When the results came back from her group’s study of third-grade reading scores in Chicago’s public schools, Mary Lou Gonzalez called a press conference and directed her wrath at the Board of Education.

“The Board of Education should be ashamed of these low reading scores–the board has failed the Hispanic community,” says Gonzalez, president of the United Neighborhood Organization of Chicago, a not-for-profit group with branches in three mostly Mexican American neighborhoods. “Our children are not learning to read because the board has abandoned them to try to learn in cafeterias and hallways of overcrowded schools.”

According to the study conducted for UNO by the Chicago Panel on Public School Policy and Finance, third-graders in schools where the student body is at least 75 percent Hispanic lag six months behind the national average in standardized reading exams. In contrast, third-graders in schools that are at least 75 percent black are four months behind the average, while those in integrated schools are one month above the average. Added up, Chicago’s third-graders are an average of three months behind.

“UNO is going to turn to Mayor Daley, and on May 24th we are going to present him with our Hispanic education agenda,” says Gonzalez. “One important demand is to have new schools built to ease overcrowding.”

School officials have a different explanation for the test-score results. “I don’t think it’s fair or accurate to blame the school system for those test results,” says Bob Saigh, the board’s director of information. “There are a number of different factors, not the least of which is a testing bias. There have been a good deal of studies for years on the cultural bias in standardized tests.

“Apart from culture, you have to consider language. Many Hispanic students come from low-income homes where English is not the first language. There’s also the question of mobility. About 30 percent of the school population moves from one school to another each year. Statewide the average is 20.5 percent. That transience upsets the education process.”

In fairness to the public schools–which have emerged lately as the city’s favorite whipping boy–UNO’s study raises almost as many questions as it answers. Its definition of Hispanic, for instance, lumps together a variety of ethnic groups, including Cubans, Colombians, Mexicans, and Puerto Ricans. But a Cuban growing up on the north side comes from a vastly different background than a Mexican from Back of the Yards, Pilsen, or South Deering, where UNO’s affiliates are based.

Hispanics are a relatively new immigrant group in Chicago–their population here doubled from about 250,000 to 500,000 in the 1970s alone. Now 25 percent of the students in the public-school system, they are experiencing some of the same ups and downs of assimilation that other immigrant groups did at the turn of the century. In the 1900s, for instance, many social scientists regarded Jews as mentally inferior because of the poor academic standing of Jewish public-school students.

The public schools should at least be recognized for undertaking a mission others have ignored. They educate the poor–they are open to all students who live here, no matter how shaky their command of English. It’s a claim no private or Catholic system can make. And of course, since the poor can’t afford to live in most of the suburbs, their children don’t go to school there.

UNO leaders counter that some of the schools surveyed in their study are in neighborhoods–like the southeast side–where Hispanics have lived for up to 30 years. But does that mean that students in the southeast side’s public schools are the grandchildren of Mexican immigrants from the late 40s? Or are the students living there now recent arrivals who moved into neighborhoods that the first generation of Mexican Americans abandoned years ago for the suburbs?

UNO cannot answer these questions because its study is based on limited data. “These are just the raw test score results of all the schools in the system,” says Dan Solis, UNO’s executive director. “The board did not provide us with the information to make a more sophisticated analysis.”

A close reading of the school test-score figures also reveals the poor standing of students in all-black schools. Forty-eight schools in Chicago are 100 percent black, according to UNO’s study. Another 44 are 99 percent black. The third-grade reading scores in these schools average four months behind grade level. The test scores are marginally better in those schools that are counted by UNO as all black, but that in fact have a few white and Hispanic students.

Hispanics are far more integrated into the system than blacks. No school is 100 percent Hispanic, and only one–Komensky at 2001 S. Throop–is 99 percent Hispanic. Third-graders there are eight months behind grade level on reading exams. “We’re not excluding other groups–we know that the system has failed them too,” says Solis. “But there is evidence of problems that are concentrated in Hispanic communities.”

The biggest problem in many Hispanic schools is overcrowding, says Solis. Space is so tight in some Hispanic schools that teachers are forced to teach in converted lunchrooms, cloakrooms, and mobile units. Ironically, there are some schools in nearby black neighborhoods that are underused. It would seem that the most logical solution to overcrowding would be to bus Hispanics to the all-black schools. “That’s no answer,” says Solis. “Sure, many of these schools in black neighborhoods are underpopulated. But they are run down schools. I don’t think you can slap a coat of paint on the walls and call that good education.”

Solis would like to see at least ten new schools built in overcrowded Hispanic communities, most of them on the near south side. But board officials say there’s no money to build new schools, and there’s no sign that the federal government–which used to be a major backer of public education–will provide any money either. “It costs anywhere from five to six million dollars to build a new elementary school,” says Saigh. “I don’t know where that’s going to come from.”

“It can come from desegregation funds,” counters Solis. “The board spends about $70 million a year busing kids from one neighborhood to another. That’s a failed program from the 60s. I think that money should be used to build good schools in the neighborhoods where people live.”

But desegregation programs are federally mandated. Do away with them, and the federal government will sue. “Then they should fire bureaucrats,” says Solis, “and use the money saved in salaries to build new schools.”

Undoubtedly there are unneeded bureaucrats in the school system. But it’s not clear how many there are nor how much money they cost. More than half of the board’s $2 billion budget is sacrosanct, since it goes to teachers. At least 7,000 employees work outside the classroom, but these include clerks, lunchroom aides, and janitors, who also serve important functions. There are 460 central and district office administrators who make more than $40,000 a year and whose work probably has little to do with education. But even if the board could fire them all, it would save no more than $25 million–not enough to build more than four or five new schools.

“The school system is not that hard up for cash,” says Solis. “A few years ago the Public Building Commission approved a $148 million bond issue for school improvements. But only one school was built with that.” Yet the remainder of that money was used for repairs and asbestos removal in older schools. Another bond issue of that magnitude would require a property-tax hike, which Mayor Daley would most likely oppose, no matter how many rallies UNO holds.

UNO hopes that its emerging political power can be used to persuade politicians to give Hispanics a bigger chunk of the existing urban-education pie. That would mean redirecting cash away from programs for blacks and integrated schools. “This is not a black-Hispanic or a Hispanic-white conflict,” says Solis. “But the fact is that we are not well served by the system. Look at the magnet schools. Blacks are represented very well there. So are whites. But Hispanics are only 2 percent of these schools.

“These magnet schools are also soaking up a good deal of the state money that is intended for poor communities. That money should be more fairly redistributed. Instead, the board is using it to bolster their budget. It’s like reverse Robin Hood. Money that should be going for the poor is being used on administrative salaries.”

Some members of the school board have been sympathetic, if not helpful, says Solis. “The Hispanic members of the board have been unable to make changes in the school bureaucracy. The bureaucracy runs the schools, not the board members. And the Hispanics who get hired quickly develop loyalties to the system which pays their check.”

One solution would be to raise more money for the schools by increasing the state income tax, a proposal UNO supports. So far, Daley has not endorsed this proposal, which has little support outside the inner city. State legislators who represent affluent suburbs whose schools do not need state aid adamantly oppose increases in public-school funding and are now using studies like UNO’s to rant against new funds for Chicago.

It’s an irony that UNO’s members–like other advocates of city school reform–are only now beginning to discover. “We support an increase in the income tax if that means more state aid for the schools, and we will ask Daley to support an increase too,” says Solis. “At the same time we must remain committed to see that the money we have is not wasted, and that our community gets its fair share.”

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