Curb YOur Enthusiasm

Three years ago Lauren Handley heard Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan call her the salvation of public education in Chicago. Now she’s waiting to see if she still has a job. According to Handley’s students and colleagues at Austin High School, she remains idealistic and hardworking. What’s changed is the system.

Handley’s a victim of Renaissance 2010, Mayor Daley and Duncan’s plan to close dozens of “bad” schools and open up as many as 100 “good” ones, many of them privately run charter schools, over the next six years. The details of the plan haven’t been worked out, but one thing’s certain: closing schools means shuffling around hundreds of teachers. Handley’s one of them. “The kids need stability, but there’s no stability,” she says. “They’re talking about the future of education. But what about the here and now? What about the kids in the system right now?”

The system is facing a budget crisis. It’s not at all clear that Daley and Duncan will have the money they need to operate 100 new schools, much less the buildings to house them. It’s also not clear whether they’ll be able to recruit and retain teachers in the midst of ongoing instability. Duncan says the promise of Renaissance 2010 will bring in good teaching prospects. Yet he’ll allow many of the new schools to pay lower wages and offer fewer health or pension benefits than the current union contract requires.

To his credit, Duncan’s established himself as a charismatic cheerleader for the system. In fact, it was a speech by Duncan that convinced Handley, who grew up near East Saint Louis, that she wanted to teach in Chicago. In the spring of 2001 she was a 22-year-old history major just out of Tulane University who’d enrolled in Teach for America, a federally funded program in which recent grads commit to teaching for two years in an underserved system in exchange for a break on student loans. “Arne spoke to a group of us,” she recalls. “He said, ‘I wish there were more of you and I hope you stay. You are the future.’ He had us fired up.”

Handley spent her first year at a south-side grammar school. In her second, she transferred to Austin High, at 231 N. Pine, where she taught sociology and debate. At the end of her first year at Austin she wasn’t sure she wanted to come back. “My obligation to Teach for America was over,” she says. “I was thinking of going to grad school or law school.” But she decided to stay. “A student asked, ‘Are you coming back next year?’ It’s a funny question–growing up, I would never have asked my teacher that. I would have assumed my teachers were coming back. But these kids assume just the opposite. They’re used to so much uncertainty, so many teachers and principals and programs coming and going. I played it off with a joke: ‘You are not going to get rid of me.’ That’s how I made my commitment.”

The following year Handley coached the debate club, helped put out the yearbook, brought speakers into her classes, and chaperoned the junior prom. “For the school it was an unstable year–we went through four principals,” she says. “But I got better. I’m not authoritarian by nature, but I learned more and more how to control a class. By the last 20 days of the school year I felt I was finally hitting my stride. I thought I was really reaching the kids. I wanted to come back.”

But on June 8 Handley and the rest of the Austin staff got called to a meeting where they learned that Duncan was phasing out the school. There would be no incoming freshman class. By the summer of 2007 Austin would close for good.

To Duncan, Austin symbolizes the worst sort of educational dysfunction. Its test scores are low, its enrollment dwindling. Maybe it should be closed. But what will take its place? Duncan says he’ll review requests for proposals, or RFPs, from anyone–universities, teachers, businesses–interested in creating small schools to operate within the massive old high school building. And in the meantime?

On August 24 Duncan came to Austin to make his pitch. “He showed up with a whole slew of people in nice suits,” says Handley. “To whatever we asked they said we should submit RFPs.” As usual, Duncan was very passionate in his speech. But this time he didn’t fire Handley up. She’s a teacher, not a wannabe charter-school administrator. “What message was he sending to the kids?” she says. “His message was you have failed. Your teachers have failed. They never mention that we’ve had four principals in one year, or ten principals in ten years. It’s dispiriting.”

The changes have left Handley in limbo. So far she’s managed to keep her position, but closing down the freshman class eliminated about ten teachers, and if enrollment falls after the first month of the school year she’ll be let go because of her low seniority. “I want to stay, but I don’t know if I’ll have a job after this month,” she says. “It’s hard to make plans with so much instability. I feel worse for the kids. They’re the ones who really suffer.”

After Duncan’s visit Handley sent him an e-mail recalling how she had heard him speak three years earlier. “You told us how you supported us, how you wished there were more of us, and how you hoped we would stay beyond our two-year commitment. Well, I stayed,” she wrote. “But I have been told that I may no longer be welcome at Austin.” About a month later she got a call from one of Duncan’s aides. “He plugged Renaissance 2010,” she says. “He said I should submit an RFP. He doesn’t get it. None of them do. They say they want the best and brightest minds. Who’s going to come if they treat people like this?”

Clout Kills

Jay Stone didn’t find his name in the 9/11 Commission’s report, but he found something more useful–an explanation. “I think I know why no one did anything about the knife,” he says.

The knife he’s referring to is the one he found on the floor of an airplane back in April 2000. “I was disembarking at O’Hare after a flight from Phoenix when I saw it,” says Stone, a Lakeview therapist, public access talk-show host, and onetime aldermanic candidate. “I took it to the security office. The officer told me it’s legal. He said razor blades and razor knives are also permitted on planes.”

