On Wednesday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a new initiative he says would help advance academic achievement in Chicago Public Schools: a requirement for all high school students to present an acceptance letter to a college, military, or trades program in order to graduate.
On it’s face, this may seem like just the kind of bold, innovative, and results-driven solution Emanuel has often said is needed to address the city’s pressing problems. But viewed within the context of a school system struggling to stay afloat, in reality it comes off as more of a Swiftian proposal that threatens the very students it’s aimed at serving.
Emanuel and CPS are calling the proposal “Learn. Plan. Succeed.” They tout it as way to get students to focus on their continued education post-high school. “If you change expectations, it’s not hard for kids to adapt,” the mayor said at a press conference Wednesday morning.
What Emanuel left out was that it’s a bit more difficult to adapt when your school is chronically underfunded and under-resourced, as is the case for the more than half of CPS students who live in predominantly African-American and Latino neighborhoods on the south and west sides. This disparity has helped create a massive, 37-point gap in student achievement between black and white students in the city’s public schools.
Nowhere in the new initiate is there a plan to tackle this disparity, or to increase funding for crumbling schools—many of which are in such decrepit shape that principals complain about rat infestations while teachers are forced to buy basic supplies such as text books, pencils, and toilet paper.
And if their schools being mired in poverty isn’t enough motivation for students, there’s also the fact that CPS is now threatening to cut the school year short by three weeks. This follows a continued increase in furlough days in 2016-2017.
For all of the mayor’s self-praise for extending the amount of time students spend in the classroom, he never followed through on adequately funding the added time, which contributed to the growing budget crisis facing CPS. Now the system could be on the brink of taking a huge step backwards by cutting the school year nearly a month short.
It’s true that much of the blame for the current crisis sits with Governor Bruce Rauner, who has refused to sign a bill granting additional funding to Chicago’s public schools. (This motivated Chance the Rapper to lead a charge to fill the $215 million gap through donations to CPS, which even the Chicago Bulls have chipped in $1 million toward.)
But it’s not just the governor who’s responsible for keeping city schools funded, and certainly not celebrities and sports teams. There’s plenty that the mayor himself could do, from suing banks for selling toxic interest rate swaps to the city, to pushing for a financial transaction tax on stock trades that could be dedicated to funding schools, to using his reserve of TIF funds to keep the schools open and well-resourced.
Instead, Emanuel has decided that it’s on students themselves to navigate the myriad issues facing the city’s school system, despite the fact that the disparities and exacting conditions they face in the classroom were created not by them, but rather by policymakers and politicians.
And if students can’t make it through the gauntlet of CPS—often in the face of poverty and violence in their own communities—while also obtaining an acceptance letter to college, vocational training, or the armed services? Then no diploma for them.
While the mayor claims this will serve as motivation, it could also easily drive up drop-out rates by students who don’t have the support system they require to plan for secondary education while still in high school. CPS already has already seen a rise in layoffs of counselors due to budget cuts. Why stay in school if you might not even get a diploma upon graduating anyway?
And even if students are motivated, what if they can’t afford to pay for college? Yes, Chicago’s City Colleges offer free tuition to CPS graduates with GPAs of 3.0 or higher, but that doesn’t cover everyone. This plan could serve to push these students into joining the military rather than improving their education or even just getting a job.
Of course, students should be encouraged to continue their education after high-school. But this scheme is more punitive than it is motivational. So why would Mayor Emanuel pursue it? Perhaps President Trump’s recent dig at Chicago graduation rates has something to do with it.
The plan is all but sure to be approved by the mayor’s hand picked board, another reason it’s a good idea to push for an elected school board.
But if the mayor really wants to help students succeed, he’d drop this initiative in favor of one that actually strengthens the city’s public schools. That’s something teachers, parents and students could all get behind.