Chicago School Strike Ends, but Not the Fight

As Mayor Rahm Emanuel and teachers stand down, the future of public education is still up for grabs.

Scott Olson/Getty Images
Scott Olson/Getty Images

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 Chicago’s teachers fear that somewhere in the bowels of City Hall, Mayor Emanuel, who is more a corporationalist than he is a liberal Democrat at heart, has a secret timeline that would see 200 public schools closed, supplanted by mostly nonunionized charter schools, and about 6,000 current CTU members gripping pink slips while slouching toward the unemployment offices.

Mayor Emanuel fears that with a budget deficit of an estimated $600 million to $700 million for next year, the CPS is on its way to becoming Greece.

In reality, the arithmetic is worse than the sum of their fears. Chicago’s public schools have gotten only marginally better since 25 years ago, when President Ronald Reagan’s education secretary, William J. Bennett, declared them “the worst in the nation” and advised parents to send their children to private schools.

Many Chicagoans who could afford it took Bennett’s advice; others who thought that was too steep a price simply hightailed it to the suburbs. Today, 87 percent of the students in Chicago’s public schools come from low-income families. Forty-four percent of the system’s 350,000 students are Latino, 42 percent black and 8 percent are white. Only 61 percent of those who enter the city’s public high schools graduate. A 2006 study, conducted when U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was then CEO of Chicago Public Schools, reported that for every 100 CPS freshmen, only six would get a four-year college degree (pdf). For black boys that number was only three.

With numbers like that, it’s no small wonder that a 2004 report showed that 39 percent of Chicago’s public school teachers send their children to private schools — and that Mayor Emanuel does the same; his three children attend the University of Chicago’s Lab School.

The mayor and that hefty percentage of the city’s teachers aren’t the only parents eager to educate their children elsewhere. Chicago’s public charter schools currently enroll about 12 percent of the city’s students — and that percentage is growing.