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Mayor Rahm decides it’s a good time to give himself credit for improving CPS

The mayor stops bashing the schools so he can take credit for fixing them.


Mayor Emanuel at south-side CPS school Ariel Community Academy in April 2015. - MATT MARTON/AP
  • Matt Marton/AP
  • Mayor Emanuel at south-side CPS school Ariel Community Academy in April 2015.

With his speech last week at a Crain's business luncheon, Mayor Emanuel made it clear that he's adopted a new attitude toward Chicago's public schools: he likes them.

Well, not enough to help them stave off bankruptcy by dipping into his TIF reserves to pay the bills. I don't think he'll ever like them that much.

But he's clearly moved to the stage of his career where he feels it's in his best interest to stop bashing the schools so he can take credit for having fixed them. Even though the schools were never as bad as he says they were and they're not as good as he now claims.

It's a trick he learned from Mayor Daley that's intended to give the boss maximum credit for stuff he never did.

In particular, Emanuel is trumpeting gains made in standardized test scores—more on that in a moment—to win points in his fight with Governor Rauner, his old wine-drinking, money-making pal.

I know I'm not alone when I say that I still wonder if this fight's for real—no matter how many nasty things Rauner and Rahm say about each other.

At the moment, I must concede that Rahm is less of a schmuck than Rauner—though the bar's exceedingly low in this competition.

At least Rahm's not saying that CPS is unworthy of more state aid because it's a shitty system filled with schools that "are basically just crumbling prisons," as Rauner recently put it, so let's just let it go bankrupt.

In search of more state aid, Emanuel's been chiding Rauner for his insensitivity, even though Rahm was saying many of the same things about CPS a few years ago.

OK, so Rahm never compared schools to prisons. But he roared into office intent on making his name as a charter-school-loving, teachers'-union-bashing Democrat who stood arm in arm with Republicans like Rauner.

Who can forget that moment in a 2011 mayoral debate when Emanuel declared: "When you take out North Side [and] Walter Payton, the seven best performing high schools are all charters."

It was his not-so-subtle way of saying there are only one or two good public schools in the system.

After that debate, students from Sullivan High—a neighborhood school in Rogers Park—made a video pointing out that Whitney Young, Jones College Prep, Lane Tech, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Lincoln Park high schools all followed North Side and Payton on the list of the city's top-scoring schools. None of them are charters.

The students went on to lambaste Rahm and endorse Miguel del Valle. Sullivan, one student said, "is not one of the schools Rahm Emanuel cares about."

Once in office, Emanuel spent the better part of four years fighting the teachers' union, provoking a strike, and forcing curriculum changes on schools whether they wanted them or not.

When parents complained, his aides told them that the mayor knew best, and that the parents didn't realize just how bad their schools really were.

Obviously, the mayor's singing a new tune these days.

In his luncheon speech, he blasted Rauner for not sending more state money to help him "bridge the divide" between poor neighborhoods such as Roseland and rich ones such as Ravenswood.

As Rahm put it, he needed more state aid to continue the great improvements he's making at CPS. "The caboose," he said—i.e., CPS—is now "carrying Illinois on it back."

To prove his point, he—irony of ironies—praised Sullivan for sending so many graduates to college.

"Folks, let's be honest. If I told you five years ago that 100 percent of kids from Clemente and Sullivan were going to college . . . "

Here he paused, as if he couldn't imagine such a fantasy. Then he said: "I wish those cameras were off. I could really say what I want to say. It includes a Dixie cup and a lab test."

I'm pretty sure Rahm's making a joke about being high and taking a drug test. Or maybe it's a paternity test? No matter. He's got a way of insulting public schools even when he's trying to praise them.

He went on to say that CPS students "led the nation in eighth-grade math and fourth-grade reading gains." As if his policies had anything to do with it.

Let's go into the weeds.

The mayor was alluding to student scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress—a federally mandated standardized test.

Every two years, the feds monitor fourth-grade math and eighth-grade reading scores to get a general sense of whether school districts are improving. The study they produce is called the Nation's Report Card.

The good news is that, yes, Chicago's eighth-graders scored six points higher in reading in 2015 than they did in 2013. And fourth-graders scored one point higher in math.

The bad news is that a racial, ethnic, and economic performance gap persists. For instance, black fourth-graders "had an average score that was 41 points lower than that for white students," according to the report card.

And Hispanic fourth-graders had "an average score that was 33 points lower than that for white students."

Low-income students scored 34 points lower than their wealthier peers.

The gap also existed in eighth-grade reading scores. Worse, performance gaps for fourth- and eighth-graders have been rising over time.

In other words, in the fight to "bridge the divide between Roseland and Ravenswood," we're going backward, not forward.

Moreover, Chicago's performance gap was as bad as or worse than the ones in New York, Los Angeles, and other cities. So there's no point in trying to make us look good by making other cities look bad. Another one of the mayor's favorite tactics.

I take no solace in writing this. The point is that no one—certainly neither Rahm nor Rauner—has figured out how to close this gap. I'm pretty sure Rauner's not even trying.

One thing's for certain: bankrupting or bashing our schools doesn't help. And neither does congratulating yourself for strides you've never made. v

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