A little friction met the Emanuel administration’s to-date smoothly-rolling program of partially privatizing the school system this week. First, a report in the Tribune indicated that charter schools, which are privately run schools operated on tax money, do not perform any better than public schools on average and in many cases are considerably worse. Particularly troubling for privatization advocates–who are found in both political parties and in a wide swath of the political spectrum–was the suggestion that it is in fact poverty that drags down those charters performing worse. This fact is often brought up by privatization opponents and downplayed by its champions as mere excuse making. From the Tribune report:
More than two dozen schools in some of the city’s most prominent and largest charter networks, including the United Neighborhood Organization (UNO), Chicago International Charter Schools, University of Chicago and LEARN, scored well short of district averages on key standardized tests.
In two of the city’s oldest charter networks, Perspectives and Aspira, only one school — Perspectives’ IIT Math & Science Academy — surpassed CPS’ average on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test, taken by elementary schoolers, or the Prairie State Achievement Examination, used in high schools.
Next, Emanuel’s choice to spearhead his school-turnaround effort brought the word “cronyism” into coverage of his administration, always a quick way to convince Chicagoans the new boss is the same as the old boss. This week the Emanuel administration announced a turbocharged CompStat program for the public schools and the expansion of the privately run Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL) program, handing them six more schools to turn around. AUSL has a mixed to poor record with school turnarounds, and is connected to the Mayor through a number of campaign and policy staffers and his choice to head the Board of Education, David Vitale, raising questions of the propriety of the choice. Interestingly given the mantra of privatization advocates that public school supporters use poverty as an excuse, AUSL head Martin Koldyke defended their record by blaming kids for being slow to catch on.
Emanuel was reportedly testy when asked if there was a conflict of interest in his choice of AUSL given his political connections to them. Asked directly if there was a conflict of interest, the Mayor answered a wholly different question:
It is not a conflict to give kids a good education. It’s the responsibility I have as mayor.
Whether there was a conflict or not, this controversy, if it is that, lays bare one of the problems inherent to privatization of public trusts, namely, the ease with which, at worst, actual conflicts arise, and at best, the appearance of conflicts arise. Mayor Emanuel’s political connections to AUSL leadership are undeniable; whether they motivated in whole or in part his decision to hand them more business isn’t as germane as the ease with which he is able to hand them business, the lack of meaningful checks to that ability, and the absence of transparency in the decision. It is worth nothing that another major charter operator, United Neighborhoods Organization-Charter School Network (UNO-CSN), is headed by a co-chair of Emanuel’s Mayoral election campaign, Juan Rangel. From the outside looking in, the lesson is obvious: if you want to build a successful school operator, at the very least it helps to have strong political connections.
Now that the privatization train has started rolling, it will be more and more difficult to stop, and the Mayor’s ideological dedication to the principles underlying certainly grease those tracks. It is unfortunate that the years-old warnings that charters were unproven went unheeded. We now are looking at a class of powerful and connected rent-seekers with intense financial and professional incentives to preserve the system. If it bears out that charter schools offer not meaningful advantage over public schools, we have solved no problems while likely creating a whole new class of them.