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Emanuel unveils second-term education agenda, confronts school closings

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Thursday unveiled an ambitious, second-term education agenda that calls for putting a “specialty focus” high school within three miles of every family, freeing top-performing schools from burdensome mandates and achieving an 85 percent graduation rate by 2019.

Confronting an education issue that is both a strength and an Achilles heel, Emanuel also promised to make computer science a graduation requirement for high school students and “re-invent” senior year, with more students taking college courses and holding internships that set them on a career path and inspire them to go to college.

Emanuel has spent the last four years trying to give parents an array of high school choices to prevent middle-class families from fleeing to the suburbs when their kids reach high school age.

They range from International Baccalaureate and STEM schools that focus on science, technology, engineering and math to military academies, magnet and selective-enrollment schools. Fully half of Chicago’s 92 “traditional” public high schools fall into those categories.

But in a Cultural Center address to a hand-picked group of principals, parents and education advocates, the mayor acknowledged that his best efforts have fallen short.

“Too many Chicago high schools simply haven’t achieved the level of quality that parents demand and students deserve. . . . Too many families decide to pack it up and leave the city rather than stay, even though they desire to stay,” the mayor said.

“We can take the whole concept of high schools being the reason parents leave to high schools being the reason parents want to say in the city of Chicago. Our goal will be that every family in Chicago lives within three miles of one of those high-quality choices. This will include: additional IB schools, STEM programs, service learning and fine-arts programs. Schools that focus on personalized learning and schools paired with colleges, universities and industry partners.”

The decision to grant so-called “Independent School Status” to schools that have achieved “top-quality standards” for three years running is a return to a model that CPS tried when U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan was serving as schools CEO then abandoned.

Emanuel wants to bring it back to give the best-led, best-performing schools “freedom to innovate around curriculum and instruction” and allocate resources for “school specific” needs.

The mayor was vague about the standards for achieving and losing independent status and precisely what burdens would be lifted. Those will be developed by Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett over the next year in conjunction with principals, parents, teachers and academics.

But he said, “Here’s your incentive: If you want independence, earn it. Then all the resources, attention time and energy will be focused on those that need to be lifted up. You don’t want the area office at CPS centrally focusing on schools that are doing great. You want their time and energy dedicated towards schools that need the help and the assistance.”

Emanuel has alienated African-American voters who helped put him in office by instigating Chicago’s first teachers strike in 25 years, closing 50 public schools, opening new charter schools and unveiling plans to build new schools and school additions, with the educational largesse heavily concentrated on the North Side.

That includes a $17 million addition to Walter Payton College Prep and a new, $60 million selective-enrollment high school nearby initially named after President Barack Obama, whose 2011 endorsement of his former White House chief of staff sealed the deal with black voters.

Emanuel subsequently dropped the Obama name from the school saying he “made a mistake” in his “rush to honor” his former boss. Black elected officials had taken offense to the name, citing Obama’s roots on the South Side, where first lady Michelle Obama was born and raised.

The carefully scripted event on Thursday allowed the mayor to confront some of those education stumbles head-on under friendly questioning.

The mayor called the schools closings his “most difficult and wrenching decision” and something he “didn’t want to do.” But sounding a familiar refrain, he argued that “keeping kids locked in failing schools to fail consistently” was worse.

“I didn’t run for mayor to do that. And if it was my political future versus their education future, I would put my political future on the line. And because we did that, kids went to schools that finally got the physical upgrade, the technological upgrade [and] improvements on Safe Passage routes,” he said.

“We made commitments to uphold our side of the bargain. It was unbelievably difficult, which is why we put a moratorium in place. On the other hand, it was to give the kids and their parents the confidence that they were finally going to schools that were both resourced and better educationally.”

On charter schools, Emanuel said it’s not charters versus public schools, but “quality versus non-quality.” On the Chicago Teachers Union’s push for an elected school board, something mayoral challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia has called a “constitutional right,” the mayor said, “I don’t think we should put politics back in schools. That’s what got ’em in trouble in the first place.”

The mayor ended his speech by appealing to his friend, Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner, to “do right by Chicago,” put education first and end a “glaring inequity” that has forced Chicago taxpayers to foot the pension bill for their own teachers as well as for teachers across the state.

Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd), a mayoral challenger, portrayed Emanuel’s education agenda as double-talk.

“He may say we need to put education first. But his actions in the last four years — closing 50 public schools to favor charters, gambling with our tax dollars on Wall Street and slashing much-needed resources from struggling neighborhood schools — say something different,” Fioretti was quoted as saying in a statement.

“Can we really afford another four years of a mayor who ignores the voices that matter most in education. Students, parents and teachers should not be shut out of the debate in favor of a few hand-picked representatives [who] merely parrot his platform.”

Jesse Sharkey, acting president of a Chicago Teachers Union that has endorsed mayoral challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, scoffed at the vow to free top schools from burdensome mandates.

“The Board of Education under his appointed leadership is choking local schools and killing initiative with smothering mandates that are a blanket of compliance measures. Our members are literally choking under paperwork requirements. There’s a crying out for relief,” Sharkey said.

“It runs contrary to what he’s done. Words are cheap. He needs to put his money where his mouth is.”

Mayoral challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia said Emanuel “shouldn’t get a second chance” to fix Chicago Public Schools after his “failure” on education issues over the last four years.

“Kids continue to suffer due to school closings. His continued push for additional charters. Thirty have opened during his tenure. Two more next year. Yet, the vast majority have not proven they’re better than neighborhood schools. And with privatization of the maintenance contract, we have dirtier classrooms throughout the system,” he said.