Chicago Public Schools: Not Just Heartbreaking, Actually Broken

Back in the good old days, when the big Chicago Public Schools fight was about increasing the length of the school day, the largely middle class parents who opposed the change -- How will we find the time for horseback riding lessons? -- were genuinely shocked by the stony indifference with which the Board of Education met their complaints. They were people who expected to be listened to.

These last few months, as the public spectacle of parents begging the Board to keep open their children's underperforming schools has unfolded before our eyes, we've seen a very different set of expectations, coming from a markedly different set of parents. These parents, many of whom have lived through the same kinds of fights with other public agencies, like the Chicago Housing Authority, seem less surprised that the Board can so easily ignore them. It is to their eternal credit that they still bother to show up and to participate in a process that treats them with such utter contempt. They watched as the unelected Board members, on the advice of the unelected administrators, voted to close 50 public schools without even saying the schools' names aloud, using numbers, unknown to the public, instead.

It's painful to watch -- and not just because the decision-makers seem only a handlebar mustache away from outright villainy. The teachers' union, while making considerable political hay from the egregious nastiness of the school closing process, seems to function mainly to object to the actions of the administration. If they have any proposals for actually improving the quality of the schools where their members work, they seem to have kept them secret -- far more secret than, say, the status of their contract negotiations.

The parents and community members fighting the school closings clearly are the "good guys" in this dismal scenario. But their heroic energy and indomitable courage are being expended for the sake of maintaining a status quo that is, frankly, unconscionable. Those campaigning to keep their schools open -- with a few notable exceptions -- are not claiming that the schools are actually good. It is simply that they object to moving their children from one fairly lousy school to another possibly slightly less lousy one because the journey to a new, more distant school is too hard or too dangerous to justify the marginal improvement in educational quality.

This is what it's come to in Chicago: a school system where all parents want is that their kids stay alive and it's too much to ask for.

This week, as our hearts ache for the Oklahoma children who had to "shelter in place" in their schools, 40,000 Chicago kids are losing the neighborhood schools that were their own places of refuge from gang violence and other man-made chaos. Watching this stomach-churning drama unfold from the safe distance of the high-performing public school in the well-off neighborhood where my kids learn and play, it is all too easy to lay blame on those other parents: They ought to demand more. They ought not to take this laying down.

The fight about the longer school day is almost forgotten now. Some of those who insisted that the new full day was too much for their little ones have moved to private schools or the suburban districts; many more have simply acquiesced, giving lip service to the new schedule but considering it mostly advisory in nature. In practice, the parents who stay at home or have flexible work arrangements just work around the rules anyway, collecting kids early or dropping them off late to accommodate private lessons and appointments. The sign in/sign out book in the main office at my kids' school is filled with the daily comings and goings of kids for whom school is merely one item on a busy agenda. When you have time and resources and your own transportation, even the most onerous of schedules can be finessed.

If the school board ignores their concerns, privileged parents retain the option to ignore the administration right back. After all, they're the ones paying the bills. The whole model for school reform in Chicago seems to start with well-off, "opt-out" parents who have left high-powered careers to stay at home. They decide they want a good city public school for their kids and, with incredible effort and resources, make it happen. It's not exactly a scalable or sustainable model. The fundraising events that raise $50,000 in a night for our school, paying for additional staff, training and technology not covered by the CPS budget, aren't likely to happen in the neighborhoods that house most of the city's underperforming schools.

Until our schools are run by elected, accountable public officials and supported with the level of private sector involvement worthy of a critical investment in the city's future, the system will remain broken. Some of us are lucky enough to be able to ignore it or work around it, but that doesn't change the simple fact of it: the system is broken. It is broken.