Spare a Little (Disruptive) Change?

Charter schools, parking meters and the privatization of Chicago…

Parking MeterQuick, reader: what do charter schools and parking meters have in common? If you’re drawing a blank, may I invite you to accompany me on a ride through Chicago’s South Side, at the expert hands of driver Frank Kuran? Full disclosure: Frank isn’t a traditional cabbie but a driver for that driver of disruptive change, Uber. Unable to find a cab that will take me to Gage Park and the K-8 school that I’m visiting, Frank has come to my rescue, and a la Tom Friedman, supplied me with a post that is practically writing itself. You see, Frank has plenty to say about the subject of education in Chicago and about the charter schools that are proliferating like Starbucks in this part of the city. *They’re a rip off,* he tells me as we make our way up Ashland. *Just like when the city sold the parking meters. It takes money away from the public and poor people pay the price.*  

ventra+chicagoLoss leader
Now I know what you’re thinking: no driver in the world talks like that. But you would be wrong. Frank did indeed talk like that (and he gave me his email so that I could share this post with him), and plenty of other people in Chicago talk like that these days as well. In fact, I heard virtually the same argument the day before from the principal of a school on the North Side. Troy LaRaviere leads a small group of school leaders who’ve been outspoken opponents of the direction of education reform in the city, and of the Chicago Public Schools’ relentless privatization push, including a controversial $20 million no-bid contract that outsourced the training of principals to SUPES Academy. LaRaviere, like Frank, sees charters as part of a larger stiffing of the public:

The big truth is that public school students and residents of Chicago in general are suffering losses. With every loss they suffer, some private corporation benefits. Parking meters—the residents of Chicago lose. We pay exorbitant rates and get nothing from it and some private corporation benefits from our loss. For residents who don’t drive, they now get to pay more to the private company in charge of fare cards. The train doesn’t get there any faster but you’re going to pay 25 cents more. We lose and a private corporation profits from our loss. Take charter schools. The data that is emerging paints a very clear picture that they are doing far worse than neighborhood public schools at growing student academic skills. The students in those schools are losing out and the private management companies that benefit from the public dollars that flow into charter schools are benefiting from those students’ loss. And then Aramark. $340 million for piss poor service. Our students are losing out. Our teachers are losing out. And a private corporation benefits—no profits—from our loss.

Where is the love?
where is the loveNow I suppose it’s possible that, by an extraordinary coincidence, I happened to find the only two people in Chicago who think this way, but I’m almost certain that this is not the case. The selling off of the city’s parking meters seems likely to go down in the annals as a cautionary tale of how-not-to-privatize a public asset. But locals are increasingly souring on the Windy City’s charter experiment too. In a Chicago Tribune poll taken this summer, 72% of voters gave a big thumbs down to their mayor’s mad love for charter schools. Why the change of heart? Like their counterparts in just about every part of the country these days, Chicagoans can explain *without any prompting* that opening charters means closing neighborhood schools. Or maybe they’re just data driven so know that Chicago’s charter experiment has somehow managed to produce worse schools that are even more highly segregated than the city’s already highly-segregated schools.

unoThe excellence racket
Smell that, reader? No – not that weird chocolaty smell blowing in from the southwest. I mean the sulfuric tang of corruption that clings to politicians in Illinois like bad suits and taints everything they touch, including a growing number of academies of excellence and innovation. The Gage Park neighborhood school at which Frank has deposited me is three quarters of a mile away from an UNO charter, the *clout-heavy* network of schools for Latino students that is now under investigation by the IRS and the SEC, and whose comically corrupt former CEO, Juan Rangel, is palsies with both Mayor Emanuel and the Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives, Mike Madigan. Speaking of Speaker Madigan, a new outpost of his very favorite charter network, Concept Inc., is under construction not far from here, at 55th and Western. While the Chicago Public Schools initially turned down Concept’s bid to open two additional schools in the city, the Illinois State Charter Commission, a body created by Madigan, gave Concept the green light to expand. Oh, and then the FBI raided Concept’s headquarters. In other words, there are suddenly a great many federal investigative bodies that do not want to see Chicago’s students succeed.

Choose choice
expired meterSo are Chicago’s public schools going to go the way of its parking meters? Ironically, the more appropriate analogy might be the city’s embattled taxi drivers. Take one stodgy, highly-regulated sector, now add cool new vehicles of disruption from services like Uber and Lyft, as light on regulation as they are heavy on marketing and political connections and watch what happens. Breaking: Chicago wants to roll out universal app for choosing taxis.  Wait – why does this sound so familiar??? The great part is, of course, that it is the people who will benefit most from all of these new choices. If by *people* you mean Ari Emanuel, brother of Mayor Emanuel, uber agent to the stars and a major investor in Uber. 

Send tips and comments to Note: this post is part of my look into Chicago’s grand education reform experiment. You can learn more about my project and support my work here.  


  1. One of the few bright spots is that average Chicagoans are so used to this privatization bullshit that they can smell it a mile away.

  2. C’mon. It’s a law of nature that humans lose all capacity to do good work once they’re in the employ of a government. The only things that motivate good work are greed and/or fear of being fired by a boss with absolute power. Let’s privatize the US military, Congress and presidency too.

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