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How mayor can bring hope to city’s disadvantaged students

Updated: June 3, 2013 2:23PM

As chief executive of Chicago’s public schools, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is closing 53 underutilized elementary schools and one high school. A painful and controversial step, but the mayor has few options in dealing with public education’s $1 billion budget gap. Now he can turn to the more urgent issue: bringing hope to tens of thousands of the city’s disadvantaged students with no alternative but chronically failing public schools.

Again, as public education’s chief executive, the mayor could act decisively. He could contract with the city’s private schools to rescue students trapped in generational poverty before it’s too late. There are 70,000 empty seats at high-quality K-12 private schools statewide. Most slots are available in Chicago at schools located in or near low-income neighborhoods.

In the fall, students from the closing public schools will be moved to higher-performing schools, according to Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the CEO of Chicago Public Schools. Really? Citywide, almost 90 percent of African-American students score below proficiency in reading and math on the nation’s report card, which measures college readiness. Hispanic students do slightly better, but outcomes are still abysmal. In poor neighborhoods, results couldn’t possibly be much worse, especially for minority boys.

This has been going on for decades despite massive increases in spending — and public relations spin.

Some relief has come via charter schools. Now 12 percent of the city’s 405,000 public school students attend charters. But at the present rate of charter expansion, it will take 30 years to double enrollment. That’s far too slow, and many charters don’t perform better than the public schools they replace. Add another 15 years.

Meanwhile empty seats at private schools could be accessed through legislation in Springfield, which might take years. Or Emanuel could negotiate a contract. Right now. This would transform the lives of thousands of youngsters who, as a result, will graduate high school and then attend college or enter the workforce or military.

Sending a student to private school would also save taxpayers up to $10,000 per year. That’s $100 million for every 10,000 students, and more than three times as many students could be accommodated.

Enabling students to attend private schools seems radical but already happens. Since 1944, tens of thousands of Illinois college students have had their tuitions paid at private colleges through the GI bill. Pell grants pay for college students to attend religious and secular private institutions. Children deserve the same opportunities.

Across Illinois, more than 1,000 K-12 students register at public schools but attend private schools at public expense. These students have “severe needs that cannot be met in the public system,” says Mary Fergus, media spokesperson for the Illinois State Board of Education. Laudable, but aren’t the needs of students at failing schools severe? In today’s globalized digital economy, functional illiteracy represents a debilitating handicap.

Currently, 17 states offer 33 programs enabling parents to send children to private schools with public money. Critics still object that some private schools are religious, but this is legal, as shown (again) by a recent favorable ruling about the constitutionality of school choice in Indiana.

A stroke of the pen, sir, please. The dots on the bottom line of that contract are stepping-stones to freedom, prosperity and hope for thousands of our children.

Rebeca Nieves Huffman is the Illinois state director of Democrats for Education Reform. Kevin P. Chavous is executive counsel for the American Federation for Children. John Russell chairs Freedom to Learn Illinois.

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