Rick Perlstein is a brilliant writer who usually writes about national politics. Since he lives in Chicago, he couldn’t help but notice the hostile takeover of the public schools by a small, interconnected corporate elite. He applies his journalistic and scholarly skills to unraveling this sordid story.
He begins with a story about an educator who was recently “reassigned” (fired) by the Mayor’s school board.
“This past September, an award-winning Chicago Public Schools principal named Troy LaRaviere published a post on his blog that began, “Whenever I try to take a break from writing about CPS to focus on other aspects of my professional and personal life, CPS officials do something so profoundly unethical, incompetent and/or corrupt that my conscience calls me to pick up the pen once more.”
“What had Principal LaRaviere going this time? We’ll get there eventually. But first we have to back up and survey what brought the Chicago Public Schools to this calamitous pass in the first place. It’s hard to know where to begin. Though when it comes to the failings of America’s institutions you can rarely go wrong by looking to the plutocrats.
“Travel back with me, then, to July of 2003, when the Education Committee of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago — comprised of the chairman of the board of McDonald’s, the CEOs of Exelon Energy and the Chicago Board Options Exchange, two top executives of the same Fortune 500 manufacturing firm, two partners at top international corporate law firms, one founder of an investment bank, one of a mutual fund, and the CEO of a $220.1 billion asset-management fund: twelve men, all but one of them white — published “Left Behind: Student Achievement in Chicago’s Public Schools.”
“Chicago’s schools were in pathetic shape, these captains of industry explained: only 36 percent of eleventh graders met or exceeded state reading standards, only 26 percent reached math standards, only 22 percent were up to snuff in science, and 40 percent had by then dropped out.
“They found hope, however, in a new kind of educational institution called a “charter school” — “publicly-funded but independent, innovative schools that operate with greater flexibility and give parents whose children attend failing schools an option they do not have.”
“At that point Chicago had fifteen charters. The seven that were high schools scored an average of 17 percent higher on Illinois’ relatively new benchmark, the Prairie State Achievement Exam, said the report. Their graduation rates were 12 percent higher, attendance rates 8 percent higher, and dropouts 9 percent lower.
“So if a little was good, more must be better — right?
“Chicago should have at least 100 charter schools,” the Education Committee concluded. “These would be new schools, operating outside the established school system and free of many of the bureaucratic or union-imposed constraints that now limit the flexibility of regular public schools.”
“The problem was a school system that “responds more to politics and pressures from the school unions than to community or parental demands for quality,” and a municipal government that worries more about “avoiding labor discord and maintaining the political support of teachers and their labor unions than with advancing the education of children.”
Charters, though — poof! — possessed the magic power to make all the bad stuff disappear, because they bottled the stuff that made America great: “Competition — which is the engine of American productivity generally.” But how might schools, like convenience stores, compete? Just measure student performance, and close the schools that “underperform.” The 103-page report thus deployed the word “data” forty-five times, “score,” “scored,” or “scoring” 60 times — and “test,” “tested,” and “testing,” or “exam” and “examination,” some 1.47573 times per page.
“And, since these were the behind-the-scenes barons who veritably ran the city, it wasn’t even a year before the Chicago Public Schools headquarters on 125 S. Clark St. announced the “Renaissance 2010” initiative to close eighty traditional public schools and open precisely one hundred charters by 2010.
“Lo, like pedagogical kudzu, the charters came forth: forty-six of them, with names like “Infinity Math, Science, and Technology High School,” “Rickover Naval Academy High School,” “Aspira Charter School,” and “DuSable Leadership Academy of Betty Shabazz International Charter School.” Although, funny thing, rather than resembling the plucky, innovative — “flexible” — startups the rhetoric promised, the schools that flourished looked like factories stamped out by central planning. The skills most rewarded by Chicago’s charter boom became corporate marketing, regulatory capture, and outright graft.
“Left Behind” singled out one “stand out school”: the Noble Street Charter High School. Following the Renaissance 2010 report, Noble Street metastasized into the “Noble Network.” They opened sixteen schools, many named after the businesspeople who funded them, like Pritzker College Prep, Rauner College Prep, Rowe-Clark College Prep. (John Rowe and Frank Clark are both executives of the energy company Exelon, formed in a merger brokered by Rahm Emanuel in his investment banker days; Rowe was a member of the committee that authored “Left Behind” and also a member of the Noble Network’s board of directors.)
“Indeed, Noble runs just the kind of schools you’d expect to be sponsored by industrialists: their students are underprivileged waifs in uniforms who are fined for minor disciplinary infractions. The network is “founded,” its promotional materials promise, “on many of the same entrepreneurial principles that have built successful businesses — strong leadership, meaningful use of data, and a high degree of accountability.”
This is a well-written story of arrogance, greed, corruption, and deceit.
It is reassuring to see the Chicago story breaking out of the education media and into broader political discourse. The article “follows the money,” which is necessary these days. The character who is missing in this drama is Arne Duncan, who launched “Renaissance 2010,” which was a dismal failure. Why was he selected as Secretary of Education? Why was he allowed to impose the Chicago model on the nation? The public schools needed help and they were plundered. They became a plaything for Chicago’s elite. No one seemed to think about the children.