National Press Club

Chicago’s troubled schools making gains, Mayor Emanuel tells Club

June 20, 2017 | By Larry Feinberg |

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel speaks at National Press Club Headliners Luncheon June 20

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel speaks at National Press Club Headliners Luncheon June 20

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, in a speech at a National Press Club Headliners Luncheon on Tuesday, said his city’s public schools have made substantial gains in the six tumultuous years since he took office. He promised schools would open on time in September despite recent borrowing and a budget impasse between Illinois’ Republican governor and Democratic-controlled state legislature.

Emanuel, who served as White House chief of staff for President Obama, also said he expects Democrats to gain nationwide in the 2018 mid-term elections. But he said he was unsure his party would take back control of the House as it did in 2006 when he headed the House Democratic campaign committee.

His speech and the questions that followed concentrated on education.

Emanuel cited a range of new programs, from expanded full-day kindergarten to tougher graduation requirements. for helping to produce gains in Chicago’s graduation rates and higher scores on state and national tests.

About 75 percent of Chicago students graduated from high school last year, Emanuel said, compared to just 57 percent in 2011, and about two-thirds of graduates enroll in two-year or four-year colleges. He said more than 80 percent of Chicago students are from low-income families.

“By every measure,” he said, “education in Chicago is pointing in the right direction.”

Later, a spokesman for the Chicago Teachers Union, with which Emanuel has clashed repeatedly, criticized the mayor for “making a speech in Washington when many schools are literally struggling to get toilet paper and he doesn’t have a solution to the violence that is plaguing our students.”

Stacy Davis Gates, the union’s political and legislative director, noted that two students were shot on Chicago school property earlier this month and said, “all [Emanuel] can offer is sympathy not leadership.”

But Elaine Allensworth, director of the University of Chicago Consortium for School Research, said recent improvements in Chicago public schools “are real even though a lot of people don’t want to believe it. They’re so focused on the problems and the scandals.”

Last month Chicago schools borrowed $275 million at a high interest rate, 6.39 percent, to meet payroll and pension costs through June 30. The budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1 is still uncertain because of disagreements on state aid and taxes between Republican Governor Bruce Rauner and the state legislature.

Emanuel, a Democrat, blamed Rauner for not submitting his own budget plan. But he repeated his vow, first made last month, that Chicago schools will open on time in the fall. Emanuel did not spell out what steps he might take if state aid was curtailed but he declared, “We will meet our responsibility. It is time for the state to do the same.”

He said the Chicago schools, which the mayor controls, would move ahead with plans to require all students to submit concrete plans for education or work in order to graduate from high school. The requirement will take effect in 2020.

In response to a question, Emanuel repeated an earlier statement that he will run for a third term in 2019. Even though his time in office has been marked by a lengthy teachers strike, bitter controversy over school closings, an increase in crime and police shootings, he said Chicago has made strong economic gains and improved social services.

Emanuel said no job he ever held “has been more intellectually or emotionally rewarding” but added, “It’s also been challenging.”

Emanuel said the Democrats’ prospects in the 2018 elections depend on legislative district maps, voting rights and money. He noted that the party was about 1,000 seats behind in state legislatures where it had been in 2006, and said it faces a long-term effort at rebuilding.