By almost all measures that count, the children in Chicago’s public schools performed dismally under the Obama administration – almost 70 percent of 11th graders don’t meet academic standards, the dropout rate in nonselective schools hovers around 50 percent, and violence and chaos abound in what should be a sacred learning environment for the nation’s most precious national resource, our children. If the situation were happening in any foreign country, international observers would declare the state of the schools a catastrophic emergency and urge immediate intervention. Sadly, however, this has been the status quo in Chicago and other inner city school systems for over a decade.
Before taking over as mayor of Chicago, President Obama’s handpicked candidate Rahm Emanuel famously remarked (ostensibly with reference to the national economy), “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” Mr. Emanuel’s words provide a deep clue into the Obama administration’s governing philosophy around inner city schools. In referring to finding opportunity in crisis, Mr. Emanuel was paraphrasing free market economist Milton Friedman, who often cited crises as a focusing event that if managed properly could galvanize policymakers into making significant changes to structures and processes. But the Obama administration, having come into office during a proverbial “hundred year storm,” developed a crisis orientation that made them see a crisis around every corner.
Admittedly, Chicago public schools had suffered from underfunding and underperforming long before the Obama administration came to office. Education Secretary Arne Duncan had served as the CEO of Chicago schools amid an epidemic of youth violence that culminated in the infamous beating death of honor roll student Derrion Rice in 2009. Rice was attacked as he walked home from school in a wild gang melee that was partially captured on video by a bystander. Nevertheless, Mr. Duncan – based on what are now understood to be falsely reported school improvement statistics – was touted as a progressive genius and rewarded with his cabinet post at the beginning of the first Obama term.
Mr. Duncan came to Washington, and Mr. Emanuel left his job as Mr. Obama’s White House chief of staff to run for mayor of Chicago. Mr. Duncan’s education policy was supposed to be a departure from the No Child Left Behind framework implemented under President Bush, a policy that had been much maligned by teachers unions because it placed pressure on educators and schools to improve student performance in failing schools, and gave states and parents significant options – such as moving their children to better performing schools – if the schools did not improve.
Chicago was largely viewed as the testing ground for a new national framework that the Obama administration called “Race to the Top.” Under that framework, Mr. Duncan set aside about $4 billion to award to schools that improved student performance. However, the incentive program, whose paltry $4 billion reward system represented merely a drop in the bucket compared to the additional funding needed to address the nation’s failing education infrastructure, has quickly become bogged down in the quagmire of measuring teacher performance by the improvement in student test scores. In fact, the new testing regime brought on by this race to the top has become the bane of teachers, students and parents across the nation.
But in Chicago under Mr. Emanuel, testing and teacher performance issues are being used as a pretext for closing almost 50 inner city schools. This represents the largest school closure regime in a major urban school system in American history. And it is the result, not of an actual crisis, but a manufactured one. The Obama administration cynically set up inner city schools for failure, and when they inevitably failed to meet targets set forth under the various state and federal measurement regimes, he simply destroyed the schools. Whatever complaints inner city parents may have had about No Child Left Behind, they pale in comparison with the chaos and destruction Mr. Emanuel, Mr. Duncan and Mr. Obama have wrought in Chicago.
The school closings have not only resulted in the firing of 800 teachers (a debacle in its own right), but displaced thousands of children, putting them at risk of the very gang violence that sparked outrage at the condition of Chicago schools in 2009. The Emanuel administration promised parents that children from closing schools would be provided options to attend better quality schools instead. This was supposed to justify the inconvenience and instability such mass closings caused. But what actually happened is that most of these students were just bused to failing schools in another part of town. This is what management by manufactured crisis gets you. This is what you get when you have individuals in office with superior political skills but abysmal leadership and management abilities. This is what you get when political cronies get together and conspire to manufacture a public crisis for private gain.
Ironically, despite its contention that inner city schools were underutilized and had to be closed, the city of Chicago has now proposed opening privately operated charter schools in some of the same areas that public schools were closed. Not surprisingly, the Emanuel campaign has received more than $700,000 in donations by private charter school corporations. The charter school movement was seen by parents across the nation as a means of providing much-needed alternatives to failing public schools. Never in their wildest dreams, however, did parents ever suspect that politicians would use their earnest desire to seek better education for their children as an excuse to essentially plunder the public coffers in the name of political cronyism.
There is simply no excuse for this mess in Chicago, the president’s own back yard. It shows the utter contempt the Obama administration has for the very base of African-Americans, Latino teachers and students who have supported him and whom he purports to love. If this were any other president than the current one, the destruction he has wrought on the nation’s students would be declared a humanitarian crisis.
Armstrong Williams is sole owner/manager of Howard Stirk Holdings TV broadcast stations and executive editor of American CurrentSee.