The Chicago School

How Chicago elites imported charters, closed neighborhood schools, and snuffed out creativity.

Rahm Emanuel, then mayor of Chicago, speaking at the Brookings Institution on December 8, 2016. (Brookings Institution / Flickr)

This past September, an award-winning Chicago Public Schools principal named Troy LaRaviere published a post on his blog that began, “Whenever I try to take a break from writing about CPS to focus on other aspects of my professional and personal life, CPS officials do something so profoundly unethical, incompetent and/or corrupt that my conscience calls me to pick up the pen once more.”

What had Principal LaRaviere going this time? We’ll get there eventually. But first we have to back up and survey what brought the Chicago Public Schools to this calamitous pass in the first place. It’s hard to know where to begin. Though when it comes to the failings of America’s institutions you can rarely go wrong by looking to the plutocrats.

Travel back with me, then, to July of 2003, when the Education Committee of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago — comprised of the chairman of the board of McDonald’s, the CEOs of Exelon Energy and the Chicago Board Options Exchange, two top executives of the same Fortune 500 manufacturing firm, two partners at top international corporate law firms, one founder of an investment bank, one of a mutual fund, and the CEO of a $220.1 billion asset-management fund: twelve men, all but one of them white — published “Left Behind: Student Achievement in Chicago’s Public Schools.”

Chicago’s schools were in pathetic shape, these captains of industry explained: only 36 percent of eleventh graders met or exceeded state reading standards, only 26 percent reached math standards, only 22 percent were up to snuff in science, and 40 percent had by then dropped out.

They found hope, however, in a new kind of educational institution called a “charter school” — “publicly-funded but independent, innovative schools that operate with greater flexibility and give parents whose children attend failing schools an option they do not have.”

At that point Chicago had fifteen charters. The seven that were high schools scored an average of 17 percent higher on Illinois’ relatively new benchmark, the Prairie State Achievement Exam, said the report. Their graduation rates were 12 percent higher, attendance rates 8 percent higher, and dropouts 9 percent lower.

So if a little was good, more must be better — right?

“Chicago should have at least 100 charter schools,” the Education Committee concluded. “These would be new schools, operating outside the established school system and free of many of the bureaucratic or union-imposed constraints that now limit the flexibility of regular public schools.”

The problem was a school system that “responds more to politics and pressures from the school unions than to community or parental demands for quality,” and a municipal government that worries more about “avoiding labor discord and maintaining the political support of teachers and their labor unions than with advancing the education of children.”

Art by Chicago Public Schools students at a citywide exhibition in 2014. Ann Fisher / Flickr
Art by Chicago Public Schools students at a citywide exhibition in 2014. Ann Fisher / Flickr

Charters, though — poof! — possessed the magic power to make all the bad stuff disappear, because they bottled the stuff that made America great: “Competition — which is the engine of American productivity generally.” But how might schools, like convenience stores, compete? Just measure student performance, and close the schools that “underperform.” The 103-page report thus deployed the word “data” forty-five times, “score,” “scored,” or “scoring” 60 times — and “test,” “tested,” and “testing,” or “exam” and “examination,” some 1.47573 times per page.

And, since these were the behind-the-scenes barons who veritably ran the city, it wasn’t even a year before the Chicago Public Schools headquarters on 125 S. Clark St. announced the “Renaissance 2010” initiative to close eighty traditional public schools and open precisely one hundred charters by 2010.

Lo, like pedagogical kudzu, the charters came forth: forty-six of them, with names like “Aspira Charter School,” “Rickover Naval Academy High School,” and “DuSable Leadership Academy of Betty Shabazz International Charter School.” Although, funny thing, rather than resembling the plucky, innovative — “flexible” — startups the rhetoric promised, the schools that flourished looked like factories stamped out by central planning. The skills most rewarded by Chicago’s charter boom became corporate marketing, regulatory capture, and outright graft.

“Left Behind” singled out one “stand out school”: the Noble Street Charter High School. Following the Renaissance 2010 report, Noble Street metastasized into the “Noble Network.” They opened sixteen schools, many named after the businesspeople who funded them, like Pritzker College Prep, Rauner College Prep, Rowe-Clark College Prep. (John Rowe and Frank Clark are both executives of the energy company Exelon, formed in a merger brokered by Rahm Emanuel in his investment banker days; Rowe was a member of the committee that authored “Left Behind” and also a member of the Noble Network’s board of directors.)

