Public Promises, Private Cuts | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

Public Promises, Private Cuts 

While Mayor Daley trumpets this year's school fixes, he's quietly undoing last year's.

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About three weeks before Mayor Daley announced his latest plan to transform the public schools--Renaissance 2010, his promise to build more than 100 new schools in the next six years--his aides were quietly dismantling a few crucial parts of the last one. Among them were programs for preschoolers, which stunned parents, since only last year Daley and schools CEO Arne Duncan were promising to transform the system into a "year-round, cradle-to-college opportunity."

What happened? The system went broke. Daley and Duncan don't seem to know how broke it is, because there are variables they can't control. They can't, for instance, know exactly how much the city will get in federal assistance, because the Bush administration keeps paying out less for education than it promised. They can't get a gauge on what state assistance will be, because the Bickersons--Governor Rod Blagojevich and house speaker Michael Madigan--can't agree on a budget. They can't even accurately calculate the yield from local property taxes, because Daley keeps siphoning off money to subsidize complicated new commercial and real estate deals.

Daley and Duncan initially figured this year's school budget deficit was $200 million, which they claim to have reduced to $100 million by laying off about 1,000 teachers, closing ten schools, and trimming programs. And they claim to have done this without sacrificing quality. "We got $100 million out by cutting $20 million from administration, $60 million from schools, and finding $20 million from using grants to fund new programs," says Peter Cunningham, Duncan's chief press spokesman. "We cut things we don't need. We had a school where there was a kid with severe disabilities that justified a full-time aide for the kid. The kid graduated, but the aide's still there. We got rid of the aide. We literally went school by school through their budgets looking for stuff like this."

In June the board of education quietly approved Duncan's plan to close 8 out of 24 Child-Parent Centers. The centers, which are concentrated in poor neighborhoods, cost more than traditional preschool programs because they have more staff--a head teacher, classroom teachers, a school community representative, and a parent-resource teacher. "They work because they involve the parent in the education of the child," says Derrick Harris, an activist from North Lawndale. "They have classes for the parents. They get the parents involved. Any study will show you the key to educational success is parental involvement. Traditional programs don't have as much emphasis on parent involvement."

According to a recent study by University of Wisconsin education professor Arthur Reynolds, graduates of the Child-Parent Centers made the "largest gains in language and math" of any group of Chicago Public Schools preschoolers. In addition, they tend to stay in school longer and are less likely to get in trouble with the law, which, Reynolds writes, saves society money in the long run. He adds, "Closing centers and reducing funding for programs that provide large savings to the public and schools are not fiscally sound deficit reduction strategies."

Harris is most familiar with the Olive Child-Parent Center, at 1326 S. Avers in North Lawndale. It was named for Milton Olive, the 18-year-old Vietnam war hero who gave his life to save four comrades by jumping on a live grenade. "I remember Milton Olive," says Harris. "I knew his family. The center was a great tribute to his legacy."

By closing Olive, the board will save the cost of the salaries. It has promised to find preschool programs for the kids who went to this and other centers, but that will result in more kids squeezed into fewer classrooms. "They're morphing the Child-Parent Centers into the regular early-education programs," says Harris. "What's driving this whole initiative is a reckless attempt to balance the budget on the backs of young, poor black children without any regard to their future well-being and academic success."

Yet the cuts will also affect middle-class kids in the "tuition-based" preschool program, which Daley started in the late 90s as part of his much heralded attempt to bring middle-class parents back into the system. He declared he would no longer sit back and watch a "brain drain" of kids to the suburbs or private schools. Instead, he would try to attract bright teenagers to two new high schools, Walter Payton and North Side College Prep. And he would open preschool programs with paid tuition in grammar schools in gentrifying neighborhoods, hoping to lure children who might otherwise go to private day schools. Once the kids were in a public school, the parents might decide to keep them there as they advanced to kindergarten and first grade.

Many parents of preschoolers did decide to take advantage of tuitions that were lower than those at most private schools. But in May, Duncan sent out a letter telling the parents he was closing some of the programs, trimming hours, laying off staff, and jacking up the tuition from $145 to $200 a week.

The parents were upset. "There was no notice," says Kim Knutson, whose son attended a preschool at Andersen Elementary in Wicker Park. "It was just, 'You're going to get less and pay more.' No questions asked."

Duncan agreed to meet with the parents. "He basically guilt-tripped us," says Knutson. "He said he couldn't continue to subsidize this program at the level he had been doing while he was cutting preschool programs for the poor."

That silenced many of the parents, but Knutson isn't sure she believes the board's figures. "Of course if it's a zero-sum game we don't want to subsidize middle-class parents at the expense of the poor," she says. "But it's not really clear that whatever money they save on our program will fund other pre-K programs. We're not even sure exactly how much they'll save on our program."

Knutson also says the board never did much to attract parents to the preschools. "It's a great program, but no one knows about it," she says. "They don't market the program. Parents don't sign up. So they say, 'We have to close it for lack of participation.' It's a self-fulfilling prophecy."

On June 23 Knutson and several other parents of preschoolers in the tuition-based program showed up at the board office to protest the cuts. They never got a chance to speak because so many other people were there to protest cuts. "There were parents and teachers and state representatives," says Knutson. "People really turned out. I thought it would be all over the news."

It wasn't. The next day's coverage was buried in the back pages or given short shrift on the nightly news. Yet stories about the Renaissance 2010 program, which Daley unveiled on June 24, were everywhere. "We're announcing a major new commitment to turn around Chicago's most troubled schools by creating at least 100 new schools in neighborhoods across Chicago over the next six years," he said at a press conference. "Even as we stay focused on the basics, we'll offer a new learning environment, new educational approaches, and new management models."

The announcement diverted attention from the protesting parents. And few noticed that it was a hastily thrown together package of proposals that were already in the pipeline--building a high school in Little Village, expanding Westinghouse high school, subdividing Lucy Flower high school--and promises that may be impossible to keep.

Daley contends the program will be financed without a tax increase or additional public spending. He plans to rely on the kindness of philanthropists. "We also have a running start on raising private dollars to help support this effort," he said. "The Gates Foundation, the Community Trust, the Civic Committee, and other private foundations have collectively committed to help raise $50 million to support Renaissance 2010."

"That's a bunch of bull to think that the corporate community's going to address the miseries of poor children in the public school system," says Harris, the activist from North Lawndale. "They're making all these big promises while they're cutting preschool programs. Why make new promises if you can't keep the old ones?"

Chicago's school leaders like to blame problems on their predecessors, and they've become pretty good at hyping current failures using charts, press releases, and analysis of old data to make things look bad--so that a year later they can hold a press conference to say how much progress they've made. But Daley may not know whom to blame for this year's fiscal mess. After all, he's been in charge for nine years, and he's certainly not about to blame himself. He'd probably like to blame former CEO Paul Vallas, but Vallas left town three years ago.

There is one direction Daley could justifiably point--the state. He's long been unwilling to call for a state income-tax hike that could be used to increase educational funding, clinging instead to the fantasy that local property taxes and contributions from rich people can continue to carry the load. On July 11 the Sun-Times published an essay he wrote, in which he did call on the state to "accept its responsibility to provide" more "funding for public education." He just couldn't quite bring himself to be more specific about how that should be done. And so more promises probably won't be kept.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yvette Marie Dostatni.

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