Following an adverse court ruling on the city’s school funding lawsuit last week, Mayor Rahm Emanuel made a sudden about-face, announcing that despite months of threats about closing schools early if he didn’t get his way in court, the district would indeed finish out the regular academic year.
The shift demonstrates a key shortcoming with how the mayor runs Chicago Public Schools: lack of credibility.
Certainly, as the city’s lawsuit maintained, CPS deserves the same state support for its pension obligations that other districts get. And Gov. Bruce Rauner’s veto of a bill that would accomplish that – and his willingness to shut down the state’s largest school system in order to advance his legislative agenda – was simply outrageous.
But as deserving, and as desperate, as CPS is, it does its case no favors with its lack of transparency around budget and policy issues. And Emanuel’s leadership style, which ranges from high-handed to heavy-handed, doesn’t help.
That leadership style is evident in Emanuel’s unwillingness to divulge where he’ll get the money to fill the CPS budget gap. It might be a “bridge loan” from the tax increment financing surplus, he hints–whatever that means. With $6 billion in debt, CPS doesn’t need more–and there’s the hint that the loan won’t have to be paid back. It looks like the mayor is just avoiding a precedent that would infringe on his prerogative over the TIF slush fund, which currently has a surplus of–whatever he says it is.
More evidence of the distance between what the mayor and the district say and what they do came in a recent study of the relationship between charter school expansion and Emanuel’s closing of 49 neighborhood schools in poor black and Latino neighborhoods.
You’ll recall that Emanuel ordered the schools closed in 2013 to “right-size” a school district facing an “under-enrollment crisis.” CPS couldn’t afford so many schools. Just about every media account that year included a sentence like this: Facing a $1 billion budget deficit, CPS is closing a record number of schools.
It turns out, according to “Closed By Choice,” that while Emanuel was closing 49 neighborhood schools, he was opening 40 new charter schools – most of them in neighborhoods experiencing population loss, and many within a mile-and-a-half of public schools that were closed.
In Emanuel’s first year in office, CPS had signed a compact with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation promising to open 60 new charters in five years. And this, despite high levels of under-enrollment in the city’s charter schools, which have an estimated 11,000 empty seats.
It wasn’t a new strategy. Despite Emanuel’s posturing about challenging the “status quo,” he was continuing it. Under Renaissance 2010, from 2000 to 2009, CPS closed 73 neighborhood schools and opened 62 charters – 85 percent of them in neighborhoods that were experiencing population loss. Of course, that put enrollment strains on existing schools and “contributed to low enrollments later used to justify closing neighborhood schools,” according to the study.
Emanuel’s “under-enrollment crisis” was just for public consumption. So was the idea that it was part of a plan for dealing with CPS’ budget issues. His agenda was simple: close neighborhood schools and open charters, whatever the cost.
That’s an agenda Emanuel shares with Rauner and President Donald Trump.
Given the financial issues and growing public backlash, charter expansion has slowed in Chicago. On top of that, the current contract with the Chicago Teachers Union includes a cap on the number of charter seats.
But I wouldn’t write off the charter movement just yet. There’s wiggle room in the cap in the union contract: the school board could reduce student allocations (the number of students allowed) at charters that are under-enrolled, and give larger charter chains approval to shift students within their networks.
Roosevelt University professor Stephanie Farmer, co-author of “Closed by Choice,” thinks the next trend will be closing small charter schools – single-campus charters founded by educators around innovative missions, the schools that “embody the original idea of charters” – and shifting their student allocations to the bigger, politically connected charter networks.
“That could actually create charter school monopolies,” she said.
In addition, there’s the $42 million federal grant Rauner won to open 48 new charter schools, half of them in Chicago. The grant supports charter development; operation costs would still be borne by local districts.
I wouldn’t be surprised if CPS continues to authorize a handful of charters every year. It may take a little longer than Emanuel first expected, but I suspect he’s going to keep his original promise to Gates.
We don’t need those schools. “If the goal is to stabilize the district financially, I don’t think it makes sense to open more schools,” said Farmer. It would feed the series of deep budget cuts that are “just adding educational instability to all schools, and especially in the poorest neighborhoods,” she said.
Farmer and her co-authors call for a moratorium on new charter schools and for abolishing the Illinois Charter School Commission, a state body that can override local districts if they turn down a charter school’s application. They also call for fiscal transparency regarding how charters spend public dollars, including publication of charter school budgets and audits, and reporting by CPS on charter school debt (which is covered by taxpayers – and, according to the report, adds as much as $1 billion off the books to CPS’ debt load).
There is legislation that would address those recommendations. A bill sponsored by State Rep. Will Guzzardi (D-Chicago) would establish a moratorium on new charters in school districts that are on the state’s financial watch list. A bill sponsored by State Rep. Emanuel Chris Welch (D-Westchester) would revoke the power of the charter commission to override local district decisions.
Welch’s bill recently passed the House. But it’s passed the House three years running, and each time failed to be called for a vote in the Senate. CPS leadership has endorsed the goal of the bill, but Emanuel doesn’t seem to have prevailed on his friend, State Senate President John Cullerton, to get it out of committee.
If he put his weight behind reforming the charter commission – and if he instituted a permanent moratorium on new charter schools, as long as Chicago is losing population and CPS is in an unrelenting budget crisis – Emanuel would have more credibility when he talked about inadequate state funding.
He’d also save some money for Chicago’s schools and taxpayers.