue to mortgage the futures of black children.
A new “solution” has been proposed by Rep. La Shawn Ford (D-Chicago). He wants to use lottery money to pay for $6000 scholarships for 1,000 students per year. Kids who live the ZIP codes with the highest lottery sales, mostly the poorest neighborhoods in the city, would be eligible. Who wouldn't be eligible? The other 18,000 children who would still be on waiting lists for a charter school education.
Meanwhile, according to the CPS website, teachers earn an average of $74,839 per year, a number that does not include benefits. When the teachers union initiated a strike last September 10, CTU attorney Robert Bloch attempted to elicit sympathy for their plight. “When you're looking at compensation, it's not enough just to look at salary, because Chicago Public Schools teachers have to pay more for their insurance, and they get less of a contribution from the employer for their pension than in other cities,” he complained.
The key issues for the union during that strike, even as they voiced the oh-so-familiar “we care about the children” mantra? Maintaining salary increases, existing benefits, and job security, and changing a teacher evaluation system that relied “too much” on test scores to measure teacher performance. Regarding such performance, the all-too-typical union cop-out was employed. “This is no way to measure the effectiveness of an educator. Further there are too many factors beyond our control which impact how well some students perform on standardized tests such as poverty, exposure to violence, homelessness, hunger and other social issues beyond our control,” the union said in a news release.
In the end, the union prevailed. Teachers received a 17.6 percent pay hike over four years, and test scores will count less in teacher evaluations. The teachers also staved off paying more for their own health insurance. Seniority pay increases, as well as those for additional education, both of which the school system wanted to limit or eliminate, remained in place.
In short, twenty-five years of failure were rewarded.
And as night follows day, and Chicago follows the trend of other urban school systems, such rewards are fiscally unsustainable. In 2013, the CPS is facing a budget shortfall somewhere between $600 and $700 million. Those numbers don't factor in a longer school day, one of the few concessions the unions granted during the strike negotiations. Yet that concession must be put in perspective as well. Prior to the increase, the CPS had one of the shortest school days in the nation.
In 2014, the budget shortfall may top $1 billion because the district will be forced to resume making full pension payments, from which they had taken a four year “holiday." CPS projects pension costs to increase by almost $340 million in 2014. And despite pie-in-the-sky talk by CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey, who thought the district's projections were overstated, more budget reality intruded as recently as a month ago: Standard & Poor's rating service downgraded the state of Illinois' credit rating to the worst in the nation. A multi-billion dollar shortfall in the funding public employee pensions was the primary reason for it.
Furthermore, like virtually every other failing, big-city school district, Chicago is overwhelmingly a Democrat town, and has been since the 1930s. Such one-party dominance has its consequences. Former alderman-turned-University of Illinois at Chicago professor Dick Simpson, who cites data from the U.S. Department of Justice, reveals that Chicago is the most corrupt city in the nation. In last four decades, 30 Chicago aldermen have been convicted for a number of crimes including bribery, extortion, embezzlement, tax fraud, and other forms of corruption. Simpson estimates such corruption has cost the city $500 million. "We have had machine politics since the Great Chicago Fire of 1871,” he said. “Machine politics breeds corruption inevitably.”
It is an inevitability that Chicago voters in general, and black Chicago voters in particular, continue to embrace. In 37 precincts largely dominated by black American populations, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney didn't get a single vote during the 2012 election. Furthermore, Democrat Jesse Jackson Jr. was reelected despite being under investigation for misuse of campaign funds, for which he has now taken a plea involving significant jail time. So was Democrat-backed judge Cynthia Brim, despite being suspended from the bench for battery charges for which she was found not guilty – because she was “legally insane.” Derrick Smith was also reelected, despite being charged with bribery, as well as being the first Illinois House member expelled in 107 years.
Thus, the big city school system location changes, but the game remains the same. It is a game in which the union- and Democrat-maintained status quo churns out decades of failing students suffering from large achievement gaps, while massive budget shortfalls driven by intransigent and greedy unions continue to balloon. Meanwhile the corrupt politicians and labor bosses who run the system are rarely held accountable. To the contrary, their bottom lines only improve.
Arnold Ahlert is a columnist for FrontPage Magazine.