Last week, I was talking with a man who has devoted a lot of time to studying Chicago’s rise as a global city. As we were discussing how Chicago can remain a global city, he made a statement even he knew was incredibly cynical.
The public schools aren’t important to Chicago’s standing in the world, he said. The universities are.
Chicago’s great universities -- Northwestern, the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois at Chicago -- house the scholars who win Nobel Prizes and sit on the Supreme Court. They train the attorneys who run Sidley and Austin, the economists who sit on the Board of Trade and the businessmen who meet at the Commercial Club.
The people who run this city are not products of the Chicago Public Schools. Mayor Rahm Emanuel graduated from New Trier High School. President Obama arrived here from Columbia University. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle came to Chicago from St. Paul, Minn., to study at the U of C.
Even native Chicagoans who hold power are products of Catholic or private schools -- Gov. Pat Quinn attended Fenwick High School, Attorney General Lisa Madigan went to Latin, and all the Daleys are educated at De La Salle. In the 2011 mayoral election, Emanuel ran against three CPS graduates -- Gery Chico of Kelly, Miguel del Valle of Tuley and Carol Moseley Braun of Parker -- and received more votes than all of them combined. It's hard for public school graduates to maintain successful political careers because their backgrounds haven't enabled them to develop ties to people with money. The highest-ranking CPS graduate is U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky. An alumna of Sullivan High School in Rogers Park, Schakowsky is the only member of Illinois's congressional delegation to have graduated from a Chicago public high school.
In this city divided between a small overclass of lawyers, consultants and IT professionals, and a large underclass of cashiers, dishwashers and landscapers, the local elites see the public schools as a training ground for service jobs that require little education. Chicago’s status as a regional hub enables it to poach college graduates from surrounding states, thus allowing the city to maintain an educated class with no public investment.
Close 54 public schools and cram the dispossessed students into overcrowded classrooms? Emanuel, who is Chicago’s quintessential global citizen, knows it won’t affect Chicago’s standing as a global city. Today at 4 p.m. in the Daley Plaza, thousands of students, parents and teachers will rally to keep the schools open. Their voices won’t reach the top of the Richard J. Daley Building.