Emanuel Needs to Pull ‘Mayor Trigger’

Published November 19, 2012

Critics of the Parent Trigger for school reform charge it’s a new idea with a short track record. But the concept seems to be Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s battle plan against his school district’s death spiral.

Parent Trigger laws let a majority of parents whose children attend a failing school require that it undergo one of several reform options. These so far have included closure, reorganization, replacing the principal and a good number of staff, and conversion to a charter school. These are exactly the options open to Emanuel and Chicago Public Schools as they confront a stupendous deficit, decades of bottom-of-the-barrel test scores, and youth social ills such as gang warfare.

In its current budget, CPS must find a way to close a $665 million deficit. It’s so big that draining district reserves and raising property taxes to the highest amount legal would not close it. For next year’s budget, the district faces a $1 billion deficit, more than one-fifth of its annual operating revenue.

The academic and social performance is at least as bad. Some Chicago kids live like they would in a third-world country, despite being in the third-largest U.S. school district. Fifty-two percent of fourth graders can barely read (scoring below “basic” on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress). Reading ability by third grade is possibly the single best indicator of future academic and life success. It’s tied to dropout rates, incarceration, and the ability to get a job. No surprise, then, that half of Chicago’s school kids drop out–that’s the percent who can’t read by grade three.

Chicago’s murder rate and gun violence in 2012 have increased over 2011, and police largely attribute this to gangs. Since 2008, more than 530 people younger than 21 have been killed in the city, mostly by peers, according to the Chicago Reporter. Physical safety is a major concern for Chicago schools, in addition to academics. In short, the district is financially, socially, and academically bankrupt.

The teachers strike worsened this trifecta of doom by increasing social instability and adding $74 million per year to an already ruinous schools budget.

Charter schools have so far been Chicago schools’ best hope. Low-income children attending Chicago charters perform substantially better than district peers: 63 percent of charter school fourth graders perform basic or better on NAEP reading. In eighth grade, 83 percent perform basic or better in reading, compared to 71 percent of district students. Measured by ACT scores, all of Chicago’s top nine open-enrollment, nonselective public high schools are charter schools, and a charter ties for tenth, according to the Illinois Policy Institute. Higher percentages of poor children and minorities attend Chicago charters than other district schools, according to CPS and the Illinois Network of Charter Schools. And charters cost less.

Throughout the strike, reporters and union representatives pressed Emanuel for more information about his plan to close and reorganize city schools. His options are the same as those available to California parents under the state’s 2010 Parent Trigger law. Parents of children attending a destitute school in Adelanto, for example, have just won their chance to require it to be converted to a charter school.

Closing expensive, poor-performing schools and opening access to cheaper, higher-performing and parent-preferred schools is necessary for Chicago to clean up this mess. A Parent Trigger opens these touchdown opportunities to families in desperate situations, and to desperate city leaders, too. Time to throw that Hail Mary, Mayor.

Joy Pullmann ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News and an education research fellow for the Chicago-based Heartland Institute.