|In Chicago, it's about the TIFs. Again. It's ALWAYS about the TIFs...
||[May. 5th, 2014|06:00 pm]
Chicago is a city of extreme wealth (well, hello thar, CME!) and extreme poverty. Due to a dearth of jobs in the more impoverished areas, most adults find it difficult to improve their lives, so they count upon their children to break the cycle. The mantra is that these kids can do well in high school, earn scholarships that will get them to college, and thus substantially change their lives. Unfortunately, not every neighborhood school prepares children for college, and so the "selective enrollment" school was born. Even the most gifted students find these schools to be academically rigorous, so only the most deserving and hard working of children gain admittance. Children who get in to a selective enrollment high school have really earned the right to succeed in life, and will almost certainly do just that. It's all very Horatio Alger and apple-pie American... in theory, anyway.
The reality is that most Chicagoans lack faith in their neighborhood high schools--often with good reason!--so engaged parents are desperate to get their children in to a school that they are certain will be “good." While “good” is clearly a subjective term, the more objective ratings of U.S. News and World Reports has ranked the top ten high schools in the state, and half of these schools are located within the city of Chicago. All five of these educational superstars are selective enrollment schools, and which makes them a magnet for parents who are convinced that their kids can do the work if they can just get their child in the door. With the right amount of money spent on test prep, surely every snowflake can be special, and thus earn a spot in one of these schools.
Admission for selected enrollment schools derives from complex and constantly changing formulae. At the moment, children are evaluated on their grades in 7th grade, their performance on standardized tests in 7th grade, and an admittance exam in equal parts, though children in more impoverished parts of the city are supposed to be given preference. (There have been complaints that the socio-economic tier system is unfair, however.) Almost no children get in unless they score in the top 10% on these tests, and an acceptance at Lane Technical requires a performance in the top 1%.
Even knowing how competitive the admissions process is, CPS says that 16,440 students applied for just 3,200 spots last year, and recent trends suggest that the number of applicants will only increase in the years to come. Moreover, an average of 20% of successful applicants come from private elementary schools each year, so there are really more like 2,550 spots open to students who lack the financial wherewithal to attend a private school. Of those spots, half will probably go to students from elite gifted and magnet schools, which further lengthens the odds against talented young people who may have chosen to stay within their own neighborhood for elementary school.
Given these numbers, one could argue that there’s nothing our city needs more than another selective enrollment high school. Luckily, our kind and benevolent
dictator mayor has proposed just such a school! Surely there is much rejoicing in the streets of Chicago!
Um… no. No, there isn’t. Mayor Emmanuel wants to give the city exactly what it needs the most, but in the absolute worst way possible.
The new selective enrollment school, to be named after our current President, will be located ten blocks away from an existing selective enrollment school on the Near North Side. One of Emmanuel’s deputy chiefs of staff, Meghan Harte, justified this placement by saying that City Hall had “been looking for an opportunity to put a selective-enrollment [school] somewhere in the city that was centrally located.” So, yeah, it’s close to another school because the Near North Side is “centrally located.” If you blatantly ignore the nine miles of city that occur between 63rd and 138th Streets, it's perfectly central! Oh, and everything west of Kedzie Avenue, we totally don't need to count that, do we? I mean, what’s two-thirds of our city, give or take? You say "tomato," I say "the rest of the city is nothing but hypothetical construct anyway."
If one uses an actual map of Chicago, however, rather than the truncated one that is apparently hanging up in the mayor’s office, where can we find the ten existing and one proposed selective enrollment schools?
The proposed location for Obama Prep is circled, and as you can see, it is awfully close to a gaggle of other selected enrollment schools. You might also notice that there are large swathes of the blank spots on the southern and western areas of the city that have few or even no such schools. Perhaps that’s okay, however. Perhaps that is the area of greatest need. Perhaps there is an explosion of growth on the north side that necessitates an apparently unfair clustering of premiere high schools in that area. Not according to Chapin Hall, a University of Chicago think tank. In 2005, they projected that the biggest area for growth in the city would be on the West Side, particularly for the youngest demographics.
While it is quite likely that the economic crisis that occurred between 2005 and 2013 would have altered these statistics, you can still see that the Near North Side was projected to lose children, not gain them, and thus had less of a need for a new school than any other part of the city. Although published 2010 Census reports have not yet analyzed age demographics in a useful way, preliminary results would seem to support Chapin’s findings that the largest area of growth within the city is on the western side. Logically, it follows that the area most in need of new schools—-especially of new quality schools--would be in the Archer Heights neighborhood, or perhaps near Portage Park.
