04/24/2013 04:59 pm ET | Updated Jun 24, 2013

Chicago Parents and Schools Trapped in a Bad Relationship


I'm leaving and I'm taking the kids.

It's the ultimate threat -- the one that does its damage even as the words leave your mouth -- and a hallmark of a deep dysfunction. And, while I haven't said it yet, I'm getting close.

The Chicago Public Schools and I are locked in this weird relationship drama. We need each other badly, for as much as their free, full-day preschool program in a diverse neighborhood school means to me, my three high-test-scoring, college-bound kids are vitally important to them. But, somehow, as much as we want to make this work, our breakup has begun to feel inevitable.

There is nothing remarkable, of course, about yet another white, well-off family decamping from the city and its schools for those mythical realms where armed guards don't intervene in playground fights and cafeteria lunches are not health-hazards. If we do it, there will be no shortage of folks waiting to point out, correctly, that they told us so.

We have the usual complaints. The tensions that led to a week and half long strike by the Chicago Teachers Union this year remain; we know that more unrest is likely to come, as are budget cuts and changes in priorities, since the political forces controlling both labor and management continue to be locked into their own co-dependent battles. It's painful to have our kids' status as mere pawns so clearly spelled out for us on a regular basis.

CPS says it wants to close under-utilized and under-performing schools, which would, on the face of things, make a lot of sense. But their actual practices have no such internal logic. Because of the way they calculate student-teacher ratios, for example, "under-utilized" schools are, at the same time, over-crowded, offering, say, one classroom of 36 kids, rather than two of 18 each. And, as schools are shuttered, students transfer to different schools, few of which are real improvements, performance-wise, over the ones they're leaving. They're just bigger and further away. Though the shuffling is being done in the name of improvement, its only demonstrable result is consolidation: pushing together all the kids who haven't fled for private, charter or magnet schools and warehousing them in a more efficient, cost-effective manner.

My kids, it almost goes without saying, aren't being subjected to this. In fact, in the zero sum game that is public education, they are the winners of this resource reallocation game. Their elementary school, nestled in the heart of our upscale neighborhood, just keeps getting better. A decade ago, kids were bussed in. Now, the better the place gets, the more neighborhood families want to go there. Last year, private donations from families like us, along with our businesses and connections, added nearly a million dollars to the budget of our school. And there's almost no way to calculate the value added in volunteer hours from our peers, many of whom are stay-at-home parents or work-from-home entrepreneurs with time and resources to spare. Through these efforts, we are making the place, parents say proudly, "a private school within the public system." Kids from other neighborhoods used to be able to enter a lottery to attend, but, now that we are filling all the available spots with our own kids, even winning a lottery isn't enough to give a poor child access to what we have. Each incoming class is whiter and richer than the last.

Which, perhaps ironically, is why I have started thinking about leaving. Because, while I wanted a great public school experience for my kids, now that we have it, I don't know if I can handle all its ethical complexities. I hate that we, by staying, are pushing other kids -- who could really use a break -- out. This de facto gated community feels, to me, far more stifling than any small town ever could.

I wish I could believe that our school could be a model within CPS, that the improvements we've made would somehow trickle out to other schools in other neighborhoods. But, increasingly, I've begun to lose faith in the system's ability to make that happen.

It's not you, CPS, it's me.