On Friday, Mayor Lightfoot held a press conference to pat herself on the back for Chicago’s graduation rate.
Nothing especially wrong with that—we can always use a little good news. And a rising graduation rate is good news, as even I—Mr. Gloom and Doom—will concede.
However, in her remarks, Mayor Lightfoot thanked two people who had almost next to nothing to do with the success—Mayors Daley and Rahm.
In fact, you could argue that any gains the schools have made over the last 30 years or so have happened in spite, not because, of our mayors. An argument I’ve been known to make from time to time.
So in honor of Labor Day, allow me to give credit to the people who actually had something to do with whatever successes CPS can claim—the teachers, principals, teachers’ aides, coaches, clerks, lunchroom supervisors, janitors, and anyone else who actually, you know, does the labor.
As opposed to taking the credit.
Look, I’m trying hard to keep my focus laser tight on President MAGA, using whatever scraps of influence I have to help unseat him before he leads us further toward—dare I say it?—fascism.
But every now and then I feel compelled to take another plunge into the dirty waters of Chicago’s political pond. So here goes . . .
There’s this myth in Chicago that good things in our public schools—like a rising graduation rate—result from the magic of our all-powerful mayor, without whom we’d be lost.
When it comes to school myths in Chicago, the narrative is positively biblical, taken straight from the Book of Genesis.
There was darkness and then the Lord—or, in this case, Mayor Daley—brought in the light.
This is the narrative that Daley, his press aides, and their cheerleaders in civic, editorial, and corporate Chicago have been shoving down our throats since 1995, after the state passed a law giving power over the schools to the mayor.
Daley was given so much credit for saving our schools, they called him the Education Mayor. And yet, when he left office, Mayor Rahm declared that the schools still needed saving.
Apparently, Rahm figured he was the man to save the schools even as he knew almost nothing about them.
In reality, not all that much has changed about CPS since I moved here back in the early 1980s.
It’s generally two systems—one for the relative well-to-do and one for the not-so-well-to-do.
Low-income kids attend schools commonly known as “bad.” While middle class or wealthy kids go to “good” schools.
These rankings have become marketing tools for the real estate industry, which uses them to boost prices in areas with “good” schools.
And they’re closely scrutinized by anxious parents, always ready to bolt for the suburbs if things seem to be tilting in the wrong direction.
In reality, there were great schools in Chicago, educating great kids, long before Daley took office. I’m thinking of Karen Lewis, Andrew Patner, Chaka Khan, Nazr Mohammed, Mandy Patinkin, and Judge Mary Mikva—all graduates or attendees of mighty Kenwood High. Not sure why I’ve got the Broncos on my mind—every school in Chicago has similar stories, which have nothing, nothing, nothing to do with the mayor.
Much of the myth about all-powerful mayors saving CPS stems from William Bennett’s disingenuous declaration that it’s the worst system in the nation.
Bennett was a rightwing political hack appointed to run the U.S. Department of Education by Ronald Reagan, who was using Chicago much as Donald Trump does today when he starts talking about murder rates.
This was back in 1987 when Harold Washington was mayor. And Bennett was looking to scare white people into voting Republican with some made-up BS about what happens when you put Black people in charge.
The reality is that Bennett—like Daley, Rahm, and pretty much everyone else—failed at the great school challenge of our lifetime—closing the performance gap between rich and poor students.
To confront that challenge requires an expenditure of money that the Bennetts of the world would rather keep for themselves.
It’s a tradition of hoarding money that continues to this day, with the state’s richest man, hedge fund gazillionaire Ken Griffin, recently donating $20 million to the propaganda campaign to defeat the Fair Tax referendum.
If passed, the referendum would raise the rates on the top earners, like Griffin, meaning more money for the public schools. A subject for another time.
As for Mayors Daley and Rahm, I could write a book about the money and effort they wasted on privatization deals, borrowing schemes, standardized tests, PR campaigns, book bans, and TIF handouts that diverted dollars from the classroom to their cronies.
It’s especially ironic that Lightfoot credits Daley for the rising graduation rate. Daley called for the end of social promotion. He and his school aides actually bragged about how many kids they held back for “flunking” a standardized test that wasn’t even supposed to be pass-fail.
They made these kids take summer school classes in baking-hot classrooms with no air conditioning. ’Cause, you know, nothing gets kids to love school like torturing them in the heat.
So, naturally, more kids dropped out.
Sun-Times editor/columnist Rummana Hussain is always teasing me about how much I “hate” Mayor Rahm (which is sooo not true). Upon reflection, let me credit him for bringing back social promotion and by doing so, raising graduation rates. How ’bout that love for Mayor Rahm, Rummana?
Liberals in Chicago like to make fun of MAGA people for falling for Trump’s bullshit. But the way so many Chicagoans swallow any old thing our mayors tell us—well, I think there’s a little MAGA in us all. v