How on earth could something as silly as neighborhood public schools bedevil Rahm Emanuel right out of his incumbent throne as mayor of Chicago? The New York Times recently asked that question, and I’m happy to provide some answers. My home is on Chicago’s South Side, on a street full of cops and firefighters, and people still call themselves "new to the neighborhood" if they’ve been here less than 25 years. With only 9 years under my belt, I’m a relative newcomer. But traveling often for work, and seeing the gap between national coverage and reality on the ground, I’d like to try to answer a question that’s been asked a lot recently: What happened to Rahm?
It’s Not Rocket Science
Here’s what happened: Rahm systematically attacked nearly every city service through a neoliberal privatization plan. As a friend put it, "Rahm’s not so much the mayor as the guy auctioning off what’s left of our public goods." And public goods have a disproportionate value to middle class and poor people in our city. Your library is open less and has less staff. There are fewer lifeguards on our beaches in the summer. Or you spent hours on the phone trying to activate your new Ventra card only to be disconnected. We’ve taken notice as these things have happened because they affect our lives. What’s it like to live in a city with an auctioneer at the helm? Here’s a sampling:
- Closing six mental health clinics in many of the same low-income neighborhoods affected by school closings. There was basically no rationale offered for this action, which even according to Rahm’s dicey numbers saved *maybe* $2.2 million (roughly what was spent on the failed Chicago Fire Festival). In comparison, Rahm raised $30 million for his campaign committee and a super PAC ahead of the February 2015 runoff.
- Reducing staff and hours at our public libraries, which only account for 3% of the city budget.
- Privatizing the CTA fare system and allowing companies like Mastercard to profit off of hidden fees. Additionally, the rollout of this *new, efficient, market-driven* intervention was a total disaster, while the Chicago card it replaced had basically been working just fine for years.
And Then There Were the School Closings
While the New York Times article basically echoed Rahm’s talking points about the devastating wave of school closings he wrought on our neighborhoods, fortunately Chicago abounds in excellent journalists and researchers who have poked holes in each of these claims.
Rahm: We have to make tough decisions because of our fiscal crisis.
NYT: For the mayor, this was one step toward bringing better education to students trapped in failing schools amid a fiscal crisis.
Chicago: In reality, the Chicago Public Schools used accounting tricks throughout the entire process to hide the true (financial) cost of closing schools and overstate the benefits. These tricks have not been subtle, and WBEZ and Catalyst Chicago did an excellent job chronicling them. But it just takes too long to explain, and "BUDGET SHORTFALL THEREFORE SCHOOL CLOSINGS" is a convenient narrative. In fact CPS routinely releases estimates of huge budget deficits and still closes the fiscal year with a surplus: from 2005-2012, their budgets projected losses of $1.027 billion, but actually achieved a surplus of .92 billion – a difference of 1.9 billion.
Rahm: These schools were "underutilized" due to declining enrollment.
Chicago: Early press releases screamed about a loss of "145,000 kids" in the city between 2000 and 2010, an 18 percent decline. In reality, only 32,000 of those students were in the public school system. Meanwhile, the "utilization formula" that CPS employed to determine which schools were “empty” was flawed for many reasons: it was based on a maximum for classrooms (36 students) rather than an optimal size (30). It did not take into account special education students, which accounted for up to 30% of some closed campuses. Raise Your Hand Chicago has meticulously documented the overcrowding in CPS elementary schools, which affects approximately 75% of schools at at least one grade level.
The big message of "too many schools" makes no sense, because over the same period of time, CPS was creating dozens of charter schools in the same neighborhoods. According to WBEZ:
Overall enrollment in Chicago Public Schools has declined 6 percent in the last 14 years, a loss of 28,289 students. In that time, CPS has opened more than 120 new schools, many of them charters, shifting enrollment patterns. The percentage of students attending traditional schools has dropped 17 percent, while the percentage in charter schools (most housed in non-CPS buildings) has increased. School officials say they have not analyzed whether opening new schools has exacerbated the number of empty desks in Chicago. The district has said it wants to open at least 17 more new schools this fall.
Rahm: We had to close schools in order to improve student achievement.
NYT: A study by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research found that 93 percent of the nearly 11,000 displaced elementary students wound up in schools with better ratings.
Chicago: This is technically a true statement. But according to the same research, only 21% ended in Level 1 schools (the city’s highest tier), and CSSR research on closing showed that only students in a substantially-higher performing school saw improvement. More than 30% of students remained in Level 3 schools (the lowest rating), regardless of whether their numeric score was a point or two higher than the previous. In fact, the biggest takeaway from the CCSR’s 2009 study of more than 40 CPS school closings over the previous decade was that closing schools had little impact on achievement.
Rahm: This is not about race.
NYT: And many of the neighborhoods that faced schools closings were in predominantly black or Latino areas.
Chicago: Uh, that’s a bit of an understatement. As it turns out, of 46,000 students impacted by school closures (not 30,000, as CPS tried to suggest), 88% were black, 10% were Latino, and .7% were white. So yes, predominantly. Like, 98%.
Rahm: I definitely, totally, care about the people of Chicago.
NYT: Of the closings, Mr. Emanuel said the choice had been vexing but necessary. "Could I have done things different?" Mr. Emanuel asked. "There’s no doubt you could, and your strengths are your weaknesses. But those were structural things. You needed leadership. You needed fortitude."
Chicago: It was especially touching how the mayor decided to let this news about the school closings go public while on a ski trip with his family.
In short, at some point the gap between press conference and reality becomes too glaring to ignore, even for the democracy-squeamish denizens of our beautiful, corrupt home on a frozen lake. The people of Chicago and their lived experiences are an inconvenient truth, and even if the rest of the press forgets the little indignities and lies, we haven’t. See you in April, Rahm.