Rahm Emanuel tries his hand at fiction. And the media is buying it.

In a media misinformation blitz, the outgoing mayor rewrites his record on police reform and schools.

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Photo by William Camargo

Amid much speculation over Rahm Emanuel’s post-mayoral career path, one option stands out. He is revealing much promise as a fiction writer.

His recent efforts have been so successful that they’ve been published as serious commentary by the editors of such august publications as The New York Times and The Atlantic.

The Times piece was headlined, “Why Chicago Leads on Police Reform.” When I sent it to Sam Walker, the national police reform expert at University of Nebraska Omaha, he responded, “Chicago does NOT lead in police reform. If it leads in anything, it is in the FAILURE to impose even minimal accountability in the Chicago Police Department.”

Walker called the op-ed “a complete self-serving fairy tale, particularly about how the consent decree came about.”

That’s undeniable. Emanuel claims the new federal consent decree — which provides an independent monitor under judicial oversight — was a joint effort between his administration and the state’s attorney general. In fact, Emanuel first sought a non-binding memorandum of agreement with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who opposed federal consent decrees. Sessions and Emanuel had  both argued that forceful accountability measures would inhibit police and encourage criminal activity.

Only when the state filed a lawsuit seeking judicial oversight did Emanuel agree to negotiate. Before that, Emanuel’s administration had sought to throw out parallel lawsuits by community and civil rights groups. Under the agreement with the state, those groups were included in the final consent decree.

All of this occurred despite Emanuel’s opposition. Indeed, as Chicagoans know quite well, Emanuel tried to block reform at every step by opposing the replacement of the Independent Police Review Authority, opposing giving the new Civilian Office of Police Accountability budgetary independence and stalling on a new civilian oversight board.

Instead, Emanuel’s op-ed cites the introduction of Tasers and new training as evidence that Chicago “did not wait for a consent decree to carry out reforms” — without noting the finding by the Department of Justice that the rush to roll out these measures undermined their effectiveness. He claims Chicago “allowed sergeants to exert more direct leadership” without noting the consent decree’s requirement that officer-to-sergeant ratios be improved to meet minimal national standards.

Emanuel’s central claim — that Chicago’s consent decree is “markedly different” from other cities for having included perspectives from community residents and police officers — is simply not true. Such broad consultations are standard operating procedure in these agreements.

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He says that, unlike other cities, Chicago has included police officers as partners in reform. He doesn’t mention a lawsuit by the Fraternal Order of Police opposing the consent decree. And consent decrees in other cities have gone far beyond Chicago in including officers’ perspectives. Cleveland established a Community Police Commission which includes representatives from two police unions and the city’s black officers association. Chicago has nothing like that.

Emanuel even reframes his controversial comment in 2015 that police would “get fetal” —  clearly, drawing on reporting at the time, as a result of increased public scrutiny. Now he writes that he meant “police officers would ‘go fetal’ if they weren’t included in the reform.” For some reason, The New York Times has opened its op-ed page to blatant falsification.

In his Atlantic article on schools — part of a long series in which he establishes himself as an opponent of progressive politics — Emanuel revises history on a grand scale. He sticks to his face-saving claim that the 2012 teachers strike was necessary to establish a longer school day. In fact, that issue was resolved in a side agreement a month before the strike. He claims he won a revision in teacher evaluations, when it was mandated by state law, and the Chicago Teachers Union kept the proportion based on test scores to the legal minimum.

Emanuel talks up the importance of wraparound services and post-secondary education while he has cut the number of counselors, social workers, and nurses. He says he’s “closed both neighborhood and charter schools,” and while he has closed a few charters, he’s opened many more. He even talks up school libraries (and of course “Rahm’s Readers“), without mentioning that the number of school librarians has declined by nearly two thirds under his watch.

But Emanuel’s main point — that he’s learned that principal empowerment is the key to school improvement — is perhaps the most astonishing. As Troy LaRaviere, president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, puts it, “The truth is the reverse of everything he says.”

Emanuel claims he stood up for the right of principals to hire the faculty of their choice. (According to CTU, one of the last issues to be settled in the 2012 strike involved protections for teachers laid off in school closings.) But then his school board implemented student-based budgeting, under which schools receive budgets based on enrollment and principals must decide how to spread those dollars around. It’s particularly challenging in schools with large proportions of high-need students.

“Principals want to hire veteran teachers, but school-based budgeting creates a strong disincentive against that,” said LaRaviere. “It’s basically handcuffing principals.”

In any case, principals main problem isn’t filling positions, he said – more, often, “they have to decide what staff they have to let go,” as cuts due to student-based budgeting continue. When positions are open, principals also have trouble attracting candidates in the most challenging schools, which have generally lost the most resources in recent years, he added.

In a school system with the lowest staffing ratios in the state, principals end up doing the work of deans and social workers — while also burdened by hours of paperwork meeting redundant compliance mandates from Chicago Public Schools offices, LaRaviere said. When principals requested more special education staff — after deep cuts recommended by private consultants — they were told to get rid of their assistant principals in order to free up funding in their budgets, he said.

That’s principal empowerment, Emanuel style. He sure knows how to spin a yarn – and he sure knows how to play the media.

This post has been updated since publishing.