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Rahm Emanuel’s Non-Apology Apology for Being a School Privatization Cheerleader

This isn't an apologia. It's rebranding. And nobody should buy it.

Former mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel. (Photo: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Rahm Emanuel’s recent op-ed in The Atlantic may be one of the dumbest things I have ever read.

The title—“I Used to Preach the Gospel of Education Reform. Then I Became the Mayor”—seems to imply Emanuel has finally seen the light.

The outgoing Chicago Mayor USED TO subscribe to the radical right view that public schools should be privatized, student success should be defined almost entirely by standardized testing, teachers should be stripped of union protections and autonomy and poor black and brown people have no right to elect their own school directors.

But far from divorcing any of this Reagan-Bush-Trump-Clinton-Obama crap, he renews his vows to it.

This isn’t an apologia. It’s rebranding.

Emanuel had been White House Chief of Staff at the beginning of President Barack Obama’s first term. He’s a former U.S. Representative, and senior adviser to President Bill Clinton.

Yet he’s persona non grata.

Now that the extremely unpopular chief executive has decided not to seek re-election, he’s trying to secure his legacy—to make sure the history books don’t remember him as the Democrat In Name Only (DINO) mayor who closed an unprecedented number of schools serving mostly minority students while catering to the will of rich investors. He doesn’t want to be remembered as the lord on a hill whose own children went to private school while he cut services and increased class size for black and brown kids. He’s trying to save a series of abysmal policy failures so that he and his neoliberal pals like Cory Booker and Arne Duncan can still hold their heads high in Democratic circles. In a time when authentic progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders have won the heart of the party, he wants to ensure there’s still room for that old time corporate education reform he is infamous for.

Like I said—dumb.

To quote the Principal in Billy Madison:

“…what you’ve just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.”

If only he’d respond like Madison:

“Okay, a simple ‘wrong’ would’ve done just fine, but thanks.”

But like that straight man school administrator in an Adam Sandler movie, I’m going to give you the long answer. I’m going to explain why what Emanuel said was supremely stupid.

He begins the piece with a lengthy description of how he got one over on those darn teachers unions.

He wanted what was best for children, but those pesky teachers just wouldn’t do it until he twisted their arms and got them to play ball.

And keep in mind—this is the softer, gentler Emanuel who wants you to like him! This is the Emanuel who’s trying on progressive clothing to look more appealing!

Hey, Rahm, attacking working people while casting yourself as a savior is so two years ago. We’ve had a conservative Supreme Court hobble unions’ ability to stop free riders and a teacher uprising since then. Union educators from West Virginia to Oklahoma to Los Angeles, California, have gone on strike demanding Republican and Democratic chief executives like yourself make positive change for children.

No one’s buying your fairytales anymore.

But it leads into a series of important points he wants to make:

“For most of my career, I preached the old gospel of education reform. But now research and experience suggest that policy makers need to embrace a new path forward and leave the old gospel behind. Principals, not just teachers, drive educational gains. The brain-dead debate between charter and neighborhood schools should be replaced with a focus on quality over mediocrity. To get kids to finish high school, the student experience should center on preparing them for what’s next in life. Finally, classroom success hinges on the support that students get outside school. If other cities follow Chicago’s lead in embracing those ideas, they’re likely to also replicate its results.”

Oh and what results those are! But we’ll come back to that.

He reasons that principals drive educational gains. In fact, this is his a-ha moment. Don’t focus on teachers, focus on principals.

He pats himself on the back for raising principals’ salaries and recruiting only people who think and believe just like him. Then he didn’t have to watch over them so closely and they were even promoted to higher administrative positions.

Wow. What an innovation! Stack your school system with yes-people and your initiatives will get done. Great. No room for diversity of thought. No one who thinks outside of the box. Just functionaries and flunkies who do what you say.

This is sounding like a great case for progressive education reforms already! If you’re a fascist dictator.

Next comes my favorite—a further commitment to school privatization hidden behind the flimsiest rechristening in history.

Stop talking about charter schools vs. authentic public schools, he writes. Talk about quality schools vs. mediocre ones.

What bull crap!

Imagine if pirates were robbing ships on the high seas. Would you talk about good pirates and bad pirates? Imagine if vampires were attacking people in the night and draining their blood. Would you talk about good vampires and bad vampires?

I mean Dracula did suck Mina dry, but he spends the rest of his nights reading to orphan children. Long John Silver may have stolen hundreds of chests of gold from merchant ships, but he donates every tenth doubloon to fighting global warming!

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Hey, Rahm, you can’t escape from the argument of whether school privatization is good or bad. Charter schools drain funding from authentic public schools and give it to private investors. They allow unscrupulous operators to cut services and pocket the profits. They increase segregation, decrease democracy and transparency, give choice mainly to business people who get to decide if your child is allowed to enroll in their school – all while getting similar or worse results than authentic public schools.

