Rahm Emanuel "didn't do his homework" when he touted the supposed superiority of charter schools in a televised debate, three Chicago high school students assert in a YouTube video that's attracted widespread attention.
Chicago news media didn't do its homework, either, when it allowed Emanuel's baseless assertion to pass unchallenged.
In the debate on WGN on January 27, Emanuel said: "If you take out Northside [College Prep], if you take out Walter Payton, the seven best performing high schools are all charters."
In fact, none of the best-performing high schools are charters, the students point out.
"Four hundred thousand students go to their neighborhood public schools [in Chicago]," they say on the video. "You want a real school turnaround? Invest in us!" The video supports Miguel del Valle's candidacy.
Sullivan junior Gerardo Aguilar, who's involved in a Mikva Challenge civic participation project at the school, attended a January 17 candidates forum sponsored by Mikva and WTTW. He says he liked Del Valle's repeated emphasis on neighborhood schools, and he came back to school and organized fellow members of the Latino Club to canvas for him.
On the last Saturday of January, they watched the WGN debate online, so they'd have a better grasp of the issues when they went door-to-door later that day.
'Did you hear what he said?'
They immediately realized Emanuel's error; they knew that nearby Lane Tech was a top-ranked school, Aguilar said.
"We were talking about it: 'Did you hear what he said?'" relates Alexandra Alvarez, also a junior at Sullivan. "If he doesn't care about neighborhood schools, what's he going to do to help them?"
All in the same day, they researched the issue, scripted, shot, and edited the video, and posted it on YouTube, with the help of a neighbor who'd been Aguilar's coach for the Young Leaders Conference of the National Hispanic Institute.
(Latino Club advisor Jacquelyn Rosa gives an account of the video's creation at Achy Obejas's Citylife blog.)
As far as Emanuel's inaccuracy, the students' charge is on the money, said Don Moore of Designs for Change, who analyzed school rankings at Newstips' request.
In fact, the top nine high schools - based on the percentage of students at or above state standards in combined reading, math, and science scores on the Prairie State Achievement Examination - are all public, non-charter schools, he said.
"Emanuel's claim has no factual basis," Moore said.
The Emanuel campaign did not respond to a request for clarification.
Not only are no charters among Chicago's top-ranked high schools; not one charter is among the twelve Chicago high schools with 50 percent or more of students meeting standards.
Unlike charters, eleven of the top-performing schools are governed by Local School Councils, which select their principals for four-year performance contracts. (The twelfth, Rickover Military Academy, has an advisory LSC.) Also unlike charters, all twelve are staffed by unionized teachers.
In addition to favoring privately-operated, nonunion charters, Emanuel has called for removing the power of public school LSCs to appoint principals - a central accountability feature of Chicago school reform - and returning it to the central bureaucracy. (Several efforts by Mayor Daley to accomplish this over recent years failed to gain traction in Springfield.) And Emanuel has backed legislative efforts to severely constrain teachers' seniority and collective bargaining rights.
'Fix existing schools'
For the students, the concern seems to be continued disinvestment in neighborhood schools to benefit new schools that soak up resources but serve much smaller numbers of students, without better results.
"There are schools that already exist that need fixing, that need resources," said Alvarez.
"Going to a neighborhood school, we don't have a lot of resources," she said. But although "the attention the school gets is for violence, gangs and drugs," there are "programs that help students do better."
Aguilar mentions the school's medical careers academy, as well as the Paideia program, which was withdrawn last year when funding ran out.
Beyond that is a concern that school policy will be based on prejudice rather than fact. Emanuel's misstatement "shows that the people that people think know everything aren't really looking into the problems they say they want to fix," said Christina Henriquez.
Moore backs this up too. "The public needs to know the truth about the charter school myths," said Moore. "A lot of their supporters speak of them as the solution, but the evidence doesn't bear this out."
He cites a study (pdf) commissioned by the Renaissance Schools Fund, a business-backed group that raises money for charter schools in Chicago, that found no difference in achievement when matched pairs of charter and public school students were compared over two years. It's one of several studies with similar results.
Indeed, Moore's analysis indicates that more than two-thirds of the charters currently serving grades 9 through 12 have less than 27 percent of students meeting standards.
Finding Emanuel's error "got us to ask, how much does he really know about schools?" said Henriquez. And it led them to fear that "he doesn't care about us."
"He doesn't know the history of Chicago," she said. "He hasn't lived here. He's just jumping in."
Del Valle "has been here a long time," said Aguilar. "He went to CPS and his kids went to CPS. He knows the problems."
"He's not a millionaire that goes around at the top," said Alvarez. "He knows what's going on in the community."
The campaign's silence in the face of the facts could be taken as a reckless disregard for the truth. It could also reflect an assumption that the major media will continue to let the issue slide. That assumption could be correct.
Beyond all that, the students' achievement - catching a significant falsehood by a major candidate which completely slipped past the city's news media (this reporter included) - is a testament to the unsung accomplishments of students and teachers at Sullivan and in neighborhood schools across the city.
An earlier version of this post appeared at Community Media Workshop's Newstips.