Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel sincerely wants to do something to improve Chicago schools. I have no doubt of that. Unfortunately, his proposal — called “Learn. Plan. Succeed.” — falls short of the mark.
His idea is to add a new requirement for high school graduation. Starting in 2020, all students eligible for a high school diploma would, in order to graduate, have to demonstrate that they have a job, admission to college, an apprenticeship or internship, a place in a gap-year program or an enlistment in the military. Emanuel touts the plan as requiring every graduate to have a plan for their lives before they get their diploma. “If you change expectations,” he says, “it’s not hard for kids to adapt.”
Sounds good, right? But the City Colleges of Chicago, a system of seven community colleges, already guarantees admittance to any high school graduate. So all the high schools will do is get every graduating senior to apply for admission, whether they intend to go or not. That will require a dramatic increase in school counselors, of course, and there’s no budget for that. (The mayor says he’ll try to raise $1 million from private donors to help.)
Chicago has the worst black unemployment of any of the five biggest cities in the country. Across the U.S., a staggering 51.3 percent of young black high school graduates are unemployed or underemployed (that is, forced to work part time involuntarily or giving up on finding a job).
A majority of young black high school graduates are looking for full-time work and can’t find it. The mayor’s plan does nothing to address this grim reality. Instead, it erects a paperwork hoop for kids to jump though that is likely to have very little to do with their plans for their lives.
Why not go a step further down the reform road? Establish the requirement and then guarantee every graduate a job, with the city acting as an employer of last resort. Rather than create another hurdle for graduation, create an incentive to graduate. The problem isn’t that Chicago’s high school graduates don’t want to work. The problem is that they can’t find work. If the city wants to create a requirement, it should fill the need.
In this way, Emanuel’s plan is a faint echo of his mentor Bill Clinton’s welfare reforms. In 1996, when Clinton’s welfare reform bill was passed, the rhetoric was all about impoverished single mothers going from welfare to work. The plan was to abolish the welfare guarantee and require that poor mothers go to work after a limited period of time.
Great, everyone is for work over welfare. But in order to hold a job, impoverished single mothers need some way to care for their children, job training, a way to get to their job — and a job to get to. None of that was provided in the welfare reform bill that eventually passed. And the result was, when the recession hit, unforeseen consequences — impoverished mothers and their children took the hit.
Emanuel operates from the theory that poor graduates lack a plan for life after high school. What they lack, however, is a real job or a real training program that would lead to a job.
These kids grow up in impoverished neighborhoods and on mean streets. Often they come from broken homes, without adequate nutrition, with unstable housing. They attend schools with massive needs and inadequate resources. If they make it, they graduate into an economy that has little place for them.
If the mayor actually wants to address this challenge — and I believe he does — it will take more than “nudges.” It will take investing in schools, providing intensive counseling, resources for those qualified to go to college but who cannot afford it, affordable transportation and housing, and jobs.