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More Problems, More Prayer: A Year in the Life of Chicago Public Schools

Last May, I was asked to lead a prayer for education at The National Day of Prayer breakfast in Chicago. The event happens every first Thursday of May and is coming up again on May 7.

It's interesting that my prayer today would be much different than last year's.  Twelve months ago, my focus was issues plaguing schools in America, but right now my heart is broken specifically over education in Chicago.

First, let's take a quick look at the city itself:

There's so much injustice in law enforcement and the courts:  Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez under-charged white off-duty cop Dante Servin for firing an unregistered gun blindly over his shoulder into a crowd of law-abiding unarmed African-American young people and hitting an innocent woman, 20-year-old Rekia Boyd, in the back of the head as she was running away.  The judge dropped the "involuntary manslaughter" charge because he said the cop should have been charged with a more serious crime. But double jeopardy prevents Servin from facing any higher charges. In other words, Servin quite literally got away with murder—and he gets to keep his badge.

There's so much corruption in government: There are dozens of living former public officials from Illinois either in prison, on probation, or with corruption convictions that a prison sentence for a politician is almost like a rite of passage. Ask former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and former U.S. Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr.

There's so much financial instability:  Earlier this month, Mayor Rahm Emanuel won a second term, though he put cash-strapped Chicago further in debt by some $3 billion by the end of his first four-year term.  While it's true that the mayor never raised property taxes (which I believe will happen this term), he increased every fee and service the city provides by as much as 100 percent.  The poor have only gotten poorer in this city, which, despite all the hikes in fees, still faces a $1 billion shortfall come July 1. (See Jon Stewart's take on Emanuel's re-election.)

But the problems at Chicago Public Schools may be even worse.

On April 14, a week after mayoral run-off election, news broke that the Emanuel-appointed CEO of Chicago Public Schools Barbara Bryd-Bennett is under FBI investigation for granting a $20.5 million no-bid contract to the a consultant firm she used to work for.  The FBI reportedly searched both of her homes (Chicago and Cleveland), and she went on a paid "leave of absence."

Contractually, she is entitled to receive her $250,000 salary plus benefits until June 30, 2016.  If she is charged with a crime, however, she could reportedly get fired for violating the ethics clause in her contract.

 School Board Vice President Jesse Ruiz came to the rescue by agreeing to serve as interim CEO of schools without taking a salary.  The problem is that he, and every member of the school board who was present that day, voted to approve the $20.5 million on-bid contract for which Byrd-Bennett has lost her job.  Does this fix even make sense? We are now on our 6th schools chief in the past 11 years.

Worse, SUPES Academy, the company that won the no-bid contract to train principals, had a reputation among school administrators of providing substandard professional development services. 

Moveover, a recent Chicago Sun-Times article revealed that the SUPES president Gary R. Solomon lost his job as a dean of a suburban school because the school board accused him of inappropriate behavior including, "on at least one occasion, you kissed a female student and/or had unprofessional relationships with students." However, Solomon was never convicted of a crime.

These revelations come as CPS schools are anxiously awaiting their budgets for next year. One principal told me that the common answer to budgetary questions in central office is, "We don't know."

Meanwhile, a whistleblower who runs the staffing services for CPS has publically called for a federal investigation of hiring and compensation practices in the district, which she says awards white middle managers salaries up to $40,000 above that of black middle managers.

Like the city, CPS is facing a $1.1 billion deficit for the 2015-16 school year, including a more than $700 million dollar teachers pension payment that is due. In fact, the teachers pension is underfunded by more than $6 billion dollars. Each subsequent year, CPS will be facing pension payments of hundreds of millions dollars. With a bond rating just a notch or two above junk status, the new Governor of Illinois Bruce Rauner suggested last week that CPS files for bankruptcy.  There goes my retirement savings!

The biggest losers in all this are the 400,000 mostly low-income minority students CPS serves. 

I hate to be a Debbie Downer, but it's hard to make a case for optimism about the trajectory of Chicago, particularly the Chicago Public Schools.  In the past 12 months I've had six personal teacher-friends have leave the city or announce that they will be doing so at the end of this school year.  They are moving to Texas, Michigan, down state Illinois, or the northern suburbs.

Anywhere, but Chicago. 

I love my city—it's where I was born and where I grew up—but I also find myself fantasizing about going elsewhere.  Washington, D.C. ... or maybe Boston ... no, Hawaii.

While I won't be leading the prayer for education at Chicago's National Day of Pray breakfast this year, I'll certainly be praying.  The situation here is bad, but nothing is too hard for God.

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