Indeed, Noble runs just the kind of schools you’d expect to be sponsored by industrialists: their students are underprivileged waifs in uniforms who are fined for minor disciplinary infractions. The network is “founded,” its promotional materials promise, “on many of the same entrepreneurial principles that have built successful businesses — strong leadership, meaningful use of data, and a high degree of accountability.”

Other new schools, like Young Women’s Leadership Academy, were subsidiaries of national for-profit companies like Edison Learning.

And, finally, there were three campuses — eventually ballooning to sixteen — run by the “neighborhood organization” UNO. UNO was basically an old-school machine organization, rife with padded contracts, nepotistic hires, and graft. Its CEO, Juan Rangel, was Emanuel’s 2011 campaign chairman. In 2014, the network was charged with securities fraud.

This was school reform, Chicago-style.

In 2009, a study from the University of Chicago found that “test scores in the Renaissance schools slightly lagged those of students with similar backgrounds who attended neighborhood schools.” A second study from the respected independent nonprofit research institute SRI International judged neighborhood and charter schools to be about tied. Those results were replicated the next year in a third study at DePaul.

So, the entire rationale behind charter schools having been debunked, things went no further than that, right? How naive. The Education Committee of the Commercial Club, now chaired by a certain investment banker named Bruce Rauner, who in 2014 became the governor of Illinois, came out with a report called “Still Left Behind,” recommending “expanding the number of charter and contract schools in Chicago. Most of these schools outperform the traditional schools that their students would otherwise have attended,” it lied, “and the choices that they offer parents will help spur all schools in CPS to improve.”

And by then, a set of interlocking institutions quite more self-interested, ideologically stubborn, and sclerotic than the educational establishment it sought to “disrupt” had come into being to do just what the iron law of bureaucracy predicted they would do: grow, grow, grow.

The Millionaires Destroying the CPS

Competitors compete: the proposition seems axiomatic. But charter schools don’t really compete with traditional public schools, which rely solely on tax dollars to operate; charters get slathered with private cash, too.

In 2004, the Renaissance Schools Fund was chartered precisely to coordinate this sort of systematic cheating. Six of its board members, including the chairman, had been on the committee that wrote “Left Behind”; other members included Terry Mazany, CEO of the most important citywide philanthropy, the Chicago Community Trust; the retired CEO of the Tribune Company; Arne Duncan, then CEO of the Chicago Public Schools and soon to be named secretary of education by Barack Obama — and Bruce Rauner.

In 2011 the group rebranded itself as “New Schools for Chicago,” perhaps to help people forget that Renaissance 2010 had failed, and announced a goal of opening fifty more charters. Its president was a woman named Phyllis Lockett.

A journalist once wrote of the emergent New Right of the 1970s, “any diagram of its organization looks like an octopus trying to shake hands with itself.” So it is with the conspirators at hand.

Another group was midwifed in the year 2000 by what its website describes as “Chicago’s top civic and corporate leaders,” including the publisher of the Chicago Tribune. The Chicago Public Education Fund describes itself as “one of the first city-based philanthropic venture funds in the nation. . . . Inspired by the entrepreneurial principals that transformed the technology sector; these visionary leaders saw an opportunity to revitalize the nation’s third largest school district through strategic innovators and cutting-edge initiatives that would accelerate student achievement across Chicago . . . by putting their own reputations and significant dollars on the line.”

It received millions of dollars from Bruce Rauner and his wife — $500,000 in 2012 alone.

Its board includes: Kenneth Griffith, a billionaire hedge fund manager and donor to conservative causes; Helen Zell, wife of billionaire real estate mogul and Chicago Tribune owner Sam Zell; the African-American investment firm president Mellody Hobson, who is married to director George Lucas; Anthony Miller, cofounder with Barack Obama’s best friend and campaign finance chairman Marty Nesbitt of a firm specializing in the acquisition of “companies that are highly regulated, where we think the government and the public will need to leverage private capital to address social problems”; US commerce secretary Penny Pritzker, heiress of the ancient and honorable Chicago family whose scion, Abe Pritzker, famously died a billionaire but his lawyers told the government he had a taxable estate of about $10,000; and Bobby Mehta, CEO of the sketchy credit-reporting bureau Transunion, previously controlled by Pritzker.

Oh, and a woman named Deborah Quazzo. (A lot of biography to digest, I know, but you’ll be hearing more about them below, too.)

Here is an example of what these monied organizations fund: in 2014, a new nonprofit named LEAP Innovations celebrated its grand opening in offices donated by Motorola, alongside Mayor Rahm Emanuel and with speeches by board chairman Mark Furlong, the CEO of BMO Harris Bank, and Michael Moe, the CEO of a company called GSV Capital Management.

