Don’t divert public money to private use

Imagining a Sky Sidewalk might help clarify the school voucher scam.

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Some Chicago sidewalks could use some repair. This is one on Halsted Street in Englewood in 2017.

Some Chicago sidewalks, like this one on Halsted Street in Englewood in 2017, could use some repair.

Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Chicago is the only major American city with an elevated train ringing its downtown — OK, one of two, if you consider Miami to be a major city and its free little Metromover a real elevated train.

So Chicagoans (and any stray Miamians finding themselves here) might have an easier time participating in a thought experiment I’d like to try today. Imagine if, along with an elevated train, we had an elevated sidewalk downtown. A private, members-only sidewalk, raised 20 feet in the air, with access granted to Chicagoans who pay a fee — say, $200 a week — to pass through the turnstiles, step into well-maintained elevators, or climb pristine stairways.

Let’s call it the Sky Sidewalk, an overhead array of curving pathways — glassed in, air-conditioned in summer, heated in winter — where the choice few could avoid the cracked, dirty, windswept, crowded Chicago sidewalks (OK, not so crowded lately; work with me here). Certainly cracked and blustery, sometimes crime-ridden.

Opinion bug

Opinion

Problems for the masses below to cope with best we can, stepping over potholes, hurrying past panhandlers. Frequently finding ourselves at street corners, shivering in the February cold, waiting for the light to change, trying not to cast an envious glance at the anointed above on the Sky Sidewalk, strolling easily across the street — no waiting on traffic for them.

Now imagine there’s an election — actually you don’t have to imagine; there’s one for mayor in a couple of weeks. Some candidates mention a plan to address perennial pedestrian concerns: the cracks, the crime, the cars turning right whether you are trying to cross or not. You’re all ears. What is this plan?

“So this is what we’re going to do,” says a candidate. “We’re going to take your tax dollars, and use them to buff the Sky Sidewalk. Maybe carpet part of it. Or put planters of fresh flowers. Some wind chimes perhaps. Because nice as it is, it could be even nicer. Where will the money come from? Tax dollars. Let’s give a break for people on the Sky Sidewalk. Really, why should those who don’t use the city sidewalks pay for their upkeep? They’re already paying $200 a week. Let’s give them a hand.”

How would that fly with you?

What if the politician further suggests taking money from sidewalk upkeep, say supplementing $50 a week to each Sky Sidewalk user, because that just might make it easier for more Chicagoans to quit the city streets and ascend to the empyrean? Maybe at $150 a week, more could sign up.

Sound better? I didn’t think so.

Does the whole fantasy concept ring a bell? Sky Sidewalks are private schools, and politicians who push school vouchers are gilding the lily for those who already have a step up in life, at a cost to those who are slogging along at street level. I didn’t pick $200 a week at random: the average private school tuition in Chicago is about $11,000 a year.

If you are blissfully unfamiliar with the school voucher idea, it was invented by people who hate the thought of paying for services that benefit anyone other than themselves. So rather than keep trying to improve public schools — admittedly a challenge — they’d rather put public money into the private academies, religious schools and home schooling their own kids attend. Isn’t that the American way?

No. It is not. Public schools are the American way, the common forge that once made us all citizens in a united country. It is no surprise that, like that other bedrock of democracy, voting, public schools would be attacked by those happy to scrap them to keep their own slipping grip on the top rung.

The Chicago Public Schools are the spine of the city. If Chicago schools aren’t good, people vote with their feet — that’s what my family did when we moved to Northbrook — a loss of tax dollars and human capital. Making public school better is key not just for students whose parents can’t leave, but for surrounding communities and the city as a whole. That struggle needs every penny it can get, and isn’t helped by diverting cash to private schools that are already excellent.

So don’t let the smokescreen about parental choice and fostering educational excellence fool you. “School vouchers” means draining oil away from the vital if sputtering engine of Chicago civic life, our schools, and using it to grease the skids of those who are already sliding along nicely. We need to improve the city streets, not scatter rose petals before the lucky few promenading on the Sky Sidewalk.

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