Carol Felsenthal
On politics

School Choice Rahm style: It’s the U. of C. Lab School for His Kids

The mayor goes with the University of Chicago’s elite private school, getting testy when asked about it… and perhaps reveals his greater political ambitions.

Making the choice to send their children to the University of Chicago Laboratory School was a canny one  for the Emanuels because the school carries the patina of great, urban university “lab” school, as opposed to the perception of wealth and privilege carried by Francis Parker and Latin, both independent private schools.

Still, I’d wager if there were a high-ranked private Jewish day school that would carry the Emanuel kids through 12th grade—equivalent to St. Ignatius, where Mayor Richard J. Daley sent Bill and John, or Loyola Academy—the Emanuels would have happily sent their children there; if, for no other reason, than selecting a religious school would take the onus of rejecting public schools off the new Mayor’s back.

When  New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, infamous for his testy relationship with teachers and their union, was asked recently—on a televised ask-the-governor show, Christie: On the Line—about his children attending private schools, he became enraged, told the questioner that it was none of her business.  But he quickly justified the decision by invoking his and his wife’s desire for a religious education for their children, noting that his children attend “parochial [Catholic] school.”

Rahm’s outburst Wednesday at WMAQ political reporter Mary Ann Ahern seemed more high-pitched, uglier and personal. The rookie mayor didn’t have the religious justification to fall back on.

Oh, another  thing about Lab—its teachers are unionized and they do have a prickly relationship with the school administration. When  I visited the school in the early 1980s to interview for a story I was writing for Chicago comparing the top three private schools in Chicago—Lab, Parker and Latin—I interviewed teachers wearing large union buttons as the school then teetered on the precipice of a strike.

Working in the Emanuels’ favor: Lab is highly diverse. I still remember a quote from a woman who sent her daughters there.  “My daughter’s class looks like the United Nations,” she said, and then named eight countries that were represented in her daughter’s class—and they weren’t in Western Europe.

When Rahm runs again for Mayor or if he pursues the presidency he’ll lose few votes because his children went to private school. After President Obama’s November 2008 victory, Michelle made a point of saying that she and the President-elect were considering D.C. public schools, but they predictably enrolled Malia and Sasha in Sidwell Friends. The story quickly died. In 2012 Obama will lose next to no votes for that choice, just as Bill and Hillary Clinton nicely survived their decision to send Chelsea to Sidwell. (Jimmy Carter, who high-mindedly chastised the Clintons for not following his example of sending Amy to DC public schools, lost his bid for reelection.)

And if Rahm loses votes for whatever office he runs for next, they won’t be many, and they will probably be voters who wouldn’t have voted for him anyway.

I believe Rahm’s next goal will be the Presidency, and in his WMAQ blowup he probably inadvertently revealed the political level at which he sees himself. According to Ahern, “He said other children of public figures—Chelsea Clinton and the Obama girls—have been kept out of the public eye, despite media attention on the admission to the Sidwell Friends Academy in Washington D.C.”

Hey, Rahm, you’re the mayor, not the president, and this is Chicago not the nation’s capital.

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3 years ago
Posted by Carl Lambrecht

U. of C Lab school is an experimental school. That means the students will be in a laboratory testing new ideas. This does not mean the best education.

3 years ago
Posted by Emil Hyde

@ Carl - True, the Lab School is 'experimental', but at $20,000 to $25,000 *per year*, the wealthy parents who send their children there presumably expect far-better-than-public-school results.

Perhaps it's too much to ask of any human society, but nowhere is there a clearer division between the people run the world and those of us stuck living in it than how we educate our children. Even Michael Moore resorts to the old "my child is not a social experiment" line when people pry about his daughter's pricey preparatory education.

Conservative elites could give a damn what becomes of poorer children, as long as the job openings at major corporations somehow get filled with adequately skilled workers. Liberal elites see it as their role to pity the under-served masses from above, not suffer alongside the peasants down in the muck.

If a multi-millionaire power broker like Rahm Emmanuel would look at schools like North Side Prep, Whitney Young and Walter Payton - institutions that ordinary parents desperately hope and struggle to get their children admitted to - and turn their nose, deeming them unworthy of future leaders of society... well, I suppose that sums up the chances most of us have for seeing our children rise to the top.

