Mayor Rahm Emanuel has done the unthinkable: He told graduates of the city’s dismal public school system that he wants them to do something with their diploma. Or else they won’t get a diploma.

Something like: get a job, go to college, join the military or even sign up for a “gap” year. In announcing his “Learn. Plan. Succeed.” idea at a press conference earlier this month, he said, “You won’t be able to graduate … unless you show that letter of acceptance to any one of the … outlets we talked about: college, community college, armed services or a trade.”

OPINION

Emanuel said the proposal, if approved by his handpicked school board, would make Chicago the first large urban school district to require high school graduates to initiate a life plan as a condition of graduating.

In most quarters, looking beyond one’s high school graduation is considered to be sensible. But apparently not in Chicago where the reaction to Emanuel’s proposal was instantaneous and blistering.

It’s racist, discriminatory, unworkable, illegal and unconstitutional. And worst of all, I guess, it’s “Swiftian,” whatever that means.

Some of my colleagues at ChicagoNow, the Chicago Tribune’s blog of blogs, exploded in disbelief, condemnation and progressive angst. It’s “insidious.” “Insane.” “Out of touch.” Students who lack “support systems” would drop out of high school, presumably because looking for a job is so abhorrent.  It “targets” poor and minority students, “forcing them to make a particular choice they may not be mentally or financially ready for.”

It could force youths to join the military “against their own volition,” said one poster, apparently too young to remember that youths (i.e. men) once were required by law to join the military in something called the draft.

The onslaught continued: It’s an idea dreamed up by people who “were unable to look past their own privilege.” Colleges are not for everyone. Colleges are too expensive. The near-bankrupt Chicago school system can’t afford to hire extra counselors to guide students into a productive life.

Never mind that graduates of Chicago public schools get automatic admission to and a free ride at the City Colleges of Chicago — a network of seven community colleges throughout the city. As one poster argued: It’s a bad idea to send anyone to a college with a low graduation rate, like the City Colleges. Besides, the City Colleges couldn’t afford the influx of students.

Ray Salazar, a Chicago schoolteacher, observed that despite the free tuition at City Colleges and that “getting into the military isn’t complicated, our mayor and district leaders need to confront the societal and economic factors that prevent our graduates from breaking through the obstacles that keep them from rising socially, academically, and economically with a Chicago Public Schools diploma.”

Enough already.

Where can we find a better example of the soft bigotry of low expectations? Sixty percent of graduating students already meet the test. So what about the other 40 percent? Should we give up on them because they “can’t”? Are they too handcuffed and baffled by their environment to rise above it?  Do we do them a favor by telling those who have suffered poverty, racism and violence that they can’t escape it? Why must we bow to the calumny that disadvantaged students will inevitably fail?

Details of the proposal are foggy and the legal and practical considerations need exploring. Working it out won’t be easy. But the zeal of the opposition suggests not careful and thoughtful consideration but a knee-jerk partisan reaction, the kind that stands in the way of sensible solutions on the local, state and federal levels. The kind most characteristic of the stuck-in-the-mud and self-interested Chicago Teachers Union.

Chicago used to be a can-do town. It exploded from a frontier outpost to become America’s second largest city in 50 years; reversed the Chicago River; was the first to build skyscrapers. “Stormy, husky, brawling, City of the Big Shoulders” and all that.

Now all we hear are reasons for not doing something, chief among them the patronizing “They can’t.”  These are just excuses for not doing something innovative that might encourage and give direction to those who need it the most.

Dennis Byrne, a former Chicago Sun-Times reporter, is a Chicago-area writer. He blogs at chicagonow.com.

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