News & Politics » Ben Joravsky on Politics

How investment bankers told Rahm that class size matters

Mayor Emanuel's deal to fund preschool may give away too much money, but at least it shows what's needed to help poor kids.



Several readers have written to complain that I have a bias against rich bankers.

To which I say: not true!

These readers base their charge on my recent writings about the mayor's $17 million handout to bankers. But the truth is that I harbor no illusions that bankers such as Goldman Sachs and Northern Trust, the chief beneficiaries of the deal, are in business to protect the public trust.

No, they're in business to make money. And if Mayor Emanuel wants to give them up to $17 million for fronting the city a little cash, well, who are they to turn it down?

Besides, I think the bankers did us a favor by blowing to smithereens some of the central tenets of the so-called school reform movement.

But before I get to that, let me briefly explain the deal—just in case you couldn't bear to pay attention to it before.

This is the one where the mayor potentially doubled the cost of a $4 million-a-year pre-K program for impoverished children by borrowing the money to run it instead of paying for it out of the budget, as he could have done.

So now the annual cost could rise to $8 million a year, with the extra millions going to Goldman Sachs, Northern Trust, and the J.B. and M.K. Pritzker Family Foundation in the form of interest on the loan.

Think of it as paying $10 for a $5 magazine because you borrowed the money from Tony Soprano rather than pay for it with the cash you had in your wallet.

It looks like the bankers have demonstrated you can get something for nothing. Then again, these banks have doled out millions of dollars in campaign contributions over the years, including tens of thousands of dollars to Emanuel's campaign funds. I guess you could say this $17 million is a return on their investment.

But again, these bankers did us a favor.

They set parameters for what can be realistically expected—without massive amounts of spending—to educate low-income children.

This issue has been the subject of heated debate for years as education activists like Diane Ravitch contend that poverty plays a central role in a child's educational development. They argue that if we want children from impoverished communities to do as well in school as well as better-off kids, we have to come as close as we can to eradicating poverty.

At which the so-called education reformers cry bigotry—in a creative play of the race card.

They say that if we immediately fire all the bad teachers and replace them with good ones—as if great teachers grow on trees—kids everywhere will post scores like Alan Turing.

Well, with this pre-K contract the bankers have weighed in to basically say that Ravitch is right.

The bankers are fronting the city and Chicago Public Schools the money to pay for the pre-K program. For the bankers to get back their money—plus the interest—the children in the classes they fund have to outscore their lower-income counterparts on standardized tests.

To make certain the children aren't held to unrealistic expectations, the bankers got Mayor Emanuel to agree to terms that even the Chicago Teachers Union has never been able to get.

For instance, there will be no more than 17 students in classes funded by the bankers.

In contrast, the union contract calls for 28 kids for lower grades—and that's just a goal. Many classrooms have well more than 30.

I'm totally with Goldman Sachs on this issue. But the notion that class size plays a role in education is anathema to many of the so-called reformers.

In fact, just this weekend I read an essay by Eric Hanushek, a prominent national critic of teachers' unions. "Nobody has shown that the substantial class-size reductions" have "paid off in terms of student achievement," he wrote. "The two main effects of past class-size reduction have been more teachers and more expensive schools."

Like those are disastrous things.

Furthermore, he argues, "the effectiveness of the teacher in the classroom is far, far more important than how many students are in the classroom."

Hey, Professor Hanushek, try telling that to Goldman Sachs.

Then there's the notion that poverty plays no role in educational outcomes, one of the philosophies behind the Republican Party's platform on schools.

Remember what presidential candidate George W. Bush said back in 2000 in his "no child left behind speech" to the NAACP? He vowed to eradicate the "soft bigotry of low expectations."

In 2001, President Bush got Congress to pass the No Child Left Behind Act, which mandated "adequate yearly progress" for all school districts, so that by 2014 all students, regardless of poverty, "will meet or exceed the state's standards."

I've always felt that this "soft bigotry" rhetoric was a clever and cynical way to justify ignoring the gross disparities between how much we spend on schools for rich versus poor kids.

The bankers backing Emanuel's pre-K program certainly don't want anything to do with it.

To get their money, they only have to show that kids from their pre-K classes score at least in the top 75 percent on standardized tests.

Moreover, the bankers don't want to be held accountable for the test scores of kids with special needs—a long list of issues that includes hearing and visual impairments.

Can you imagine if CPS teachers told Mayor Emanuel that kids who are hard of hearing can't be expected to score above the 25th percentile?

He'd probably drop an F-bomb on them, just like he did with CTU president Karen Lewis the last time he deigned to talk to her.

By the way, if you're reading this, Karen, here's what I suggest to you:

Use the Goldman Sachs pre-K deal as a template for your next contract negotiations with the mayor—especially with regard to class size.

It's great if we have high expectations for all kids. But it has to be backed up by investing in education instead of closing schools and firing teachers.

If it's good enough for the kids backed by investment bankers, it should be good enough for all the kids.

Comments (11)

Showing 1-11 of 11

Add a comment

Add a comment