Dear Rahm: you'd better balance that budget and make sure this city stays on the rails. For all his family's corruption, Mayor Daley was like an uncle to me, a real (albeit filthy rich) Chicagoan just like the folks I grew up with. Because of that, I could forgive all sorts of things. You, you're just a jerk from the North Shore, a mercenary we brought in to get the job done.

No love, no second chances, just get the job done and go run for president or whatever.

3 years ago
Posted by carol f

Emil--North Side Prep, Whitney Young, Walter Payton require high test scores. I have no idea if the eldest Emanual, a son who is starting his freshman year, took the entrance exam, but it's extremely competitive and who knows how the younger two children would fare. I know parents who have taken their children out of the best private schools and enrolled them in Walter Payton, for example, but it's a competitive quagmire so it's likely not so much "turn[ing] up their nose" as not wanting to risk the tough odds of gaining admittance three times over.

Had the Emanuel son enrolled in one of those three schools you can bet that the press would be wanting to see his scores to check on whether he got in fairly or because he's the mayor's son.

carol felsenthal

3 years ago
Posted by himenstrln

@Emil Hyde : Sorry to burst your poor bubble, but i have plenty of examples including from my family of kids that spent $0 on private and expensive universities only because they were brilliant and got excess money from the scholarships on top of being able to cover the full tuition. Fafsa did help a little, but most of it they paid for themselves. Amazing huh, something a judgmental person like you wouldn't think of. Besides, there are plenty of programs for the "poor" and all that does is pollute the schools with kids that are not there to learn

3 years ago
Posted by himenstrln

as for the K12 - it's best to avoid schools altogether if possible and do homeschooling. If not then do move to a neighborhood that has a semi "solid" school. With current real estate market the only folk that would not afford an apt. in a nicer neighborhood would be on sec. 8

3 years ago
Posted by himenstrln

it is just really scary how badly the curriculum has degenerated from the sixties on in all k-12 schools. When i went to highschool (early 2000's) i was an honors student at a West LA public school with major gang / teen pregnancy / drug and violence issues. In my junior year I attempted to take A.P. biology class and dropped it, because there was no way i could handle the material. The gap between the A.P classes (or what the regular classes SHOULD be) and even the honors program is ridicules. I mean all you have to pass to graduate is Algebra 2 + geometry in mathematics, which is laughable

3 years ago
Posted by Emil Hyde

@ CAROL F - True. But, given some of the other private schools the Emanuels were considering, testing requirements apparently weren't perceived as a barrier.

@ HIMENSTRLN - There will always be exceptional students and exceptional parents who, through Herculean efforts, play the best possible game with the hand society deals them and succeed far beyond what the statistics would suggest. However, societies are ultimately defined not by the exceptional, but by the typical. Yes, exceptional individuals can sometimes tip the balance in a critical situation, but overall cities and civilizations succeed and fail based on what *typical* citizens do, day in, day out. And if the typical Chicagoan or typical American receives a crap education, this city and this country are going to seriously decline.

3 years ago
Posted by notwhet

All about perception!
Chris Christie is about school choice, charters etc.
Rahm supports choice just for his class, not the subjects.
Takes the simplest of the simpletons to draw that comparison!
Keep up the good work.

3 years ago
Posted by Chicago Stan

The Chicago Public Schools did at one time have an elementary and high school that was based on concepts developed at the lab school and developed to even a higher level by the partnership of Perkins & Will and a far-sighted urban education consultant from Philadelphia, the late Stanton Leggit.

The Walt Disney and Whitney Young Magnet Schools still stand today. I cannot speak for Whitney Young but Disney is certainly not even a shadow of its former self and really needs some media scrutiny.

Some of its downfall is due to the current manic testing craze that forces teachers to abandon any true education and "teach to the test" but most is due to severe reduction in funding and the pathetic management of its "leadership".

The current principal has finally turned a starship into a garbage scow. She is solely responsible for a revolving door staff and promoting a handpicked staff member to a position of authority far beyond his education and competency who looted the school to the tune of more than $150k.

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