You know. The very same areas that were devastated by school closings last year. Because we're just that proactive in our city...
So if City Hall wasn’t considering such practicalities as the physical presence of children to fill a high school, how did they choose this particular location for Obama College Prep? Not through lobbying by Near North residents; many of them don’t even want it in their neighborhood. Obama Prep would pretty much eliminate Stanton Park, leaving nearby residents with a dearth of open green space in their neighborhood.
Nor did City Hall put much thought in to how they might best honor the man who will gift his name to this new school. Barack Obama has lived in Hyde Park and currently owns a home in the Kenwood neighborhood. Before he went to Springfield, he worked as an organizer in much of the south side of the city. His wife, Michelle, has ties to Bronzeville. Wouldn’t it be more respectful to our President to place his eponymous school in a part of the city that has some meaningful connection to his life? Apparently not. I KNOW THAT I READ A GOOD EDITORIAL ABOUT THIS, BUT GOOGLE IS FAILING ME AND I CAN'T FIND IT NOW. IF YOU HAPPEN TO REMEMBER KEY WORDS TO HELP YOU FIND IT, THAT WOULD BE GREAT; IF NOT, I CAN LIVE WITHOUT A LINK IN THIS PARAGRAPH.
The city justified itself by claiming that Stanton Park is “centrally located” (even though that is demonstrably untrue) and close to public transportation. While the South Side is often slighted by CTA, much of it is just as accessible to public transportation as the Near North side is, and access to the West Side is entirely adequate. So what, exactly, does the selected location have that more logical locations within the city do not have? Money.
Alderman Walter Burnett of the 27th Ward says that he was informed a while ago that there would be a new selective enrollment school within his district, but that he wasn't to say anything about it until City Hall announced it. Placing the new school in his ward was a direct reward to Burnett for his support of Mayor Emmanuel's plan to spend $17 million in TIF funds to expand Walter Payton High School. (Burnett had been objecting to this use of TIF funds because Payton has no neighborhood component to ensure admittance of nearby students; Obama Prep will reserve at least 360 spots each year for neighborhood students.) So, from the beginning, the location for this new school germinated as a quid pro quo agreement in order to allow the mayor to dole out his precious TIF funds.
It gets better. Obama College Preparatory High School is supposed to cost $60 million in TIF funds. As Burnett points out, the Near North Side is a good choice for the use of those funds "because our TIF is probably one of the healthiest TIFs in the city of Chicago. The South Side doesn't have the money, the West Side doesn't have the money."
Because there is money in the Near North neighborhood, they are a good candidate to receive more money in order to build a brand new high school. In what universe is this fair? In fact, this is no more fair than giving over $5 million to a wealthy heiress to build a Hyatt hotel in a gentrifying neighborhood or $55 million to a private university for a basketball stadium or another $55 million for a hotel near McCormick place. Those that have lots get lots more, and the rest of the city is straight out of luck.
I'm sure that some of my readers are currently objecting, "But this isn't the same! TIF money is meant for schools, and this is going to a school, not a privately owned subsidiary. Rahm is following the rules this time!" Yes, he is following the rules... which just proves that he's getting cleverer as he gets closer to his re-election bid.
There is no reason whatsoever for this new school to cost upwards of $60 million. There are 43 empty buildings that already belong to Chicago Public Schools all over the city; so why are we building a brand new school?
The majority of these unused but already paid for buildings are on the West Side, where the U.S. Census suggests that we will have the greatest need for new schools in the next decade or so. There are also a large number on the South Side, the area that has a personal connection to Barack Obama and would be more appropriate for an eponymous school. And as you can see from the side-by-comparison with current selective enrollment schools, almost any of these buildings would be a good choice for scattering an elite school in to a new and different part of the city. Yes, all of these buildings would require extensive work to transform them from disused elementary schools to a state-of-the-art high school, but I guarantee that the final price tag would come in at less than $60+ million of a new building.
