Rahm wants to stretch the school day, but at what cost? Credit: Jason Wyatt Frederick

With each passing day it becomes more apparent to me that there are two public school systems in Chicago: the imaginary one in Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s press releases and pronouncements and the other one that’s, you know, real.

In the mayor’s official statements, the schools suck. All of them, even if they don’t. They suck because students don’t spend enough time in the classroom. And they don’t spend enough time in the classroom because the last mayor—whose name Rahm will not mention when he’s being critical—chickened out when it came to negotiating a contract because he didn’t want a teachers strike. The wuss.

The new mayor sure as hell isn’t afraid of a strike. Bring it on, bitch! He’s gonna deliver this longer school day to Chicagoans whether they think they want it or not!

Whoa, sorry—I always get carried away when I’m conjuring up my inner Rahm.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, it’s a lot more complicated, as real worlds tend to be.

Whether he realizes it or not, Mayor Emanuel rules over a vast and diverse conglomeration of different kinds of schools.

There are neighborhood schools in poor neighborhoods, which are different from neighborhood schools in gentrifying neighborhoods, which are different from magnet schools that enroll kids from all over the city. And they’re different from selective-enrollment schools that take only the highest-scoring test-takers who have been number one, two, or three in just about everything they’ve tried since infancy.

It’s so competitive to get into the limited enrollment high schools that even many of the smartest of the smartest kids can’t get in. A recent Sun-Times headline pretty much said it all: “Scoring a slot at some CPS college preps: Near perfection required.”

Yes, many schools are struggling, as Mayor Emanuel keeps telling us. But many schools are also excelling. In fact, nine of the ten top-scoring grammar schools in the state—yes, the state—come from CPS. In addition, about a third of Chicago public elementary schools have across-the-board excellence in test taking, with at least 80 percent of their students meeting or exceeding national standards.

And I’m not just talking about the limited-enrollment schools for “smart kids.” Some are ordinary neighborhood schools—including Edgebrook, Blaine, and Mount Greenwood—that are open to any kid within their boundaries.

Keep in mind that these accomplishments are happening in a perpetually bankrupt system that’s so broke it can’t afford art, music, drama, or recess in grammar schools. That’s right—no recess! They haven’t had it for years, the result of a long story involving some really bad decisions made years ago by teachers, administrators, and parents.

In short, they’re succeeding already. So why is the mayor insisting that all schools—high scorers included—add up to 105 minutes to their day?

Well, if you ask me—and it is my column—the mayor’s stubbornly sticking to a narrative he stitched together for last year’s mayoral campaign.

The only problem is that many parents in the highest-achieving schools don’t want the extra time. Or they want some extra time, just not the full 105 minutes pushed by the mayor. Or if they get some extra time, they want to make sure it comes with money to fund constructive things for their kids to do, like music, drama, or art. They’re not big on the idea of the mayor forcing their kids to spend an extra hour or more every day twiddling their thumbs so he can make good on a campaign promise.

In order to win over parents, Emanuel’s educational operatives have been going from school to school telling parents the mayor knows what’s good for them even if they don’t realize it.

“We had an information meeting and this official from the central office is telling us that if we don’t start demanding a seven-and-one-half hour day, our children won’t go to college,” says Michelle Bever, a parent at Mt. Greenwood elementary school on the far southwest side. “Our parents said our test scores are fantastic—we were written up in Chicago magazine. He said, ‘They’re not as good as you think they are.'”

As a result, Emanuel is facing a mini-revolt from parents at schools in Beverly and Mount Greenwood, where opposition to the longer-day policy is strong.

“This is an unfunded mandate,” says Bever. “If we’re scoring high, why should we take the extra time—especially if they don’t know what they’re going to do with it?”

Good question. It’s one I posed to my old friend Becky Carroll, the CPS communications director. As an aside, Becky and I have been jousting with one another over various issues going back to the 1990s, when she was the spokeswoman for the city planning department and I was pestering her with questions about tax increment financing.

I’m sure she recalls that time as fondly as I do.

She called me back this time while she and Jennifer Cheatham, the CPS chief instruction officer, were in a cab driving to meet with some parents to talk about the longer day. And I happened to be walking the dog.

So I stood on the sidewalk trying to write everything on an old note card I had in my back pocket while keeping the dog from racing after a rabbit. Hey, no one said being a reporter was easy.

The back and forth went a little like this:

I asked why kids in the highest-scoring schools need more classroom time. They said that when the system implements a new curriculum next year, even the smartest of the smart would have trouble getting by.

They clearly haven’t been spending a lot of time with the highest-scoring kids in Chicago.

And what are schools supposed to do with the extra time if it’s not accompanied by money for enrichment? They said schools will have to be creative with the extra time, and they urged me to talk to teachers and parents at the so-called pioneer schools, which volunteered to take the longer day ahead of the system-wide mandate.

I pointed out that the pioneer schools were each given more than $75,000.

Yes, they said, but many of the pioneer schools weren’t even spending all the money.

I noted that it’s a damn shame that art, music, and drama aren’t offered in every school.

True, they said—but it’s worse that 83 percent of third graders aren’t reading at grade level.

And I said—well, I didn’t have an answer to that. Because, Becky, you’re right—it is a damn shame that so many students are struggling. Yet for the life of me I don’t see how forcing the highest-scoring schools to accept an unfunded mandate will change that.

So here’s what I suggest: as hard as this may be for him, Mayor Emanuel should swallow a little pride and compromise. Manage the extra time so that at the very least every grammar school has recess.

And don’t pay for it with classroom cuts—just take the money out of the good old TIF slush fund you’ve been hoarding.

Hell, if you bring back recess without making other classroom cuts, you’ll be a hero to a lot of the parents currently cursing your name. And you can say you saved education in Chicago. Even if it’s not true, you can make it part of your platform when you run for president.

You don’t even have to give me credit.

You know, I’m starting to feel like President Obama when he cut his deal with the Daleys to make Emanuel mayor. Anything to get this guy out of town.