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Education Front And Center As Civic Groups Look At Economic Mobility

Education could be a vehicle to create economic mobility, but in many ways the country and the city of Chicago are failing.

This was the message of former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Duncan, who spent eight years as chief executive officer for the Chicago Public Schools, spoke Monday to a group of researchers and planners who are looking at the issue of economic mobility in Chicago. The Metropolitan Planning Council and the Urban Institute came together to host the meeting titled “How Place Matters for Economic Mobility.”

With research being done by the Urban Institute, the planning council is spending the next year looking at ways to promote economic mobility for low-income families; it plans to then make recommendations. The project is sponsored by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The Chicago Community Trust, and JPMorgan Chase.

Duncan said the biggest problem is that politicians give lip service to education funding, but that no one holds them accountable.

He said if parents came together and demanded better, politicians would have no choice but to react.

“Until we think about not just caring about our own child, but caring for the kids down the block or five blocks away or on the South or West sides or on a Native American reservation, until we take collective ownership for that, we are not going to get there,” he said.

Duncan repeated his belief in many of the policies he pushed in Washington, D.C. and, before that, in Chicago. Though he was largely unsuccessful in making this happen, he reiterated his belief that teachers in low-income schools should be paid much more than those teaching in schools that serve middle-income children.

“This is about folks thinking very, very differently,” he said. “But teaching in Englewood, teaching in North Lawndale, that is a fundamentally different job than teaching at Walter Payton or Whitney Young. What if we made it a badge of honor to work in poor communities?”

He said this would entice the best teachers to seek out jobs in schools serving poor children. It also would acknowledge the fact that the job of teachers in poor schools is much harder than those who serve more well-off children.

In addition, if the best teachers were clustered in schools serving poor children, it might encourage some middle-income families to send their children to these schools. As it is, middle-class families often say they don’t want to send their children to schools serving poor students because those schools are under-resourced and have poor academic outcomes.

Duncan said there is no political courage to do something this radical. “Political courage is something we lack,” he said.

Duncan also said that economically and racially integrated schools will only come once all schools are good. He said he doesn’t think forced integration will work.

“This has to be about quality education,” he said. “This has to be... I have a chance for my child to get a great education. Every parent--black, white, rich, poor, Latino--wants the best for their kid.”

Duncan promoted the idea of having a cluster of quality schools with different specialties in every neighborhood. By expanding the definition of an attendance boundary so that children in the neighborhood could attend one of several good schools, it might lead to more integrated schools, he said.

When he was in Chicago, he tried this by creating magnet clusters and giving schools extra resources to support their specialty. However, magnet clusters were not able to attract students and have been defunded in the eight years since he left the school system.

Duncan also was pressed on why he supports charter schools. Under Duncan, there was major charter school expansion in Chicago and, on the national level, many of his policies supported the growth of charter schools.

Yet in Chicago, critics of charter schools say they have served to leave the most vulnerable students in the worst-resourced schools.

Duncan said he supports good charter schools and that Chicago needs to do a better job of helping parents identify and pick a good school. 


Sarah Karp is a reporter for WBEZ. Follow her @sskedreporter or @wbezeducation

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