THE BLOG
02/24/2016 01:04 pm ET Updated Feb 23, 2017

TIF for One, Then TIF for All...High Schools

The city of Chicago wants to build another selective enrollment high school using TIF money to pay for it. I can see how spending millions of taxpayer dollars to create yet another SEHS would be tempting. Thousands of Chicago kids spend their entire seventh grade year thinking and worrying about their grades and test scores. There are far more kids who want to get into a selective enrollment high school than there are seats available for them. In theory, the cream of the seventh grade crop of students will earn, by their academic and testing prowess, a seat at one of those selective enrollment high schools. Many Chicagoans believe that the kids who get a letter of acceptance to an SEHS are indeed the brightest kids in the city. The SEHS's are by definition "selective". They don't take just any adolescent with hopes and dreams and ambitions. Nope. Only the "smartest" will be selected. Many fourteen year olds will open a letter this spring, only to read, "We don't allow your kind in here". Whether explicitly said or not, the SEHS process passes judgment on a kid's intelligence. A conversation between CPS adolescents regarding SEHS cannot be had without the word "smart" coming in to play. "I don't think I'm smart enough to get in to an SEHS." "He got into to Payton. He's smart." "See that kid? He's not that smart. He didn't get in anywhere". (If you have to ask "in where?" you aren't from around here are you?) Smart kids go to a SEHS. This is the cultural belief of the majority of kids in CPS, no matter how much the adults who love them argue otherwise. I would go even further than that, and say that many adults in Chicago feel that the kids who do not get accepted into an SEHS just don't belong in one. They do not belong at a high school that has wonderful programs housed in state of the art facilities. They just wouldn't fit in, because that type of environment is only for a selective few. No one ever said public education was fair, at least no one in Chicago.

If only small percentage of students will actually benefit from one additional SEHS, and if CPS is in a budget crisis, why build another very expensive selective enrollment high school, especially using TIF monies to do so? Actually, by creating another couple of hundred of seats via one additional SEHS, won't CPS be admitting kids into a selective school who the year prior to this new build, would not have made the cut? A score that labeled a kid as "not fit for SEHS" one year, will be deemed "you're our kind of student" the following year, because a new SEHS means more seats will be available. So are those seats really just for the cream of the crop? Or will they now be accepting some plain old milk into an SEHS too? I think, if the city of Chicago sees the need to spend 60million in TIF monies on a new SEHS, then CPS is saying that they need to provide more of it's city's youth with an well funded and well appointed high school experience. By the same token, if CPS is acknowledging MORE students should get a "world class" education, why not just admit that EVERY kid in Chicago should be able to attend a kick ass, state of the art high school? Chicago certainly can't afford to build enough brand new high schools for ALL of its youth. It can't even afford the $60million one currently being discussed. Right now, the proposal to use TIF money to build even one more selective enrollment high school, with or without Obama's name on it, should be out of the question. If nothing else, it is fiscally, completely irresponsible.

I live in a small house. It has one bathroom on the main floor and another one in the basement. The one in the basement looks like many Chicago basement bathrooms. The floor is a little uneven. The ceiling is low. The foundation wall is exposed. It is far from fancy. However, the toilet flushes. The sink drains. The lights work. The door closes for privacy. It is a perfectly fine, functional bathroom. The problem is, I can't get anyone in my family to use it. Everyone wants to use the upstairs bathroom, even though the one in the basement would absolutely meet everyone's needs. No matter how much I try to convince my family to use the basement bathroom, they absolutely believe it provides a sub-par bathroom experience. They are wrong, but it's a tough perception to crack. I have even conducted tours of the basement bathroom...for real...drawing attention to its good points. "Look, the toilet works just as well as the one upstairs. You can have even MORE privacy in this bathroom because no one will bother you down here! Walk in! It's actually bigger than the bathroom on the main floor. The lighting is brighter, and the soap smells better! It's got a lot going for it!" I get no takers. I can't convince a soul to use that bathroom. It's not the "good" one.

Borrowing from the CPS model, I could pay someone 500k to walk around my property and see if they could find a location to build a brand NEW bathroom, so that the bathroom experience on the main floor could be duplicated. Once a suitable location was found, I could build a brand-new "world class" bathroom. Like CPS, my husband and I have our share of debt, and absolutely do not have the funds to build a brand new bathroom. It would be a fiscally irresponsible, but we do want to provide "better bathroom options" for our family. Here's a thought: we could spruce up the bathroom we already have. We could put some drywall up, apply a coat of paint, tile the floor, and maybe get glass block windows so the neighbor's cat doesn't get a free show. If we fixed up the bathroom we already have, make it desirable, on par with the main floor bathroom, my family would actually want to use it. It would be consider a "good" bathroom too. Plus, we could save that 500k finders fee.

This is why although a building a brand new SEHS sounds like a good idea, it's not. A good idea would be allocating at least some of the TIF funds to the neighborhood high schools that already exist. Of course it would require far more than a coat of paint to get Chicagoans to view the neighborhood high schools they way they do the selective enrollment ones, but investing in the neighborhood high schools is what is truly needed in this city, not another selective school. Claiming the need for another SEHS is CPS admitting that there is a need to offer a greater number of Chicago kids a better high school experience. Why not go all in and admit that EVERY Chicago kid deserves the best high school experience this city has to offer? Chicago already has a bunch of neighborhood high schools. It only makes sense to put the money into the high schools you already have, to benefit the teens of the entire city, rather than sink TIF money into a solitary new school, which will ultimately just benefit a select few.