The Chicago Community Trust was LEAP’s fiscal sponsor; Michael Moe is a trustee of the Chicago Community Trust. Phyllis Lockett was hired as CEO. The completely non-conflicted Chicago Tribune blandly called it “a new organization that advocates for more technology in the classroom” and described its first grant: hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Chicago Public Education Fund “to explore how laptops, iPhones, and iPads can help teachers move away from single lesson plans toward a more individualized approach to learning.” It all sounded rather high-minded: who could object to school kids getting donated free software?

But the donation in fact flows the other way. Education technology is an $8 billion industry in America. One of its largest costs is software development; one of the largest costs of software development is software user testing; free child labor, courtesy of the Chicago Public Schools, with parents footing the bill (tax dollars pay for the products when the companies sell them back to the CPS), is a pretty neat way to cover the cost. And, wouldn’t you know it, a major investor in such education technology happens to be a member of the Chicago school board.

Chicago’s school board is appointed by the mayor, and answers directly to him. When school board member Penny Pritzker left to become Barack Obama’s commerce secretary, she was replaced by Deborah Quazzo. Quazzo is founder and managing partner of GSV Capital Management — her business partner was the speaker at that ribbon-cutting for LEAP Innovations.

Companies Quazzo has invested in, the Chicago Sun-Times reported in late 2014, received an additional $2.9 million in billings from the CPS in the first year and a half of her time on the board. “In several instances since Quazzo took office, one of her companies has cut its prices so its bills to CPS fell just below the $25,000 threshold that would require approval by CPS officials,” the Sun-Times learned.

GSV’s investor reports are some of the truly fascinating documents of our time. One features Washington crossing the Delaware on its cover. Another, “The Fall of the Wall,” compares school privatization to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

It includes the following lament: “Education represents nearly 9 percent of U.S. GDP, but less than 1 percent of both venture investments and public market capitalization.” Salvation, however, is on the way: thanks to the “near spontaneous explosion of entrepreneurial activity in education” — spontaneous! — “the draught is over and capital is flowing to innovators.” The bad guys are “layers of policy and bureaucracy, and anti-market bias” — and “limited early adopters to support product evaluation and iterative development.”

The reports frame their activities as the perfect admixture of idealism and commerce, squaring the circle between Milton Friedman and Mahatma Gandhi. That’s the most remarkable thing about all of this. They think of it as charity. As they like to call it, the “new civil rights movement.” Which brings us to Jonah Edelman.

Jonah and the Whales

Nothing frightens the plutocrats and politicians taking control of public education more than teachers — except, of course, teachers organized into unions. So it was that the hard-charging new Education Committee chairman, Bruce Rauner, who got Emanuel his job in investment banking and vacationed with him in Montana, did his old friend a favor: he brought to Illinois Jonah Edelman, who had rocketed his organization Stand for Children into the “school reform” stratosphere in part due to his parentage — he is the son of the civil rights lion Marian Wright Edelman.

For there is nothing corporate education reformers love more than attaching themselves to the moral legacy of the civil rights movement. Jonah Edelman immediately set up a Stand for Children Illinois political action committee, to which Kenneth Griffith donated $500,000, Sam Zell gave $100,000, and local banking scion James Schine Crown contributed $460,000.

Edelman described what the money was intended to accomplish at a panel at the Aspen Ideas festival. Like Richard Nixon in his Oval Office, he talked like he wasn’t being taped:

When Bruce Rauner asked, after seeing that we passed legislation in several states including Colorado, that we look at Illinois, I was skeptical. After interviewing fifty-five different folks in the landscape . . . I was very surprised to see that there was a tremendous political opening that I think Bruce wasn’t even aware of.

The opening of which he spoke was a bill that attempted to make it nearly impossible for the Chicago Teachers Union to strike, by requiring a 75 percent supermajority of the entire union membership simply to call a strike.

Boasted Edelman, “we hired eleven lobbyists, including four of the absolute best insiders, and seven of the best minority lobbyists — preventing the unions from hiring them. We enlisted a state public affairs firm. . . . We raised $3 million for our political action committee. That’s more money than either of the unions have in their political action committees.”

And, “with Rahm Emanuel’s involvement behind the scenes, we were able to split the [Illinois Education Association] from the Chicago Teachers Union.”

They got their bill.

In 2012, Chicago’s teachers grew so exasperated with what all of this was doing to the school system that the union called a strike vote.

