Why Did Rahm Blink? (Posted by Jaleesa Smith)

“Seven and a half hours is based on what you need to build to get kids to be career- and college-ready.”

—Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Chicago Tribune, Jan. 10, 2012

“My view is, we’ll set the bar, and that if schools want — if parents, if schools reach some kind of thing, we’ll look at that. But the notion that I’m going to walk away immediately, before we even give it a chance …”

— Emanuel at a Chicago Tribune forum, April 4, 2012

In his nearly one year as mayor, Rahm Emanuel has governed much as he campaigned: Chicagoans had elected him believing he could handle whatever heat the job would create. Three crises in particular, all inherited from his predecessor, were sure to stress-test the rookie: a yawning budget deficit, a runaway pension system, and a moribund system of public education that contentedly has pushed generations of children through underperforming schools.

That third crisis became the one that humanized Emanuel’s rigorous agenda for Chicago. He found a hundred ways to explain that Chicago no longer could cheat those children — that any change short of radical improvement is intolerable. Each of those hundred ways included a denunciation of America’s “shortest school day and shortest school year.” He persistently invoked Houston’s far greater commitment to having that city’s children in school and on task. If you knew only one item on Rahm Emanuel’s agenda to make this city a mecca for high-skill jobs, it was his resolve to have longer-running schools produce high-skill workers.

On Tuesday, though, the mayor downsized the plan. Most elementary schools will increase from the current 5-hour, 45-minute day to a 7-hour day, not the 71/2-hour day on which Emanuel had stood firm. High schools will move to the 71/2-hour schedule, but they can shorten one weekday by 75 minutes.

Although we’ve supported the 71/2-hour proposal, we won’t suggest that a 7-hour day is a travesty. But the mayor and officials at Chicago Public Schools have said repeatedly that they wouldn’t yield on this: Chicago students, many of them from disadvantaged backgrounds, need the 71/2-hour schedule, and they would have it.

Optics matter to reform, and here the optics are lousy. Emanuel had been working from a position of strength: At his urging, Illinois lawmakers had given CPS — that is, had given him — permission to lengthen the school day as he sees fit. His administration repeatedly had reassured us that “just a few parents” were objecting to the 71/2-hour day, and that rang true: Chicago wasn’t up in arms; some parents who thought their kids already had busy school days wanted high-achieving schools exempted from the new schedule. As blowback goes, this was minor.

Parents who had most loudly objected weren’t placated by this retreat. The most vocal group, 19th Ward Parents, which includes some residents of other neighborhoods, issued a statement complaining that Emanuel “has never directly addressed parents,” among several complaints about the mayor and CPS.

The Chicago Teachers Union could have graciously accepted the extra half-hour for prep time. But the CTU instead slapped the mayor with a backhanded compliment: “Once again, the Chicago Teachers Union has been proven correct. The longer school day is a political slogan and not an education plan. … Today, the mayor moved his toe a half an inch from the starting line. he needs to do more. He needs to listen with both ears. The CTU commends this growing.”

Let’s acknowledge that the last mayor, Richard M. Daley, could be stubborn to a fault. Witness Meigs Field, or rather, witness Northerly Island, where Meigs sat until Daley dispatched bulldozers to wreck its runways late on a Sunday night. Then, as now, City Hall hadn’t made the patient effort to educate Chicagoans on the need to do what a mayor said was crucial.

We’re glad Chicago students will still have a significantly longer school day and school year. Mayor, the next time you have a game-changing suggestion — your pending proposal for a little-understood infrastructure trust leaps to mind — we hope you and yours will educate Chicagoans on why it best serves their interests. Getting what you want from governments in Springfield and Chicago loses some oomph if, in some subsequent confrontation, you’re the one who has to blink.

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This blog and its accompanying Twitter account have been established as social media learning tools for the Internal Communications and Employee Engagement class at Columbia College Chicago. Through this blog, we will share our observations about current events, change management and employee communications theory, and the application of social media in shaping employee engagement.
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