Editor’s note: This is the third post in our series on the Democratic Party’s growing divide over ed reform and ed choice.
by Myles Mendoza
Mayor Rahm Emanuel is the in the political fight of his life. As a result of challenging the status quo by fighting for reform in Chicago Public Schools, Emanuel’s reign as mayor of one important cities in the United States is not guaranteed to continue.
That’s one of the reasons why Chicago Teacher’s Union President Karen Lewis is currently entertaining the idea of a possible mayoral run. According to a recent Chicago Sun Times poll, she was leading Emanuel 45 percent to 36 percent with 18 percent of the likely voters undecided.
Previously, the Mayor faced an even tougher fight against another potential candidate, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. Although she withdrew, a race against Preckwinkle showed Emanuel losing by 24 points.
While, recent Ed Choice Illinois polling shows the Mayor now ahead by 12 points generally and by 3 points in the African-American community, it is clear his greatest challenge is with African-Americans. How did the Mayor get into this situation?
When he first entered office, Emanuel rightly assessed that African-American neighborhoods were getting the short end of the stick when it came to the quality of the education they received.
Emanuel looked to the education reform community for solutions. Chief among them was the concept of making schools accountable by tying eligibility for public dollars to performance.
That’s why he expanded high-performing charters like Noble Street and Urban Prep and shut down the highest amount of low-performing schools in American history – the majority of which were located in African-American communities.
But, in doing so, he made a fatal flaw.
He never approached the African-American community to get their input about which schools should expand and which should close.
This lack of community engagement caused high-performing, new charter schools to be greeted with suspicion rather than open arms. Community leaders led protests against the schools, arguing that changes were coming from the top down and the top was made up of mostly white decision makers.
It was a miscalculation by the Mayor and his staff to assume that just because high-performing charters had wait lists and low-performing schools were under-enrolled, that those numbers would serve as a de facto poll of the African-American community’s sentiment toward the Mayor.
The African-American community has a rich tradition of wanting to take ownership of their own affairs; to be the masters of their own destinies, responsible for both the good and bad in their communities.
Unfortunately, Mayor Emanuel took exactly the opposite approach. He and the CPS board hoarded control over decision-making and left parents and community leaders without a seat at the table. Naturally, leadership in the community reacted and the polls of Lewis and Preckwinkle are direct evidence.
Civil Rights history offers a lesson the mayor would do well to learn especially as he struggles for his political life.
In 1964, 30 educational institutes known as Freedom Schools opened in Mississippi. The schools catered to otherwise marginalized black students through their curricula, programming and culture.
Freedom Schools were so successful they drew triple the expected enrollment after their first summer open.
Success lied in the social dynamic Freedom Schools represented. Through Freedom Schools, the African-American community was able to exercise social, political, and economic power. African-American students no longer languished in the failing classrooms of White America’s schools, but developed as thinkers and leaders in their own liberated space.
Mayor Emanuel’s actions last summer weren’t an attack on the Chicago Teacher’s Union or a departure from Democratic politics but rather an issue of race and self destiny. While union and Democratic leaders are the prominent figures opposing the mayor, current political realities fundamentally signify the black community’s demand for self-determination and political power.
African-Americans want school choice. In fact, 76 percent of city’s African-American community supports the use of public dollars to fund their private education.
They want the ability to send their children to schools controlled by their communities.
If the mayor wants to win, he needs to listen to the city’s African-American community – particularly their calls to be in control of their own educational destiny.
Myles Mendoza is executive director of Ed Choice Illinois.
Read the rest of the Dem Divide series below
Gloria Romero: Money leads Democrats to put teachers unions over poor kids
Ben Austin: Democratic leaders will follow parents on ed reform, eventually
Richard Whitmire: Houston & D.C. offer paths for ed reform Democrats
Joe Williams: Suburbs hold key to resolving Dem tensions over school choice
Rep. Marcus Brandon: African-Americans must blaze own path on school choice, ed reform
Doug Tuthill: New type of teacher union is key to relieving Democratic tensions