Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has put forth a bold proposal to alter the graduation standards for Chicago Public School (CPS) students. The Chicago Tribune reported that the plan, which will be considered by the Chicago Board of Education in the coming weeks, “would add one more big item to the graduation checklist for high school seniors: proof they’ve been accepted into college or the military, or a trade or a “gap year” program. The requirement would also be satisfied if the student has a job or a job offer.”
Emanuel’s proposal has drawn widespread criticism from many quarters. Some question if the legal authority exists to impose such a measure while others like Jeff Spross have called it “cruel and appalling”, writing that students need less hoops to jump through as opposed to adding more.
Many of the proposal’s critics have valid points, but I contend that Emanuel’s plan does have a lot of merit and the argument can be made that it is needed. It has been well documented that Chicago has been suffering from a plague of gun violence and disconnected youth. Disconnected youth are those individuals between 18 and 24 that are neither working or in school. An overabundance of this disconnected population translates into a massive amount of wasted potential. This underutilized talent is laid to waste in large part because students don’t receive the direction and affirmation to see it through to its full development.
This crisis of wasted potential has no doubt contributed to the high incidents of gun violence and proliferation of the drug trade. The perpetrators of the crimes are often people who feel powerless and without option. They often end up taking out their frustration in destructive ways. An increased focus on solidifying post high school options should go a long way towards stemming the violence and creating more stable communities.
Many schools have done an inadequate job of informing students about the next step after graduation and guiding them into productive options on a mass scale. There is a need for a renewed focus on those students who don’t graduate as well as those who do graduate but do not have a defined next step after crossing the stage.
This new requirement would force schools to put a major emphasis on being intentional about making sure that students have a viable next step when they graduate. There must, however, be resources and supports in place before a new mandate of this kind can reach optimal effectiveness.
The financial starvation of urban school systems nationally has been a disturbing trend for several years. Chicago has been the poster child for the financial dismantling of a public school system. In 2013, CPS closed 61 school buildings and there have been a myriad of different budget cuts since then. The trajectory of financial support for CPS during Emanuel’s tenure does not bode well for the kind of infrastructure that needs to be in place for this new plan to flourish.
Cutting the budget to bare bones while simultaneously raising graduation requirements is not a recipe for success. Relying on charity from people like Chance the Rapper to fund public education is not a winning strategy. Charity is episodic, increased resources need to be institutionalized in order for students to receive an equitable education. Resources need to be allocated to reduce student/teacher ratios and significantly increase the number of counselors in schools among other things. You cannot expect increased outputs without the requisite inputs.
These inputs must also be distributed in an equitable manner. Schools that are located in low-income areas face a much different set of challenges than their wealthier counterparts. Thus, distribution of resources and opportunities that does not account for these differences can create major disadvantages for the students of these schools and low academic performance is often the result.
Significant investment is also needed in early education, after-school, and summer programs in order to better prepare students to succeed after graduation. In addition to a significant increase in financial investment, other commitments from civic, community, and corporate partners should be garnered. For example, if one of the options to meet the graduation standard is a job offer, then efforts need to be made to gain commitments from employers to provide employment opportunities.
Pressure should also be placed on the state government to make the proper investments to increase the capacity of the public college and university system so that it can adequately service an increased number of students. This would entail a 180 degree turn from the budget allocations of the last few years. Illinois has been notorious for stripping their public colleges and universities of funding in recent years. These institutions must be fortified in order to provide substantial pathways to prosperity.
The public school system has to be an intricate part of the rejuvenation of underserved communities in Chicago. There must be an extreme influx of resources and support for Emanuel’s proposal to live up to its potential promise. If not, it is destined to be an unfunded mandate that treats a superficial symptom, but does not address the real problem.
Marcus Bright, Ph.D. is a Scholar and Activist