Over 90 percent of the membership voted to authorize it.

Rahm Emanuel in 2010. Daniel X. O’Neil / Flickr

First, the mayor lost in the court of public opinion: in one poll 55.5 percent of Chicago households and 66 percent of parents of public school children supported the teachers over the mayor and his school board — a direct rebuke to “school reform” conventional wisdom that, as “Left Behind” put it back in 2003, the problem with the system was that it responded more to “pressures from the school unions than to community or parental demands for quality.”

Then the mayor lost the strike. One remarkable detail: the union took an extra day for members to deliberate together before accepting the settlement, to the utter bafflement of a local media unused to decisions being made democratically instead of by oligarchs.

Then, the mayor struck back.

In 2013, he closed fifty schools in black neighborhoods. With the latest string of shutterings, Chicago has been systematically closing schools for over a decade; that, after all, was part of the original “Left Behind” plan. Those are the “entrepreneurial principles that have built successful businesses,” just like the Noble Network says.

Closing underperforming convenience stores makes convenience stores better. Why should schools be any different? Well, according to a 2009 University of Chicago Consortium on Education Research study, just the announcement that a school was closing was enough to lose 1.5 months of learning; after a year, even students who moved to better-performing schools didn’t see any improvements.

I met one girl that summer during the fight over the school closings who attended Guggenheim Elementary, on the predominately black South Side. “We had our teachers’ numbers. Home numbers, cell numbers, we could call them any time, no matter when it was — one o’clock in the morning — and they would help us with our work.” Soon she was crying, recalling how, nonetheless, her school was closed down in 2011. I guess that sort of stuff didn’t show up in the data.

Another study found that 11 percent of students whose schools were closed between 2001 and 2006 simply disappeared from the system — no one knows whether they continued in school at all.

Why was CPS closing schools?

At first they said it would help close the budget deficit — only to abandon that explanation when it turned out moving the kids would cost more than closing the buildings would save, and that the city would have to borrow $329 million to upgrade the receiving schools.

The next explanation was that the closing schools were “failing.” But no failing schools in white neighborhoods were being shut down, and some of the “receiving” schools performed worse than the closing schools.

The rap they finally settled upon, sold via TV commercials paid for by the Walton Foundation, was that all the closing schools were “underutilized.” This proved easy to poke holes in, too.

Abandoned buildings, once community pillars, became drug dens. $7 million had to be allocated to a new “Safe Passage” program to protect kids who once went to school across the street but now had to walk to school as much as a mile through contested gang territory. New kids in the receiving schools were stigmatized as stupid and harassed (if you’ve ever moved as a kid you might understand why). Congressman Bobby Rush, for his part, called it “devastation of communities by design.”

So how were these disastrous decisions made? By a school utilization commission that shares an office with New Schools for Chicago, the original group created to implement the Commercial Club’s “Left Behind” report.

And why were they made? Possibly to free up promising land for future gentrification. Probably to shift resources to white North Side neighborhoods. Certainly to make charters schools more attractive. Though who really knows? We may never know. Chicago isn’t a democracy, after all.

Coinciding with the announcement of the closings, CPS laid off 850 school staffers including 550 teachers. Activist teachers were especially targeted. A year later 1,200 staffers (all unionized, making mincemeat of the cliché that it’s nearly impossible to let a union teacher go) were given the pink slip.

Emanuel wasn’t finished. In March 2014, his school board voted to privatize school maintenance, awarding $340 million worth of cleaning contracts to two firms, Aramark and SodexoMAGIC. (The “MAGIC” part refers to retired basketball star Magic Johnson, who reciprocated by donating $250,000 to Emanuel’s reelection campaign.)

At the end of the first month of school, a group of principals released a report describing schools overrun by rodents, insects, and mouse droppings, and sodden with overflowing toilets. A few days after that report came out, Aramark cut the janitorial force by almost 20 percent.

A year later, parent, teachers, and principals were still pitching in to handle cleaning.

School-Based Bludgeoning

One teacher friend of mine has worked under nineteen principals in his twenty-two year career, including one two-and-a-half-year period when he had seven. Why do principals keep leaving? “Who in their right mind would want the job?” my friend points out — unless they’re the sort of head-down, teach-to-the-test paper shuffler who enjoys turning his employees’ workplace into a silent, joyless, hell.

Working as a principal in the Chicago Public Schools has got even worse of late.

Last year, the CPS shifted to something called “school-based budgeting.” It sounds anodyne, even enlightened: each principal gets a pot of money for her institution, over which she has almost complete control. CPS called it a gift of more “autonomy” to principals.

