Last week I was one of a dozen panelists brought together at an event in Chicago to answer the question, “What should we expect from public education and what can families do to help their local schools achieve that promise?”
I expected a lively conversation about the goals of public education and how to motivate parents to be active participants in their children’s learning. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
What I saw instead was nearly a dozen of Chicago’s political and civic leaders ranting against “capitalism” and allowing parents to choose the schools their children attend, and lamenting how taxpayers – or maybe just “corporations” – refuse to provide adequate funding to the city’s failing public schools.
The Chicago Public Schools (CPS) spent an average of $16,432 per student in 2015, a 40 percent increase in inflation-adjusted spending since 2001.
There was no dialogue, only blame. And only one solution was to be tolerated: more taxpayer funding spent on failing “neighborhood schools.”
I appreciate that well-informed people with good intentions can disagree on the role of government and the best way to achieve social goals. Teachers unions, liberal advocacy groups, and foundations that support liberal causes oppose school choice and other market-based approaches to school reform. I get that.
What surprised me was how every speaker on this panel except me voiced and echoed only the liberal view, and a very far left version of the liberal view at that. I wondered, is this what all or most of Chicago’s civic leaders believe? Might this have something to do with the city’s recent struggles?
Chicago faces major problems. Financially, the city is bankrupt and likely to be just months away from being dragged into court by its unpaid vendors and bondholders. Hopes that the national or state governments would bail out the city disappeared with the elections of President Donald Trump and Gov. Bruce Rauner and Republican gains down the ballot nationally and in Illinois.
The city is hemorrhaging population and jobs. In 2015, Chicago saw the greatest population loss of any major U.S. city or region. The state lost 3,000 jobs in total and 11,000 manufacturing jobs that year. Chicago lost a third of its manufacturing jobs from 2003 to 2013.
(Graph from the Chicago Tribune.)
Chicago’s rising violent crime rate made it a poster child for the need for change during the most recent presidential election. In January, the Chicago Tribune led off an editorial with these words: “The picture of Chicago in much of the country — and even in much of the Chicago area — is a city awash in blood amid a surge in murder and other violent crime. ‘Is this a war-torn country?’ asked candidate Donald Trump during a debate in September.”
Chicago’s public elementary and secondary schools have been buffeted by these trends. Enrollment in CPS schools fell below 400,000 students in 2014 for the first time since 1970. It stands, or rather sits, at 381,349 today.
The panel discussion was a big deal. A long list of sponsoring organizations was thanked in opening remarks, including the Illinois Humanities Council, Great Books Foundation, and the Union League Club of Chicago, which served as host of the event.
The panel was big, with 12 of us sitting on the stage. Speakers included two Illinois university professors, an alderman, two community organizers, a senior officer with the Chicago Community Trust, a public high school principal, and two high school seniors attending a public school. Taxpayers and businesses were represented by the “senior manager of community engagement” for Allstate Insurance Company, an architect, and, I suppose, me.
“Equity” Is the Purpose of Education?
The “required reading” was a short excerpt from a 1972 essay by Robert Maynard Hutchins, a former president and chancellor of The University of Chicago (1929–1951), editor with Mortimer Adler of the 60-volume Great Books of the Western World series, and founder of the Great Books Foundation.
Joseph Coulson, president of the Great Books Foundation, was moderator. He asked “What should we expect from public education?”
I volunteered to answer it first. The four purposes of public education traditionally put forward, I said, are to teach children how to think (what Hutchins called the “tools of learning”), to prepare students for the duties of citizenship in a democratic republic, to enable them to be self-sufficient (that is, to find work after graduation), and to pass along the wisdom and values of one generation to the next.
“Does anyone on the panel disagree with any of these?” I asked. It would be the last reference to Hutchins for the rest of the evening.
After a moment of silence, during which my co-panelists apparently were thinking “were we really supposed to read that essay?” and “are we really here to discuss those purposes?” a panelist said, “I would add ‘equity’ to the list,” and gave a little set piece calling for more funding of public schools and a more fair and just allocation to schools in poor neighborhoods that need funding the most.
Five or six other panelists weighed in, all expressing their agreement: schools need more money, current funding needs to be redistributed to neighborhood schools in poor neighborhoods, “school choice” programs are hurting the public schools because parents are abandoning their neighborhood schools, “we’re a wealthy state and a wealthy city, we can afford to spend more on our schools.”
Ending “Corporatist Influences” in Education
That was just the warm-up. It turns out that “equity” is code for something other than private choices, competition, or anything having anything to do with markets or the dreaded “privatization” of public services.
Panelists said whenever there is choice, there will be winners and losers, and black kids always end up losing. Choice makes inequality worse. Education should be considered a “human right and not a commodity.” The “commodification of education” under “capitalism” puts profits ahead of kids and has reinforced racism and other kinds of discrimination. In a democracy, what the wealthy and powerful expect for their children ought to be “the standard” for all children.
The spokesperson for the Chicago Community Trust said, “I agree with most of what has been said” and asked for suggestions about what can be done.
Coulson, the moderator, said “How then … do we work to break down the corporatizing of education, the built-in capitalist prerogatives that seem to be sucking the life and justice out of public education?”
Really, he said that.
The Skunk at the Garden Party
I could take no more.
