On the last day of classes, demonstrators occupied Jean de Lafayette Elementary School in Humboldt Park to protest its closing next year. Mayor Rahm Emanuel was traveling overseas.
On the last day of classes, demonstrators occupied Jean de Lafayette Elementary School in Humboldt Park to protest its closing next year. Mayor Rahm Emanuel was traveling overseas. Credit: AP Photo/Scott Eisen

You can be forgiven if you missed the recent release of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s new five-year plan for transforming the Chicago Public Schools.

Or, as the mayor calls it, “The Next Generation: Chicago’s Children / 21st Century preparation for success in college, career and life.” A title that just rolls off the tongue.

I didn’t take much notice of the plan at first myself. It was unveiled a little over two weeks ago, but I was so distracted by the fallout from the mayor’s last major education initiative—the closing of 50 schools—that I wasn’t able to give “The Next Generation” the attention it so richly deserves.

At the June 10 release of the plan, schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett announced that the turmoil and tumult of the last year—highlighted by the first teachers’ strike in 25 years and then the closings—were a thing of the past.

Instead, she said, the five-year plan would usher in an era of peace, love, and understanding between CPS and the teachers, parents, and students under its domain.

Alas, a few days later, principals in schools across the city announced substantial budget cuts to what little art, music, electives, and after-school programs they offered.

Those cuts—at elementary schools like Burley and Jungman and high schools such as Lane Tech, Whitney Young, Roosevelt, Lake View, and Von Steuben—brought howls of protest.

And so the school year ended as it began—with angry protesters in the streets.

By the way, note that I said principals announced the cuts. Mayor Emanuel—who ordered that the budget ax fall—was conveniently on an overseas trip to Israel last week when the bad news broke. Not coincidentally, he was conveniently on a ski trip in Utah when the school closings were announced.

It was also up to principals to decide what exactly to cut after being given thousands and even millions of dollars less to work with.

CPS says that’s part of the mayor’s broader initiative to give principals more autonomy. But as far as I can tell, autonomy means that the mayor gets to announce the good news while someone else—lower on the totem pole—is forced to announce the bad news.

Back to the plan. It’s a gorgeous, 28-page pamphlet, filled with page after page of glossy colored pictures of beaming children who undoubtedly have no idea that they’re being used as props in the mayor’s propaganda campaign. Scattered among the photos are some vague and grandiose goals like “ensuring world-class learning experiences for every child.”

The first three pages are filled with essays written by the figures who run the schools. Appropriately, Mayor Emanuel leads off, followed by school board president David Vitale. Bringing up the rear is Byrd-Bennett, just in case anyone needs to know the hierarchy of shot callers.

In his essay, Mayor Emanuel extols the virtues of his first major educational initiative—the longer school day—which will “not only position our students for success but also help make Chicago a better city.”

Left unmentioned is the fact that the recent cuts mean a reduction in the money many schools were given to help them devote the extra class time to art, gym, computer training, or electives.

As a result, many schools are now forced to have students spend the extra time in study halls with their homeroom teachers, who have no aides thanks to the previous cuts.

Thus, the latest mayoral initiative undoes the previous mayoral initiative. Yet I’ll bet that won’t stop Mayor Emanuel from bragging about the longer day in his upcoming reelection campaign.

Vitale’s essay pledges “to ensure every taxpayer dollar is spent responsibly.”

However, he makes no mention of the mayor’s tax increment financing program. That’s too bad, because the TIF program allows the mayor to hike your property taxes in the name of things you want—like schools—and then spend the money on things you don’t want—like a basketball arena for DePaul and a hotel on the near south side. That project will cost at least $55 million in property tax funds, more than half of which comes from the schools.

In fairness to Vitale, I can’t recall any school board member who’s ever protested the TIF program, even though it deprives the dirt-poor schools of up to $250 million a year.

So it’s no surprise that TIFs aren’t mentioned anywhere in the five-year plan. That’s a good indication that Vitale, Byrd-Bennett, and their team will continue the ostrich approach to school finances: they’ll bury their heads in the sand and pretend that hundreds of millions of property tax dollars aren’t being diverted to the TIFs every year.

After the preamble from our leaders, the five-year plan reassures parents that “we have heard your voices at public meetings on school consolidations.”

This is a reference to the tears and jeers of thousands of parents and students who filed into countless hearing rooms over the past few months to beg that their schools not be closed.

The mayor closed them anyway.

In fact, the only voices truly heard by Mayor Emanuel in his first two years in office were the infamous rent-a-protesters whom the mayor’s political operatives sent to meetings to outshout the parents who’d showed up to plead for their schools.

Alas, this is a highlight of the mayor’s reign that will never get the attention it deserves in the coming reelection campaign.

Eventually, the five-year plan comes to the mayor’s “framework for success.”

It’s a diagram that roughly resembles a Roman temple, with a roof supported by five pillars collectively labeled “the work we do”—things like “high standards” and “empowered families and communities.”

There are many ironies here, but the fourth pillar is my favorite: a promise to “ensure committed and effective teachers, leaders and staff” because “we must ensure we are the place where the best talent comes to work.”

Ah yes, Mayor Emanuel and the teachers. Let’s see, in his first two years he took away the raise their last board promised them; unilaterally ordered them to work a longer day; mocked them as spoiled brats when they noted that the longer day came with few resources to help them do something meaningful with the time; then continued to fire hundreds of them in school closings, turnaround plans, and other ruses that circumvent tenure.

Nothing like massive firings to bring the “best talent” to town.

The five-year plan offers nothing in the way of specific programs that the mayor might enact or how he would pay for them. It certainly doesn’t make any mention of the cuts that ended up being proposed just days after it was released.

In that regard, it was sort of dead on arrival.

You know, five years just doesn’t last as long as it used to.