What it actually is, is a punch to the gut. Where previously a principal could choose his or her teachers based on qualifications and experience, since personnel costs were charged to the entire school system, now principals have to cut personnel expenditures to the bone. Say, by hiring three recent college grads, or six Teach for America kids, for the cost of a national-board-certified teacher with decades paying classroom dues.

Budgets are based on attendance. Attendance is calculated on an ongoing basis. In a system in which “neighborhood schools” are vulnerable to losing students to “selective enrollment” schools, this turns every school against each other. In effect, it turns each school into a charter: more efficiently rendered into an individual unit of accounting, to be poked, prodded, and measured — or closed.

Although, in an irony, charter schools are often protected from this ruthless market dynamic. Because, more and more, they are part of “networks”: miniature school districts that can shift burdens from one school to another — just the sort of thing the pitiless “accountability” politics of school-based budgeting disallows.

You could see the pitilessness at work at a budget hearing last summer. One CPS parent described “near-riot conditions on the sidewalks. . . . Screaming students, bullhorns, parents, chants, and police.”

Inside one of the hearings, an alumnus of Kelvyn Park High School, which saw its budget cut $2.2 million this year and $1.7 million last year, cried to the CPS official on the stage:

How does a school function properly when all of its resources are being cut? Nobody on this panel sitting before me would send their child to Kelvyn Park! Your kids need a college and career counselor. The school you send your kids to must have a social worker and stable teachers who do not fear to lose their jobs. Why are you setting up students of Kelvin Park for failure? KPS is hanging on by a thread. You can’t fire teachers and expect students to learn.

The board responded to such conflicts by making it harder to speak at meetings. Unilaterally and without warning, security guards began snatching away microphones and escorting away speakers who exceeded the two-minute time limit. And extra time for translation was taken away from non-English speakers.

Gutting Special Ed

Troy LaRaviere, the principal whose sentiments opened this article, is one of the system’s good guys. He’s a standout on all the metrics the reformers claim to care most about. When he began working at Blaine Elementary, a neighborhood school, 43 percent of African-American students were meeting standards; now, 80 percent do.

Blaine was one of only five Chicago schools to meet at least three of the mayor’s four merit award criteria for three straight years. “He is clearly one of our most distinguished principals,” schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett once said of LaRaviere.

So why, this past August, did the board of education issue a “warning resolution” against him?

In 2013, LaReviere spoke out at a city hall press conference at the request of Blaine Elementary parents: “When people ask me,’ How did you achieve the results that you did? I give them a list. And almost everything on that list has been decimated by this budget.”

The next year he wrote an op-ed in the Chicago Sun-Times about how the Emanuel administration intimidates, insults, and silences principals who refuse to advocate for their version of education reform. He published proof that charter school students lagged behind neighborhood schools on one standardized test, then his own research that charters were faking test scores.

Presently, Troy’s loaded for bear about special education.

Late one afternoon last fall, CPS announced plans to hack special education funding like Edward Scissorhands having at a shrub, cutting $30 million and some five hundred staff positions, twenty-five at one school alone, including toilet aides.

The reductions came during the school year, to funding schools thought they already had. Teachers lost their jobs while classes were in session. “CPS continues to work with our principals to prepare for these adjustments,” LaReviere quoted CPS a “chief education officer” as saying. He commented, “If they keep it up, they’re going to ‘adjust’ students out of their education entirely.”

Chicago students protesting closings on February 20, 2012. Tim Furman / Flickr
Chicago students protesting closings on February 20, 2012. Tim Furman / Flickr

Given the CPS’s $480 million budget hole, and the fact that its bonds are rated at junk status, something had to give. But if you’re wondering why special education bore the burden — well, you need to know about Wall Street’s latest, most whacky financial instrument: the social impact bond.

A social impact bond is a loan to a public entity that pays off for investors if certain policy benchmarks are met.

Like most instruments of privatization, it is a very sweet deal for the financial masters of the universe. The entrance costs imposed on cities are enormous: right up front, they have to hold the money in escrow for any potential repayments of the loan. In the case of Chicago’s recent $16.6 million deal to expand preschool with Goldman Sachs and the Chicago investment bank Northern Trust (which has two members of the Commercial Club’s Education Committee on its board), over 10 percent of the loan goes to various third-party costs like legal fees — including the investor’s legal fees, which the city pays.

The risk is also very low, because a third lender, the Pritzker Family Foundation, signed on to the deal in a “subordinate” role to absorb any financial hits before the banks do. For their sacrifice, the banks may earn a profit of as much 50 percent, if the benchmarks are met. And what are those benchmarks?

