Thursday, May 23, 2013

Wanted: More Progressive Policy Solutions

In Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's controversial plan to close 49 elementary schools and one high school passed the Chicago School Board yesterday in a six to nothing vote.  The plan has been met with both large scale local opposition and protest, as well as condemnation from a variety of national progressive figures.  As I see it, the opposition's complaints broke down into three main categories; the plan would damage communities whose schools would be closed; the plan would endanger children by making them walk to new schools and possibly across different gang turfs; and the plan is unfairly affecting minority students.  These are all valid concerns, and people are certainly correct to raise them.  This is, after all, the biggest school closing in Chicago history.

But while protesters and progressives have been making these valid points, they have unfortunately (as far as I can tell) ignored the bigger reason of why this whole plan is being considered.  The New York Times explains it quite well in it's dry prose:
Chicago now has 145,000 fewer school-age children than it had more than a decade ago, according to district data, and the district had already closed about 100 schools since 2001. In March, the Chicago Public Schools identified 53 more elementary schools that it planned to shutter, expecting to save about $500 million over 10 years in a district facing a $1 billion deficit.
I would add that this is the rosy picture.  Our nations third largest school district is one of the worst performing in the country, can not raise property taxes as they've reached their constitutionally allotted cap and has a pension system that is close to complete collapse.

What I find frustrating is that this fundamental reality of declining enrollment (145,000 less students!) and a massive structural deficit ($1,000,000,000!) seems completely removed from the conversations a lot of progressives are having about this plan.  It's as if Mayor Emanuel could keep all the schools open if he wanted to, but has decided to close them out of spite.  But of course he can't, he is faced with a massive shortfall and a current system that he claims keeps 100,000 desk empty in schools every school day.  Indeed, while this is a big school closure for Chicago, cities all over the country have been forced to do the same thing faced with the same structural reality.  Philadelphia recently closed a higher percentage of their schools in a mass closing. 

I think this fundamental disconnect between the structural realities underpinning the closure and the response that seems to ignore these realities is a symptom of a lack of realistic progressive policy solutions for tough problems like this.  We have a lot of policy white papers about why global warming is bad or for the need for tougher anti-stalking laws, but we don't seem to have enough on how to manage struggling, aging and shrinking districts like Chicago Public Schools.  I don't know much about tackling a $1 billion dollar school district deficit you can't borrow for and won't get bailed out of by the state of Federal government for.  But from what I do know, closing failing schools running at half or lower capacity seems more feasible than going to trash pick up one a month city-wide or cutting teacher pay in half.  I guess what I want to see is less anger and more progressive policy solutions. 

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