Education: a Muse

Last week, I met with BoE member Deborah Quazzo about my pet project during one of her board office hours slots. The meeting was not productive on my end, but as we were walking out, Ms. Quazzo paid me what I consider to be a compliment when she asked me what subject I teach.

I don’t teach, and don’t think I’d make a very good classroom teacher. As this TFA has-been writes, teaching is as much about classroom management as it is about teaching. Especially in many CPS classrooms.

But I am a learner and consider myself an advocate for anyone else who follows a similar path. I am reminded of my days as a lycéenne; in French, the word for “teach” and “learn” is the same: apprendre. This is a conflation Americans could stand to make.

I guess you could say that Education is in my DNA. It’s only now that my kids are in school in a debt-ridden, politically questionable system once deemed “the worst public school system in America,” that I’ve realized how deeply and widely the theme of education–both as a journey and as a destination–ran through my childhood. In my family, we talk about education a lot.

My parents were each the first in their families to go to college and as their parents’ only children of the Baby Boomer generation, embraced the culture of the time that held that formal education was critical to financial success. They were part of the 6 percent in 1970 that has now become the 70 percent of degree-earning bottom/top quartiles in 2011.

But they were also part of the minority who were able to gain advantages despite their relative economic, political, and socially disadvantaged backgrounds when they landed in the college-bound HS track in NYC in the 1960s. My father was the youngest child of an orphaned, first-generation Hungarian Jew and a first-generation Roman Catholic Italian who learned to speak English only after she started school in Union City, NJ as a child. He graduated from Bronx High School of Science. Bronx Science is considered by many to be one of the first specialized magnet schools in the country, let alone NYC. Interestingly, the NYC BoE counts nine SEHSs (or Specialized High Schools) in its “portfolio.” Compare that to Chicago’s 10 SEHSs, despite a significantly smaller student population (400,000 ish to NYC’s 1.1 million), and the popular demand for more SEHS seats becomes murky. Why create more tracking for the top XX percent (or as Sue Serra in this Reader article states, the top 10 percent)? Where is the equity in creating echelons of HS within the public system?

But creating echelons in the public system is exactly what we’re doing when the Chicago Board of Education allows Ald. Michele Smith to cede her public comment time to two Lincoln parents who happen to agree with her development plans without enforcing its own rules about such tactics. And it’s exactly what it’s doing when Estella Bertran rushes the anti-development side off the microphone in later public comment. It’s exactly what we’re doing when Todd Babbitz makes system-wide decisions—behind closed doors—about whether adding air conditioning or resolving overcrowding within CPS buildings are a better use of its $200M capital budget. It’s exactly what we’re doing when application-required charter schools claim they’re “open enrollment” on the public record. It’s exactly what we’re doing when mostly Northside schools use parent fundraising to pad the CPS budget gap, leaving SpEd teachers like Jacqueline Casimir out of work.

And that’s just (some of) the inequalities in CPS. State-wide, even nation-wide, the contrast between the haves and have-nots educationally is more striking. In Illinois, our property tax structure rewards rich districts and penalizes poor ones, and ISBE per-pupil foundational spending recommendations don’t even come close to covering the extrinsic costs of educating Illinois’s children.

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