You’d better sit down.

Fewer students in special education.

You read that right. According to a CPS press release, “Payments for decreases in special education are $9,100 compounded at an annual rate of 1 percent for each child that avoids special education after attending the CPC program.”

The logic is absurd, and the science behind it is bogus. Utah tried a similar program. The New York Times reported last year, “Goldman said its investment had helped almost 99 percent of the Utah children it was tracking avoid special education in kindergarten. The bank received a payment for each of those children.”

The Times approached nine separate researchers to evaluate the claim. All nine agreed Goldman Sachs’s evaluators “significantly overstate the effect that the investment had achieved in helping young children avoid special education.” They noted that the most any previous preschool program had decreased the need for special education was 50 percent, not 99 percent — and that those programs cost four times more than Goldman Sachs loaned the state.

But, you know, how else can you lower the number of children in special education? By cutting the special education budget.

Now You Know What a Horse Is

Capitalism, a wise man once observed, turns all aspects of social life into commodities.

If you are an investment banker, your job is to constantly seek out new frontiers for money — to make “circulation burst through all restrictions as to time, place, and individuals,” as Karl Marx explained. If you’re successful at it, it becomes who you are: the very foundation of your being. Your metric for assessing the value of everything — the spiritual value of everything. Which, for the world to make any sense, requires it to be transformed into a set of metrics.

For people like this, a realm like public education must have felt something like a spiritual abyss: such a colossal sphere of human intercourse (nearly 9 percent of US GDP!) that has stubbornly refused to be incorporated into their vision of how the world works. The financier must turn children into numbers, reduce them to a scale of value they understand, or confront the realization that their values are not always valuable.

This is not new. In fact, it was Charles Dickens who described it best. His 1854 novel Hard Times begins with the story of one Mr. Gradgrind, a retired hardware wholesaler turned schoolmaster who would feel right at home as a member of the Chicago school board.

Mr. Gradgrind walked homeward from school, in a state of considerable satisfaction. It was his school, and he intended it to be a model. He intended every child in it to be a model — just as the young Gradgrinds were all models. . . . No little Gradgrind had ever seen a face in the moon. . . . No little Gradgrind had ever learnt the silly jingle, Twinkle, twinkle, little star; how I wonder what you are! . . . No little Gradgrind had ever associated a cow in a field with that famous cow with the crumpled horn who tossed the dog who worried the cat who killed the rat who ate the malt, or with that yet more famous cow who swallowed Tom Thumb: it had never heard of those celebrities, and had only been introduced to a cow as a graminivorous ruminating quadruped with several stomachs.

Strolling through the smoke-choked city of Coketown, he stumbles upon a gaggle of children delighting at a circus, including, to his dismay, his own daughter. He’s even more dismayed when his daughter brings one of the circus children to his school. He interrogates the stranger:

“Girl number twenty,” said Gradgrind, squarely pointing with his square forefinger, “I don’t know that girl. Who is that girl?”

“Sissy Jupe, sir,” explained number twenty, blushing, standing up, and curtseying.

“Sissy is not a name,” said Mr. Gradgrind. “Don’t call yourself Sissy. Call yourself Cecilia.”

“It’s father as calls me Sissy, sir,” returned the young girl in a trembling voice, and with another curtsey.

“Then he has no business to do it,” said Mr. Gradgrind. “Tell him he mustn’t. Cecilia Jupe. Let me see. What is your father?”

“He belongs to the horse-riding, if you please, sir.”

“Mr. Gradgrind frowned, and waved off the objectionable calling with his hand.

“We don’t want to know anything about that, here. Your father breaks horses, don’t he?”

“If you please, sir, when they can get any to break, they do break horses in the ring, sir.”

“You musn’t tell us about the ring, here. Very well, then. Describe your father as a horsebreaker. He doctors sick horses, I dare say.”

“Oh yes sir.”

“Very well, then. He is a veterinary surgeon, a farrier, and horsebreaker. Give me your definition of a horse.”

Sissy Jupe, naturally, cannot. So he calls on a young man named Blitzer, a model student, who can:

“Quadruped. Graminvorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.” Thus (and much more) Bitzer.

“Now girl number twenty,” said Mr. Grandgrind. “You know what a horse is.”

The Chicago school system aims to turn everyone it touches into a Gradrind, extinguishing all traces of imagination, community feeling, and other, non-approved, non-market values. This past December, I watched that unfold in real time. It was, shall we say, an education.