If you stopped taking corporate money for one second, maybe you could understand this simple point – no system will ever be fair that allows theft and then protects the thieves.

But on to your next point. You want to focus the student experience on what comes next in life. You want to focus on jobs and career readiness.

This is just dumbing down what it means to get an education. Going to school shouldn’t be reduced to a career training program. If we only teach kids how to manufacture widgets, what will they do when the widget factory closes?

We need to teach them how to think for themselves. We need to offer them real opportunities for self-discovery and challenge them to think deeply through an issue.

When kids graduate, we don’t want to have simply made a generation of workers. We need them to be thinking adults and citizens who can participate fully in our democratic process and help lead our country toward a better and brighter future – not just learn how to code.

Finally you talk about the support students get out of school. That’s stupid because…

Actually it’s not.

You’ve got a point there. We do need to support programs to help students succeed outside the classroom – summer reading, after school tutoring, etc. However, making kids sign a pledge to go to college in order to be eligible for a summer job? That’s kind of cruel when many have no way to pay for college in the first place. Moreover, it completely ignores the huge section of children who have no desire to go to college and would rather go to career or technical schools.

And that brings me to his dismal record of failure described by neoliberals as success.

Emanuel pushed forward a policy that in order to graduate, Chicago seniors must prove that after 12th grade they’re going to college, trade school, an internship, the military or would otherwise be gainfully employed. OR ELSE they can’t get a diploma!

Rahm’s all about adding more hoops for poor minority kids to jump through. Very rarely is he about providing any help for them to make the jump.

He’s a pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps Democrat. Or what we used to call – a Republican.

Emanuel wants to tout his record as “proof” that his methods worked.

Let’s look at them.

He has closed 50 public schools46 of which serve mostly black students. Southside residents had to resort to a month-long hunger strike to keep their last neighborhood school open. He laid off hundreds of teachers and staff – many just before school opened. Yet he always had money for state of the art charter schools like the $27 million new charter school for the University of Chicago as part of the Obama Presidential Library. In addition, his economic policy consisted of closing public health clinics for the poor and installing red light cameras to increase fines – none of which actually boosted the economy.

And then we get to the scandal that made a third term as mayor impossible. Emanuel actually covered up the police killing of unarmed black teen, Laquan McDonald, so it wouldn’t hurt his re-election campaign.

In October of 2014, Officer Jason Van Dyke shot the 17-year-old 16 times. Most of those bullets went into the teenager after he was already flat on the ground and the officer was at least 10 feet away.

Emanuel quickly issued a $5 million settlement to McDonald’s family on the condition they keep quiet about the incident. It wasn’t until after Emanuel had won re-election, that an independent journalist put two-and-two together and asked for the officer’s dashcam video to be released. It took the full power of the media and a lawsuit to accomplish this resulting in charges against Van Dyke for first degree murder. Just last year the officer was found guilty of second degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm, but was found not guilty of official misconduct. He was sentenced to 6.75 years in prison.

This is not a sterling mayoral record. It is not a proven record of success.

He says graduation rates are up as are rates of Chicago students who go on to college. He neglects to mention that they’re up nationwide. He neglects to mention that the quality of education these kids receive is often watered down to whatever will help them pass the federally mandated standardized test. He neglects to mention the loss of teacher autonomy, and the rise in class size.

Face it. Emanuel is a crappy mayor. Chicago and the nation will be better if he fades into the sunset.

His political career was backed by the same big money conservatives that back Republicans like Chris Christie, Mitt Romney and Bruce Rauner. He was a puppet of charter schools, hedge fund managers and the Koch Brothers.

In fact, his corruption was so bad that during the 2016 primary, he became an issue for Democratic Presidential contenders.

Bernie Sanders actually called him out in a tweet saying: “I want to thank Rahm Emanuel for not endorsing me. I don’t want the endorsement of a mayor shutting down schools and firing teachers.”

Emanuel had endorsed Hilary Clinton, and her education advisor Ann O’Leary wrote in a private email to senior campaign staff that this might actually hurt the candidate’s primary chances. She wanted Clinton to distance herself from the troubled mayor or at least explain how she differed from his troubled policies.

They eventually settled on saying nothing. That didn’t backfire at all!

Look. Democrats need to learn the exact opposite of the lesson Rahm is selling here.

Corporate education reform is poison. School privatization is not progressive. High stakes testing is not progressive. Hiring like-minded flunkies to run your schools is not progressive. Closing black kids’ schools is not progressive.

Emanuel has learned nothing. Have we?

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Steven Singer

Steven Singer

Steven Singer is a husband, father, teacher, blogger and education advocate. He often writes at his own blog here.

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