Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Chicago Public Schools Sound More Like Private Schools

Charging $500 for a seventh class period is just one way schools in Chicago will give children of wealthy parents another edge in an increasingly unequal system.

Rahm Emanuel Whitney Young

Photo: E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune

Rahm Emanuel visits Whitney M. Young Magnet High School for a pep rally to recognize the Academic Decathlon team’s State Championship victory, April 25, 2011

I’m a CPS lifer. The schools I attended back in the ‘50s and ‘60s were pretty good—not great.  My high school—the same one in which CTU President Karen Lewis taught chemistry—had the college bound crowd and the  blue and pink collar jobs bound.  The two groups used separate entrances, although that had nothing to do with school or central office policy; just tradition and the sort of cruel status stratification at which high schoolers are so gifted.

My parents, neither of whom went to college, paid their property taxes to fund the public schools and that was that—a fee every once in a while for a field trip but nothing much beyond. 

Chicago had always had a tradition of parochial education, but it had scant tradition of private education, and only a handful of private school choices. Growing up, I didn’t know anyone who went to the big three privates—Latin, Francis Parker, U of  C Lab. A couple of kids in my neighborhood (West Rogers Park) who had behavior problems and whose parents had sufficient money were sent to a private school on the Gold Coast which I thought equivalent to being a day student at a reform school. 

Public school in my world was the place to be.

We know that budget cuts are coming; principals and LSCs are naming numbers; parents, students, teachers are protesting. We don’t yet know how many of the remaining 600-plus schools—after the closing this month of 48 elementary schools—will face budget cuts. But with CPS drowning in a $1 billion deficit, and, Rahm Emanuel charges, robbed of funding because of the Legislature’s failing to clean up the pension mess, it’s a good bet that most schools will have to cut back. 

And it’s an even better bet that parents will be asked to dig deeply into their pockets to subsidize their children’s public schools.

Parents of children who attend highly ranked neighborhood and magnet schools may think, so what else is new? The bells and whistles that distinguish a suburban or private school have been available to selected public school students in Chicago because parents, who have the time and money, have become skilled fundraisers and party/auction planners.

But something about the windup to the 2013-14 school year feels different: hints of a two-tier system, that will mean that public school students whose parents who can’t pay will get less.

The most stark example is the Near West Side’s Whitney M. Young Magnet High School—the selective school from which Michelle Obama graduated in 1981; her springboard to Princeton and,  indirectly, to Harvard Law School. Facing a budget cut of $1.1 million, Whitney Young’s principal Joyce Kenner has proposed stripping students of a seventh class period unless their parents can afford to pay $500.  

It seems the antithesis of public education. Students who parents are lawyers or accountants will be able to buy their children the college-admissions pleasing class—the richer transcript, but the students whose parents have lower paying or no jobs won’t? Kenner has also proposed canceling or curtailing the school’s ACT prep courses—parents with disposable income will compensate by buying their children private test prep—as well as cutting the writing center, cutting some foreign language electives, including Latin, cutting some programs in art, music and business.

I interviewed Kenner in October 2008 as I researched and wrote a profile of Michelle Obama. We talked about the possibility that one or both of the Obama daughters could, one day, consider following their mother to Whitney Young. (This was before Obama was elected and reelected so there was the possibility that his daughters would spend their high school years in Chicago.)  “We believe it’s the best school in the nation,” Kenner told me, “and it’s free in comparison to the [many thousands of dollars] that [parents] would have to pay at a Lab School, so that is always our message to the parents.”   

The  phrase “pay to play” is often used to describe political corruption. It may soon come to describe public education in Chicago. And Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s hour and 15 minute longer school day, which was going to be bursting with the enrichment provided by subjects such as music and art, becomes an empty promise with a terrible twist. Some students might be better off getting out of school early, trying to get a job, so that the most tenacious among them can earn the money to pay for that extra class or that test prep.

One more bit of news: CPS’s  central office may no longer pay for such necessities as toilet paper and cleaning products.  Those items will land in the principal’s budget and principals may find themselves choosing between teachers and toilet paper. Parents may find themselves with no choice but to fork over the money to finance the cost of both the former and the latter.

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