“Can I respond to that?” I asked. Given permission, I said, “I disagree with most of what has been said here,” and explained that there are 29,000 low-income kids attending private schools with public vouchers just 90 minutes from here, in Milwaukee, in many cases experiencing a life-saving change from failing public schools. But not a single student in Chicago can use a voucher due to the cowardice of our mayor and other elected officials.
Some people in the audience booed.
I said funding isn’t the problem, it is incentives and bureaucracies, a system that puts the interests of adults ahead of kids. The audience and some panelists booed.
I said Michael Madigan was Speaker of the House in Illinois when The Heartland Institute was founded 33 years ago, and still is speaker today. Until he’s gone, parents in Chicago will not have meaningful choice. Boo!
I said half the panelists up here get funding from teachers unions, and the other half ought to be ashamed of themselves for advancing the interests of the union rather than children. The audience and many of the panelists gasped and booed.
The lady from the Chicago Community Trust ($2.2 billion in assets), sitting to my immediate right, had a look of terror on her face and said “please stop talking.” So I stopped … as it turns out, I shouldn’t have done.
What Our Leaders Believe
I was the only conservative/libertarian on the panel. No, strike that. I was the only moderate – the only person not a socialist, communist, or working for the Chicago Teachers Union.
One of the two professors on the panel was Bill Ayers, the retired (we hope) domestic terrorist, resplendent with tattoos, earring, and a week’s worth of stubble. He stared out at the audience defiantly and drank from his bottle of water while the rest of us stood and said the Pledge of Allegiance (a Union League Club tradition).
After I spoke, Ayers gave a five-minute rebuttal in which he explained how capitalism is to blame for the failure of public schools, politicians are to blame for Chicago’s “structural racism,” and teachers unions are the best thing ever.
Then other panelists – including the two students on the panel – talked at great length about the need to think “holistically,” to “work together,” to call attention to the good public schools and not the bad ones. That was fine, but it was interwoven with repeated and self-assured references to how “capitalism” makes education a “commodity,” how “equity” means more funding for everyone, how “structural racism” explains bad neighborhoods and is definitely not the fault of anyone on the panel … surely not the community organizers or the Chicago Community Trust.
At first, I tried to interject questions or comments, like “it’s really just about the money for you guys, isn’t it?” and “don’t Catholic schools do better for less than half what you spend?” But the moderator – who prior to the start of the event had promised an open and free-wheeling conversation – indicated I ought to wait my turn to speak again, which never came.
Is It Any Wonder?
As the panel went on (for two hours), I stopped marveling at what was being said and began digesting it instead. This is what Chicago’s civic elite really believes: Public schools are getting better and just need more money; parents can’t be trusted to choose the schools their children attend; and the private sector’s role is to fund education (more) generously, not to insert its “corporatist” or “capitalist” values or germs into the delivery of a basic human right.
Is it any wonder, then, that enrollment is falling in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS)? That employers and other taxpayers are fleeing the city? That the city and CPS along with it are bankrupt?
There are ways to improve schools that don’t require enormous spending increases or even the current spending level of $16,432 per student every year. Most successful ways involve expanding parental choice, because that is what motivates parents to be more engaged in their kids’ educations. There is no shortage of models: Wisconsin, Indiana, Florida, Arizona, and more, stories The Heartland Institute has been reporting in its monthly publication, School Reform News, for the past 20 years.
But no, Chicago’s civic leaders don’t want to follow that path. Education is a “human right,” after all.
What Would Hutchins Think?
As much as I admire Robert Hutchins, my fellow panelists were more faithful than I to his words and thoughts. Hutchins shared with other intellectuals of his time a faith in their socialist and communist doctrines. He died in 1977, before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In the brief reading assigned to panelists, Hutchins mentioned the four purposes of public education I described in my opening comment. But of the “tools of learning,” he wrote, “learning these arts cannot be left to the choices of children or their parents.” And of the “comprehension of the cultural heritage,” he wrote, “the public school is the only agency that can be entrusted with this obligation. Its performance cannot be left to chance.”
These are astonishing non sequiturs for a man so wise. Parents know their children’s abilities and unique styles of learning better than bureaucrats and politicians. And public schools even in Hutchins’ day were proving to be quite unsuccessful at sustaining or passing along key aspects of our cultural heritage – replacing the teaching of religion, history, and civics with secular humanism, political correctness, and liberal ideology.
Research conducted after Hutchins passed away reveals the most promising reforms empower parents by allowing them to choose the schools, public or private, their children attend. Enlarging the role of parents in the teaching of reading, writing, and figuring improves the odds of high academic achievement by children. Agencies of civil society such as private schools, nonprofit organizations, clubs and societies, and even businesses have proven to be more reliable than public schools in defending our cultural heritage.
Why not empower parents working in concert with the institutions of civil society to oversee the education of their children? This is, after all, how we ensure the provision of food, clothing, and shelter for children. We should be laughed at if we say a government entity is “the only agency that can be entrusted” with those obligations.
Maybe It Was Just as Well
Only 80 people or so showed up at the Union League Club to listen to the panelists, and judging by their applause and questions, most of them seemed to work for the Chicago Public Schools. Maybe it was just as well. No one was there to learn anything, and no learning took place.
My fellow panelists all appeared to be sincere and merely misinformed. I repeat that they are entitled to their own views, and I respect them all. But the absence of a contrarian view, other than my own, on such a large and highly promoted panel was rather stunning.
Perhaps it explains better than anything else why Chicago is sinking fast.