As I was enjoying my oldest granddaughter’s short and sweet kindergarten graduation ceremony at her West Loop grade school a couple weeks ago it occurred to me that I have more history with Chicago Public Schools than any other local institution.
My mother was a Chicago high school English teacher for 30 years, I’ve been following CPS even longer as a journalist and watchdog, our three daughters attended a city elementary school, one is now a CPS administrator, and her daughter is the kindergarten grad.
I feel like actor J.K. Simmons at the end of that ubiquitous TV ad for insurance, where he proudly proclaims, “We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.”
I’ve seen a thing or two and know a thing or two about CPS, and my experience can be summed up by the title of a Clint Eastwood film: “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”
“The Good” includes:
- School principals who support teachers, nurture students, engage parents, make the most of scarce resources, and work around dubious central office fiats.
- Passionate, well trained teachers who love their profession and tune out budget problems, labor strife and bureaucratic nonsense.
- School officials and union leaders who understand that jobs, contracts, salaries and benefits are important, but not more important than giving every student access to an excellent education.
I’ve seen a lot of “The Good” from my personal and professional vantage points but I wish I’d seen more.
And sadly, I’ve seen way too much of “The Bad” over the years:
- School and union officials whose egos, hubris and unrealistic demands provoked unnecessary strikes.
- School Boards that wasted precious resources, made unwise policy decisions and let classrooms get grossly overcrowded or fall into dangerous disrepair.
- Imperious principals who alienated teachers and parents, poisoning the learning environment.
- Labor agreements that protected bad teachers but not their students.
And yes — I’ve seen a lot of “The Ugly” too:
- State officials—elected and appointed — who were quick to impose unfunded mandates on local schools but unwilling to distribute tax dollars equitably.
- CPS officials whose fiscal gimmicks pushed the district to the edge of bankruptcy.
I covered one of those crises as a news reporter in 1979, when CPS actually went over the fiscal cliff — locked out of credit markets for budget chicanery and on the brink of a shutdown. I remember then-Gov. Jim Thompson summoning stakeholders to an emergency meeting at the Governor’s Mansion in Springfield, where they spent three days hammering out a painful but effective rescue plan.
CPS is at the edge of the cliff again this year, but the stakeholders are spewing venom instead of negotiating.
And I’m watching another ugly episode: CPS borrowing hundreds of millions of dollars just to keep the doors open, and paying exorbitant interest rates that will saddle the next generation of taxpayers, including members of my own family, with onerous repayment obligations.
Strong leadership is, unfortunately, in short supply these days, and I lament the collective failure of today’s elected and appointed officials to solve a multitude of self-imposed problems.
But when I watched my little granddaughter standing confidently on the stage of her elementary school auditorium singing “My Country `Tis of Thee” with her classmates, quietly supervised by their exceptional teacher, my eyes moistened like they did when my daughters had their graduations.
And I made a simple wish: More of the good, less of the bad and none of the ugly in a school system that will determine, to a large extent, whether our children and grandchildren have bright, successful futures.