Stone says he showed the knife, which had a four-inch blade, to “about ten different people, including a police officer. The cop told me, ‘You could do a lot of damage with this thing.’ I was thinking, ‘People should know about this. This is a security violation.'” In May of that year, he enclosed the knife in a letter he wrote Rod Blagojevich, then a congressman. “Airline passengers are given a false sense of security because they believe no weapons are allowed beyond the airport metal detectors,” he wrote. “I am writing in hopes that you will lobby your colleagues and the FAA to reconsider allowing knives under four inches on airplanes.”

Three weeks later a Blagojevich aide called. “He said there’s nothing we can do. I put up a hissy fit. I said, ‘Please, you have to do something–someone is going to get hurt.’ Then I dropped names. I said, ‘My father’s Alderman Bernard Stone, and he’s a colleague of Alderman Dick Mell,'” Blagojevich’s father-in-law. Apparently, Stone’s connections had some influence. Blagojevich’s aides contacted the FAA, whose officials told them there were no plans to tighten security. Unable to get the FAA to bend, Blagojevich wrote Stone in August informing him that the matter had been directed to William Lipinski, Illinois’ ranking member on the House Aviation Committee.

That’s where things stood–until September 11. “That day I was in a daze, I felt so awful, so depressed,” Stone says. On September 14 he wrote another letter to Blagojevich. “This time Rod called,” he says. “He said, ‘Jay, you’re right. We should have listened to you.'” Eventually investigators established that the hijackers had been armed with knives, as well as box cutters and mace.

On November 27, 2002, Congress created the commission panel. Its analysis regarding the FAA’s policy on knives is on pages 82 through 86 of the report, which came out in August. “The [FAA] has been vested by Congress with the sometimes conflicting mandate of regulating the safety and security of U.S. civil aviation while also promoting the civil aviation industry,” it says. “While FAA rules did not expressly prohibit knives with blades under four inches long, the airlines’ checkpoint operations guide (which was developed in cooperation with the FAA) explicitly permitted them.” The report notes that a “proposal to ban knives altogether in 1993 had been rejected because small cutting implements were difficult to detect and the number of innocent ‘alarms’ would have increased significantly, exacerbating congestion problems at the checkpoints….In the pre-9/11 security system, the air carriers played a major role. As the Inspector General of the Department of Transportation told us, there were great pressures from the air carriers to control security costs and to ‘limit the impact of security requirements on aviation operations, so that the industry could concentrate on its primary mission of moving passengers and aircraft.'” The commission also quotes an anonymous FAA security official who “described the air carriers’ approach to security regulations as ‘decry, deny and delay’ and told us that while ‘the air carriers had seen the enlightened hand of self-interest with respect to safety, they hadn’t seen it in the security arena.'”

The message seems clear: 9/11 happened in part due to an old-fashioned concept most Chicagoans can understand. “The airlines lobby had enough clout with the FAA to keep them from enacting more secure measures regarding knives,” says Stone.

Finding that knife accelerated his evolution from a traditional Democrat into a reformer, Stone says. Last year he ran against Ted Matlak for 32nd Ward alderman but got crushed. “My guilt is that I stopped trying to get knives off of airplanes after I didn’t hear back from Lipinski or the FAA. I didn’t do more to force the system to do more. I’m not saying 9/11 wouldn’t have happened had they listened to me. I’m saying we were in a vulnerable position because the system is too influenced by lobbyists and corporations and their campaign contributions.”

Speaking of Clout

On September 15 Sun-Times columnist Carol Marin broke the story that Andy Ryan, the baby-faced 19-year-old son of Tom Ryan, a high-ranking official in the carpenters’ union, was holding a $49,548-a-year job (with generous health benefits) as a building inspector. It seemed clear that the younger Ryan had some major pull, befitting the son of a man whose union contributed about $84,000 to Mayor Daley’s reelection campaign last year. Daley’s response to Marin’s story–and the barrage of embarrassing follow-ups: shock. Then he went on to blame everything on Stan Kaderbek, the hapless technocrat he’d installed as building department commissioner.

Let’s think about this for a moment. Chicago’s internationally known for its patronage and nepotism. Milton Rakove’s classic book on Chicago politics is called We Don’t Want Nobody Nobody Sent. Mayor Daley, of course, is the son of a former mayor who defended the patronage he dished out to his sons by saying “If I can’t help my sons then [critics] can kiss my ass” and grousing that “If a man can’t put his arms around his sons, then what kind of world are we living in?” One of the current mayor’s brothers, Michael, heads Daley and George, Ltd., a prominent legal firm that routinely represents developers seeking zoning changes from the planning department and City Council. Another mayoral brother, John, serves on the Cook County Board of Commissioners, whose president, John Stroger, has a son, Todd, who’s alderman of the Eighth Ward. As noted above, Governor Rod Blagojevich is the son-in-law of 33rd Ward alderman Dick Mell. Illinois attorney general Lisa Madigan is the daughter of house speaker Michael Madigan, and state comptroller Dan Hynes is the son of 19th Ward committeeman Tom Hynes. By my unofficial count–and it’s hard to keep track–there are at least 14 elected officials in town who are either the sons, daughters, in-laws, spouses, ex-spouses, or nephews of other officeholders in town. And Daley was surprised that a well-connected teenager had landed a cushy job in the building department? Really?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.