The Hearing

I’d been to school closing hearings before. They usually involved black teenagers breaking out into sobs while describing how much they loved their school, as rich white people looked down implacably at them from a raised dais, coldly indifferent.

The tears attest to a fact the school reformers are constitutionally incapable of understanding: schools are not like convenience stores. They are living, breathing communities, congeries of qualitative values and human interrelationships, storehouses of trust, friendship, heritage, and other such difficult-to-quantify characteristics that can only but accrue over time, and which, once severed, can never be replaced. The tears are products of the incredulity that grown men and women in positions of authority cannot grasp this simple human fact.

This repetition of the now-common Chicago ritual took place down the street from a new luxury grocery store in a gentrifying neighborhood on a fork of the Chicago River, near the former Cabrini Green housing project, in a building shared by two charter schools. One is a branch of the Noble Network. The other is a school called ChicagoQuest. It is just the sort of innovative, entrepreneurial institution that the charter idea was developed to encourage.

Its curriculum is based on an idea called “Game-like learning.” A typical project involved students studying local geography by creating a location guide for a reality television series. The pedagogy is based on seven principles, including “Everyone is a participant,” “Feedback is immediate and ongoing,” “Learning happens by doing,” “Everything is interconnected,” “Failure is reframed as iteration,” and “Challenge is constant.”

I can’t vouch for the success of the notion. I can’t tell you whether ChicagoQuest, in the fullness of time, deserves to grow and thrive. All I can tell you is what the “customers” — the parents and students — said that night. Citing declining enrollment and lagging test scores, the board of the school’s operator, Chicago International Charter Schools (which runs sixteen campuses), harbored no such ambivalence: they seemed determined to shut it down.

Chicago Teachers Union strike, September 10, 2012. Spencer Tweedy / Flickr
Chicago Teachers Union strike, September 10, 2012. Spencer Tweedy / Flickr

Around two hundred people crowded into the building’s library. On the dais were a half dozen or so board members in bankers’ casual-Friday togs: people like a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP in business assurance, a municipal bond specialist, a lawyer, a practitioner of “tax planning and corporate creation,” the president of a curriculum-development company. It was like a mini-me version of Chicago’s school board.

The board had already been a focus of considerable contention within the ChicagoQuest community. When ChicagoQuest teachers voted to affiliate with the city’s thriving charter school union, one of their major grievances was the way the body had granted itself decision-making authority over school discipline, which teachers say they carried out with an utter lack of transparency and competence.

One parent noted the administration’s disciplinary ineptitude as the school’s only problem:

The curriculum was fantastic. Common Core was seamless with this model. The kids were hands on and were analyzing what they were doing. They were doing projects that covered all aspects of English, math, science, etc. I believe that if the administration had addressed the behavioral issue, the school would be the gem of the study, and a lot of students would have stayed.

So maybe it was ChicagoQuest’s school board that should have been dissolved. Instead, the board was deliberating about whether to dissolve ChicagoQuest, based on its alleged statistical failures.

“There are no hidden agendas,” the chairman announced, before opening the public comment portion of the meeting, two minutes at a time.

The first testimony came from a grandma who had tried to get her grandson into one of the system’s prized “selective enrollment schools.” She had failed, but was thrilled beyond imagining to see the kind of man her grandson was turning into at ChicagoQuest. The second testimony came from an eleventh grader who nearly cried begging the board to keep his school open. The third, a parent, was in tears: “It’s home,” she implored. “The kids just love it, no matter what the problems are. They’re holding on to that vision that was promised to them.”

A girl talked about the architecture project she created in the school’s “innovation lab”: she planned a community center in the crime-ridden Belmont-Cragen neighborhood after a friend of hers was shot — and it’s being built.

A junior said ChicagoQuest “made me stronger as a leader, mentally, spiritually, physically.” He noted that ChicagoQuest had begun with a group of seventh graders, adding a new class every year. Now they were considering shutting down the school before that first class had even graduated. “What school takes incoming seniors?” he asked.

A woman introduced herself as the mother of “this kid” — she pointed — “but also of all the kids.” (Every school seems to have one; every school reformer specializes in ignoring them.) She enjoined them: “Don’t quit a marriage after four years!” Another said she remembered a promise they’d been given: you’d “make our babies into your babies.”

A board member then noted that the Noble school down the hall promised to take in ChicagoQuest students if ChicagoQuest closed. He was booed resoundingly. The cookie-cutter Noble schools were exactly what they had sent their children to ChicagoQuest to avoid. The Gradgrindian board members must have had a hard time grasping this; the Noble school, after all, showed good stats.

