Chicago: Still the Nation’s Worst Public Schools

Published December 1, 1997

In 1988, then-Secretary of Education William Bennett came to Chicago and declared its schools to be “the worst in the nation.” Events since then suggest that the trend has been to even lower depths.

In 1992, Chicago’s government schools ranked dead last in test scores among the 47 largest school districts, according to the the Council of the Great City Schools.

In 1995, the school superintendent was convicted of tax evasion and now resides in prison. State legislation passed that same year allowed Chicago’s mayor, Richard M. Daley, to take over the management of the schools. His hand-picked management team uncovered massive corruption and waste throughout the system, including $1 million in food intended for kids found rotting in a warehouse and a $5 million cache of 4,197 student desks, 8,749 chairs, nine pianos and a Jacuzzi. The former director of the Department of Facilities is now serving time for accepting bribes to divert $20 million in school repair funds to favored contractors. Scores of other administrators, principles, and teachers have been removed for being corrupt or incompetent.

Any hope that the crackdown on waste and fraud would produce savings, however, were dashed in June 1996, when the school’s chief executive officer called for a record $2.9 billion annual budget and a $49 million two-year increase in school property taxes. Spending per students by the Chicago Public Schools, in inflation adjusted dollars, has doubled since 1970 and now stands at approximately $7,000 per student, twice as much per student as is spent by the city’s widely praised Catholic schools. Yet the school board budget director claimed “we have privatized everything we can possibly think of to privatize. This is a bare-bones budget.”

In July 1996, the Consortium on Chicago School Research reported that test scores and other measures of student achievement (such as graduation rates, attendance rates, and school safety) have shown little improvement since the last wave of reforms hit the schools in 1988. “Our high schools are failing miserably,” said the co-director of the study.

In September 1996, 109 of Chicago’s 553 government schools were placed on “academic probation” because fewer than 16 percent of their students could read at national norm levels. “It’s unbelievable,” said Mayor Daley. “Ruinous and woeful incompetence” is how the editor of the Chicago Sun-Times described it.

Is there any hope that Chicago’s schools will improve in the near future? According to Daniel Polsby, a law professor at Northwestern University who has followed the school reform effort closely, “the chances of the job that needs to be done actually getting done are somewhere between negligible and zero.”

Polsby expects the schools to “get better in minor ways,” but “it is too hard to make course corrections in the public sector. That’s why good ideas come off track and fall into disrepair.”

The prospects for reform of Chicago’s public schools grew even more remote on November 5, when Republicans lost their majority in the state House, making it unlikely that even a pilot educational choice program will get a fair hearing in 1997.

While he doubts that reforms will come soon, Polsby is nevertheless optimistic about the long-term. “It is no longer possible,” he says, “for the defenders to deny that the problem exists. It’s just a question of how long these payrollers can hold off reform.”

For Chicago’s long-suffering families and children, relief won’t come soon enough.

Joseph Bast is president of The Heartland Institute, an independent nonprofit research organization based in Chicago. He is coauthor of two books on school reform, We Can Rescue Our Children and Rebuilding America’s Schools.