Education, Politics, Media and Chicago

Paraphrasing Yogi Berra, education in Chicago is 50 percent teaching and learning and 90 percent money and politics. No matter how much we emphasize the former, we usually default to the latter, particularly when the local teachers union and the media get involved. District leaders marked the opening of schools this year with an op-ed in the Chicago Sun-Times celebrating progress and a breakfast speech at a local civic forum where they were introduced by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The remarks by Chief Executive Officer Forrest Claypool and Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson highlighted greater pre-school enrollment, higher test scores, more rigorous high school classes, higher graduation rates and increased college enrollment, accompanied by $1.3 billion in scholarships. The numbers are impressive:
  • A record high five-year graduation rate of 77.5 percent, up 25 points in a decade, with the gains driven by an increase in African-American males.
  • The freshman on-track rate, which strongly predicts future graduation rates, hit a record-high 88.7 percent, suggesting that grad rates will continue rising.
  • 61 percent of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) students are meeting or beating the national average in reading and 56 percent are meeting or beating in math.
  • Researchers from Stanford University, the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois confirm that CPS is leading the country for academic growth among large urban school systems. They will present their findings at a forum in Chicago on November 2 sponsored by the Joyce and Spencer Foundations.
  • Among their findings: Low income and minority students at CPS are outperforming their peers in the rest of the state.
  • 43 percent of CPS students are earning college and career credentials while still in high school.
The numbers are even more impressive given the funding challenges facing the district in recent years, where rising teacher pension costs and declining state support have forced endless borrowing, budget cuts and layoffs, escalating tensions with the local teachers union. Thankfully, the state just enacted a historic new school funding formula and tax increase that brings hundreds of millions of dollars to CPS this year. Over time, the new formula will drive more and more funding to districts across Illinois serving low-income children. Historically, Illinois has had among the most inequitable school funding systems in America. Today, some wealthy districts spend three times as much as some poorer districts to educate their children. Given the progress and the additional funding, one might expect a note of celebration from the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), whose members stand to benefit the most. Instead, they complain it isn’t enough, demand more funding and lament the legislative compromise that produced $450 million more for Chicago schools but also included a new, statewide $75 million tax credit program for low-income kids to attend private schools. Interestingly, on the same day Claypool and Jackson delivered their remarks, national teacher union president Randi Weingarten joined her local counterpart Karen Lewis in Chicago to push a much darker narrative around budget cuts and underfunding. Now, if you believe that’s a coincidence, perhaps I can interest you in a bridge. In any case, the Sun-Times reported on the speeches, quoting Claypool theorizing that one reason for Chicago’s success is school choice. Chicago currently has 130 charter schools serving some 65,000 kids. Studies show positive test results and long-term outcomes in charters, which have clearly contributed to the district’s rising graduation rates. Nevertheless, Weingarten’s response was blunt and predictable: “Forrest Claypool is dead wrong.” The Sun-Times neglected to mention that Claypool offered three other theories—teacher quality, principal empowerment and demographic shifts in the district. Claypool conceded that the exact cause of Chicago’s progress is open to debate and is likely a combination of several factors. He expressed hope that the November 2 forum will provide some insights. For her part, Janice Jackson put the district’s success “[s]quarely on our principals and teachers. They are setting high expectations. They are the ones doing the hard work every day. They are the ones greeting these kids every morning when they show up—some of them hungry, under-clothed, and some of them traumatized by violence or family issues.” Echoing Jackson, Weingarten also credited, “Teachers, principals and paraprofessionals.” Alas, there’s no news in finding common ground among reformers and unions, though the Chicago Tribune managed to do it, pointing out that both CPS CEO Claypool and CTU President Lewis admire free-market evangelist Ayn Rand. Who knew?
Peter Cunningham
Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with Whiteboard ...

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