The president of the charter school union cried, “It’s not like running a 7/11 or something,” to applause. “What will be the accountability for the CICS board? You chose to open the school! What’s your skin in the game.”

The vice president said, “You can’t close your way to a better school system . . . I doubt any of you ever had a school close from under you.”

A board member up front in pressed khakis shifted in his seat.

“Charter schools have not been innovative. But this one has.”

A ChicagoQuest teacher complained about how the “countless number of changes” had impeded their progress. Twenty teachers left during his time in the school, and the charter operators brought in a new principal nearly every year. That’s a systematic problem at charters, another problem built into the system itself: competition encourages constant raiding of faculties; salaries are shockingly low; with a fundamental lack of respect for the values of continuity or community informing their governance.

As a parent pointed out, closing the school “contributes to the inconsistency that’s the only consistency” for Chicago schoolchildren. (In the business world, they call this “disruption” and fetishize it as the highest possible value.)

Staffers spoke about how the kinds of improvements kids were making just didn’t show up on standardized tests — which was why students who didn’t do well on standardized tests congregated at ChicagoQuest, compounding an illusion of failure, the more successfully the school became: punished for its embrace of students with diverse ways of learning.

A history teacher said he was convinced the model was on the cusp of something great: “seven numbers need improvement,” he allowed. But his students were “more than just test-takers. They are leaders and innovators.” A parent spoke of how he’d seen students get solve problems previous schooling had never prepared them for.

“ChicagoQuest is not a standardized school.”

“All students don’t learn the same. This school was the best stat, because I don’t do well as a statistic. I’m able to think outside the box.”

“We’re family here.”

Pause on that. It’s not that schools never fail, should never close. It’s that they should not close without due consideration that a school is also a human institution, with its own interconnected ecology. Keeping that community together has value in itself, and adds value. When you shutter a school, you kill something: a network of trust, a web of relationships. You have to start again from scratch.

But enough of my explication. Listen instead to the kid who testified by reading a poem she had written. She fixed the board members in an angry gaze:

Let’s not pretend I’m not a number. . .

Don’t look me in the eye and say ‘kids first,’

When it’s clear I’m just a comma in your checkbook.

Then it was the board’s turn for their arguments, and I grasped precisely what she meant.

The first presenter threw a chart on a screen. Row one: “Will students have access to equivalent or better academic options if the campus closes?” Row two: “YES.” One of the three bullet points from Row E: “85% of elementary school students would receive a value added education at their traditional neighborhood school in accordance with SQRP.”

The chair of the finance committee laser-pointed a bramble of jargon: “Unlike other SMOs in which the revenue of one campus may help offset the deficits at another campus, QM only manages CQ.”

In plain English: because this school was unique, it couldn’t expect other sister schools to ride to its rescue, as might happen if Noble or UNO, seeing a school with similarly unsatisfactory numbers, was running it.

It wouldn’t have Gradgrindian billionaires to save it, either: as the finance chair explained, the campus was “unsustainable because no outside fundraising is expected.” Thus the school was punished, again, for being uniquethe sort of place Commercial Club members, those supposed tribunes of entrepreneurialism, simply do not respect.

He asked: “Does this campus cause a financial strain on other campuses in the network that could be improved with a school action?”

That was newspeak: he meant “school closing.” The answer, again, was “YES.” Because ChicagoQuest was not breaking even financially.

Another chart:

“Are the majority of students losing academic ground in the campus being considered for action?” “YES.” (A bullet point: “Less than 50% of Elementary School students are meeting the growth on NWEA.”)

“Are there any other factors that should be considered?” The answer, generously, was “YES.” The three supporting bullet points were, “The options available to Juniors could be limited”; “The Noble option is not a fit for every student”; and that Civitas Schools, the private management company CICS contracts with to run ChicagoQuest, had a new chief executive officer — a former Noble Network principal.

The “other factors” did not, apparently, include tearful testimony that a school that accommodates the Sissy Jupe and not just the Bitzers was the only hope some kids had of thriving within the Chicago Public School system.

The announcement came down the next week. The board chose evisceration — to keep the school open but eliminate the middle grades, and kill all that game-based folderol in favor of a “traditional ‘college prep’ curriculum.” The nail that stuck out was hammered down. “We will be shifting toward proven and best practices,” the new Civitas CEO promised.

Now girl number twenty, you know what a horse is.

Dedicated to the memory of Jane Averill.