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EDITORIAL: Merge CPS and City Colleges? That’s a big idea worthy of respect

Harry S Truman College, one of the City Colleges of Chicago in Uptown. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Truman College in Uptown is one of the City Colleges of Chicago, which mayoral candidate Bill Daley has proposed to merge with Chicago Public Schools. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Mayoral candidate Bill Daley has a “bigger is better” idea for public education.

Earlier this week, Daley unveiled a sweeping proposal to merge the Chicago Public Schools with the City Colleges of Chicago. The merger would create the nation’s first “pre-k through 14” system.

We’ll say this: Mayoral candidates ought to think outside the box. Chicago needs loads of fresh, creative ideas to sift through if the city is going to solve its most pressing problems, whether it’s lowering the crime rate, paying for city workers’ pensions, or educating our kids.

EDITORIAL

Not every idea will sell, of course.

In Daley’s case, we’re not convinced to buy.

Merging two huge bureaucracies into a single massive one — would that really be more efficient? State law would have to change, for one, and CPS and City Colleges would have to hammer out an intergovernmental agreement. Neither institution has jumped on the bandwagon thus far.

It’s unclear, too, if a merger would generate enough savings to offer free community college to any CPS graduate, as Daley wants to do. He expects to save $50 million, but there are no hard-and-fast numbers here.

Forget the practical hurdles, though. What’s most important to focus on here is Daley’s stated motive: Making sure that every Chicago kid, no matter his or her ward or ZIP code, has ready access to a college education. Money shouldn’t be a barrier to college for ambitious young people, who inevitably need post-secondary education or training to have a decent shot at good jobs.

“Historically, it took a century for high school to become the standard for education. In the 21st Century, the first year or two of college should be the new standard,” Martha Kanter of the College Promise Campaign, which helps states and local municipalities develop free community college programs, told us.

Nationally, 300 such programs are up and running, with business, government and philanthropy all pitching in as partners. “Too many people from low-income families just don’t think college is possible,” Kanter added. “All the more reason for this [free college] movement to become the standard.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel made the same pitch in a just-published op-ed for The Atlantic. “During the industrial age, when high school was the gateway to the American dream, public-school systems covered the costs of earning a diploma,” Emanuel wrote. “If the information-age economy demands a workforce with additional training, we need to begin cutting students and families the same deal: Anyone willing to work hard and earn the degree should be able to attend community college — for free.”

Emanuel’s STAR Scholarship program provides free City Colleges tuition, plus books and public transportation costs, to CPS graduates who earn a B average or higher in high school. Daley’s proposal would provide free tuition to any graduate, no matter their GPA.

That’s another potential red flag. Emanuel argues that the STAR program has been successful because of its high standards, which “change[d] attitudes” in high schools and helped to make sure kids didn’t drop out of college because they weren’t ready for the work.

Indeed, students who end up in remedial college courses — 46 percent of Illinois community college students do so — often end up faring badly. They’re demoralized when they learn they’re not ready for college and have a worse chance of eventually graduating, research shows.

It’s not the job of college to get kids ready for college. That’s the job of high school. College promise programs, too, can help fill in the gap, providing kids with academic support to prepare them for higher education, Kanter pointed out.

The real value of Daley’s proposal isn’t a cost-saving bureaucratic merger.

It’s the enlightened idea behind it that would benefit Chicago’s schoolkids.

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