Yes to Ferris Wheels, No to School Social Workers: The Legacy of Rahm Emanuel

We were surprised that back in February no media picked up this op-ed from former CPS parent Lori Barrett. Awash in Rahm legacy articles we provide this parent perspective on our former mayor.

Yes to Ferris Wheels, No to School Social Workers: The Legacy of Rahm Emanuel by Lori Barrett

We in Chicago have speculated a lot about what Rahm Emanuel might do now that his tenure as steward of new ferris wheels and closed mental health clinics has come to an end. Even before the Chicago Reporter pointed out his knack for fiction, my guess was writing. But instead of simply writing fiction, he’s attempting the hybrid fiction/memoir writing that’s popular in literary circles. The work he’s producing, and there’s a lot of it, is almost as entertaining as the fake Twitter account launched during his profanity-laced campaign for mayor in 2011, @MayorEmanuel.

I first noticed his literary stylings in February in The Atlantic, when he wrote a soft-focus take on the teachers’ strike; the expansion of charter schools before, during and after the closure of 50 neighborhood public schools; and the value of principal autonomy. It was a genre-bending mix of memoir and magical realism. Especially this fanciful flourish: "It’s unconscionable for anyone who underwrites their own kids’ private tutors, music lessons, after-school activities, summer camps, and summer jobs to argue that children from less-advantaged backgrounds should not have the same privileges and support."

That’s as ridiculous as his piece in The Atlantic the day his new post was announced, where he Rahmsplained: “The middle class believes even now that elites have license to make irresponsible decisions without paying a price.” So says the man who nearly bankrupted a school system with bad bond deals and tax breaks for corporations.

The February week his education reform fairy tale appeared, I sat in a crowded storefront theater in Lincoln Park to listen to six candidates running for alderman. As we waited for the forum to start, the woman I sat next to asked how I became interested in local politics.

“Rahm,” I said.

She nodded grimly.

For the next two hours we listened as the men and women campaigning talked about increased violence linked to the closing of a half dozen mental health clinics and 50 neighborhood schools.

I had two kids in Chicago Public Schools when Rahm came to town preaching education reform and inciting the first teachers’ strike in this city in 25 years. I spent a lot of time with other parents in the schoolyard talking about what Rahm might do once he moved to town. The answers came quickly: Enroll his kids in an expensive private school that didn’t believe in standardized testing. Then insist on the use of standardized test results to evaluate public schools, the principals and teachers.

He writes in The Atlantic that he closed both public and charter schools, because “mediocre schools of any type fail their students. ... It’s high time we stop fighting about brands, because the only thing that really matters is whether a school is providing a top-notch education.”

Talking about schools as brands makes me wretch. Consider the 50 public schools closed in 2013. Neighborhoods on the South and West sides of Chicago, already starved for resources, lost more than a building with Rahm’s aggressive policy move. Eve Ewing, an alumnus of CPS and a former teacher at one of the shuttered schools, wrote a dissertation at Harvard on the school closings that later became the book Ghosts in the Schoolyard. She says in the book, “As the people of Bronzeville understand, the death of a school and the death of a person at the barrel of a gun are not the same thing, but they also are the same thing. A school is the site of a history and a pillar of black pride in a racist city. ... So when they come for your schools, they’re coming for you.”

On the teachers’ strike during his first full year in office, Rahm writes: "In return for higher salaries, [Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis] accepted my demands to extend the school day by an hour and 15 minutes, tack two weeks onto the school year..." He omits a few dots on the timeline. Upon election, Rahm rescinded a contractual 4% teacher pay raise. Then he imposed an unfunded longer school day and longer school year. During contract negotiations, teachers asked to be compensated for the additional time. The unelected school board proposed a 2% raise. At the end of the school year in 2012, the teachers union voted with 90% approval to strike.

In his rosy portrayal of the strike and the lessons it taught him, Rahm says he learned about the value of a good principal. He leaves out his relationship with Troy LaRaviere, a principal from Blaine Elementary, one of the best-performing schools in the city. LaRaviere, who was among the first to declare his candidacy for mayor, even before Rahm announced that he wouldn’t run again, was fired in 2016. LaRaviere was outspoken about the PARCC exam and Rahm’s education reform efforts. Rahm and his school board were not pleased and “reassigned” LaRaviere to his home.

My daughter and I sat in on the public meeting where parents begged one of Rahm’s hand-picked school board representatives not to force LaRaviere out. It was one of three times my family confronted CPS in the spring of 2014. We were spurred to activism because my daughter required special education services and Rahm’s school board scaled back services and staff for diverse learners, after Rahm eliminated librarians, gym classes, and school nurses.

An investigation by local public radio station WBEZ found that at the time CPS “officials relied on a set of guidelines—developed behind closed doors and initially kept secret—that resulted in limiting services for special education students. ... This overhaul was orchestrated by outside auditors with deep ties to CPS CEO Forrest Claypool. They had no expertise in special education.”

As these services were being cut, around me I watched the city subsidize a fancy NFL Draft festival and improvements to Navy Pier, including replacing the Ferris Wheel.

Rahm has a legacy, but it’s not as a public school champion. Instead Chicago has a spruced up, tourist-friendly downtown and a former mayor who’s taking his ability to combine fiction and memoir to The Atlantic as a contributing editor and to ABC as an on-air contributor.