So why would the city choose to spend an insane amount of our dwindling TIF funds to build a new selective enrollment school barely a mile away from an existing selective enrollment school? Why would the mayor choose to anger local residents by eliminating their only park when there are plenty of existing, empty schools in more logical locations? The only reason that makes sense to me is that Mayor Emmanuel just wants an excuse to appeal his North Side (i.e. wealthier) constituents by showering TIF funds upon them. He's learned the hard way that
his downtrodden peasants the taxpayers will revolt question his motives if TIF dollars are simply handed over to his largest campaign donors. But no one can object to spending TIF money on schools, because, in the end, that is their purpose... so spending TIF money on things that benefit his donors more than they do the rest of the city is a perfect way to appeal to his chosen constituency without setting off alarm bells for the rest of the city. And, of course, Obama College Prepatory isn't going to be an entirely selective enrollment school. Like Jones in the South Loop, it will have a neighborhood preference component, setting aside seats for local residents. The similarities between Jones and Obama are interesting and telling. Obama is slated to receive $60 million in TIF funds; Jones recently spent $115 million in TIF funds for renovation. Both schools are located in neighborhoods where the average income is rapidly escalating, and both are offering guaranteed entry to a selective enrollment high school to children who are already spoiled for choice. Students who live in the 6100 block are not guaranteed admittance to Lindblom, nor denizens of the 111th Street to Gwendolyn Brooks, but wealthier children do have that safety net, thanks to the mayor's careful splurging of TIF funds.
Again, I hear dissenting voices from my readers. "You made the case early on that the city desperately needs another selective enrollment school, and now you see it as a conspiracy to siphon TIF funds away from the needier parts of the city to give them to North Side donors? You can't have it both ways!"
You're right, dear reader. Right and yet not right. Our city does need more selective enrollment schools... but not in an economically advantaged part of the city that is already spoiled for choice when it comes to premiere public schools. As I mentioned earlier, 20% of students at selective enrollment high schools come from families wealthy enough to send their children to private schools for their elementary education. These families can afford test preparation and, sometimes, unadulterated clout to acquire spots for their students that might have been filled by poorer children in a fairer system. In addition to favoring wealthy children, selective enrollment schools are steadily increasing the number of white students at their schools, even though whites continue to make up a small percentage of students in CPS. Julie Woestehoff, executive director of the group Parents United for Responsible Education, pointedly boiled the current situation down in a few chilling words, “I consider these schools to be gated communities for children of privilege.” Even before the number of white and wealthy children at selective enrollment schools began to spike, Catalyst Chicago analyzed CPS data from the 2011-2012 school year and discovered that more than one-third of applicants from well-to-do North Side neighborhoods, as well as from Hyde Park, Armour Square and Beverly, won spots to selective enrollment schools, while the poorest 41 community areas in the city (out of 77) failed to get a single student in to a North Side selective school.
"But if there were more schools, couldn't less privileged students storm the gates of these schools?" Again, yes... but only if said schools are closer to where the less privileged students actually live. Not every family has the financial wherewithal to drive their student all over Chicago. The ability to drive your child to a different part of the city on a daily basis depends upon having a reliable car and enough disposable income to fill up the gas tank a couple of times a week. This is out of reach for our neediest children. While it is possible for students to take public transportation to school--and many do--longer commutes often make it difficult for these students to participate in after school activities. For students who live in dangerous neighborhoods, it simply isn't feasible to stay at school until five or six o'clock, spend over an hour commuting, and still make it home safely before dark. We're forcing our poorest students to either choose between school activities and safety, or to stay at neighborhood school that may not be challenging enough to adequately serve our brightest and best students. And before anyone suggests that after school activities are unimportant, I'd point out that colleges are becoming more and more competitive and expensive, which means that students need these activities in order to distinguish themselves from their classmates, both for admissions and for scholarships. Sending a promising young person to an elite school but then cutting him off from all possibility of advancement helps no one. Of course, that's assuming that such a student could slip in the gates in the first place.
Chicago covers 234 square miles. There is absolutely no reason to add a desperately needed school only one mile away from an existing school. Not for demographics, not for fairness, and not for tackling economic disparity in this city. The only reason to place Obama College Prep in Stanton Park on the Near North Side is to enrich Emmanuel's campaign coffers. While I'm certain there are some in the city who might consider that a laudable goal in and of itself, I'd hope those people aren't heartless enough to believe that goal is worth leaving two-thirds of the city out in the cold.
I MIGHT BE MIXING METAPHORS AS I GRIND TO MY CONCLUSION. PLEASE BE AS HEARTLESS AS RAHM'S CAMPAIGN DONORS ABOUT POINTING THEM OUT. :)