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Rahm: Paying the Political Price for Choosing a School

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Two months from now, Rahm Emanuel will be in charge of Chicago's public school system. Don't be surprised, however, if the Mayor-elect and his wife end up sending their own kids to private schools.

Emanuel knows, of course, that he'll take some heat if he and his wife decide that CPS isn't good enough for their kids. But the Emanuels also have every right to do what they believe is in the best interest of their children. "If [that decision] comes with a political price," the Mayor-elect recently told reporters, "I'm willing to pay it."

But Emanuel could also pay a political price if he decides to send his kids to public schools. Why? Because Chicago's selective enrollment system, as it currently stands, gives an unfair advantage to his kids.

When the Emanuel family returns to its home on the 4200 block of North Hermitage Avenue, the family will reclaim its spot on one of Chicago's "power blocks." WTTW newsman Phil Ponce lives just a stone's throw from the Emanuels, and Illinois Supreme Court Justice Mary Jane Theis is only a few doors away if a dispute needs to be resolved.

The homes are gorgeous and the lots are large. And, for reasons I still don't understand, the kids lucky enough to live on this stretch of high-end real estate can gain admission to Chicago's best high schools with scores that are markedly lower than those needed by kids from low-income families at my neighborhood school, Philip Rogers Elementary School.

I serve on the local school council at Rogers. The kids who attend that school live in the West Rogers Park neighborhood. They walk to Rogers and they live within the school's attendance area. Nearly 80% of the kids at Rogers come from low-income families that qualify for the federal free-lunch program.

But when it comes to selective enrollment high schools, CPS has stacked the deck against these students, telling them, in effect, that they actually have a leg up on Emanuel's kids, because their West Rogers Park apartment buildings sit in a part of town that's more desirable than Emanuel's block.

The Rogers kids live in what CPS calls a "Tier 4" census tract. As a result of this classification, these kids need to be damn near perfect if they want to get into one of the city's selective enrollment high schools.

CPS currently has the bar set a little lower for Emanuel's kids. Because those kids (and their Hermitage neighbors) have had to negotiate the challenges of life in a less affluent "Tier 3" census tract, CPS allows them to earn a spot in one of the city's top high schools with scores that may end up being 20-30 points less than what the low-income kids from Rogers would need to gain admission.

Emanuel certainly didn't design this system, but I hope he'd agree that it gives his kids an advantage they don't deserve.

And it's not just Emanuel and his neighbors that get a leg up on the low-income kids from Rogers.

Remember the TV trucks that used to camp out in front of Rod Blagojevich's beautiful home on the 2900 block of West Sunnyside Avenue? Those trucks were slumming on another chunk of "Tier 3" real estate.

And be sure to drop by Ron Huberman's $900,000 home on the 2000 block of West Wilson if you want to see how one more "Tier 3" celebrity rolls.

To win a spot in one of Chicago's handful of decent public high schools, you need to win a numbers game. But a lot of low-income kids from Rogers never get past two big numbers: a Section 8 apartment that sits in a "Tier 4" census tract.

And unlike the Emanuel kids, the free lunch bunch from Rogers can't count on Latin or Parker as a "safety school."