Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Rahm Emanuel's Choice

Dave Larsen


August 5, 2011
by Dave Larsen

Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel faced a difficult decision soon after assuming office: where to send his children to school? In the world of Chicago politics and urban school reform, some felt the choice had life and death consequences akin to Abraham’s on one of Moriah’s mountains.

For many, the decision reached last week by the mayor and his wife, Amy Rule, struck yet another blow to Chicago’s public schools and any hint of progress the system had made in recent years. In their view, the choice of the prestigious Lab School at the University of Chicago for their three children was understandable but also a clear example of failed leadership. If he wants Chicago Public Schools to succeed, critics argue, he should lead by example, enroll his children in the system and learn what the educational options were from the inside, not from the sideline. In a crafty shot across the bow, Teachers Union President Karen Lewis had this to say: "We understand why he would choose a school with small class sizes; a broad, rich curriculum that offers world languages, the arts and physical education; a focus on critical thinking, not test-taking; a teacher and an assistant in every elementary classroom; and paid, high-quality professional development for their teacher…It's wonderful that he has that option available to him."

For others, Emanuel and his wife were, indeed, simply acting on what was available to them: school choice. Because of their financial resources, they, unlike many parents, had options.  The mayor focused on his high calling as a parent at a news conference: "This is what you have to respect. I live in public life. I'm a father to three great children, and that's a private life. If I use my kids' education in any political context, I'd be less of a father than I want to be." Those supportive of this position recognize that parents should have choice when it comes to the education of their children. According to this view, the mayor and his wife were acting in the best interest of those they love and are to be commended for taking the political risk and standing their ground.

Both of these views fail to give any thought to the thousands of parents trapped in poverty with little or no choice when it comes to the education of their children. Missing in the press coverage of Emanuel’s public parental decision is the thread of injustice which forces too many parents to send their children to “failure factories”—what the 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman termed the perpetually dismal neighborhood schools in areas of urban poverty.

The charter school movement is a good start when it comes to school choice. Still, it remains a limited option, and in some cases charter schools have not demonstrated the ability to do a better job or conduct their work in a financially transparent manner. A recent exposé in The Reader found most of the 37 charter operators to be unaware of their obligation to disclose their accounting of public dollars.

Educational vouchers offer another option—one that more states are beginning to endorse through legislation. Vouchers are publicly funded and given to parents who in turn may elect to use them toward tuition at private schools. While the use of voucher programs has been limited to this point, graduation rates as well as student and parent satisfaction rates where vouchers exist argue that the experiment deserves serious consideration elsewhere, especially in areas where other reform efforts have failed for decades.

So that more children may flourish and to further the discussion of educational justice, we should endorse the concept of parental choice, which served Mayor Emanuel and his children, support the work of good charter operations wherever they are making a difference and continue to work for the betterment of urban public education.  But we should also recognize that there are many faith-based schools serving communities of poverty. These communities are often trapped with inadequate schooling.  Faith-based schools are often exemplary institutions, developing students of character, conviction and achievement. Most of these schools have the capacity to serve more students. Imagine what parents might do with choice, empowered with a voucher that begins to level the playing field. The courts have declared this to be a valid approach that does not violate the constitutions of states or the nation.

The real violation is what’s happening to too many children in too many places.

—Dave Larsen, Ph.D, is the Director of the Bright Promise Fund for Urban Education.


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”