Recently, in response to Chance The Rapper‘s gift of $1 million to Chicago Public Schools (CPS), three high schoolers in the CPS system penned an open letter to the artist. Beautifully written and heartbreakingly sincere, the letter shows an authentic appreciation of Chance for his donation and his continued activism, but it also lays bare how the struggles of CPS affect the children in the system.
Our nation’s public schools, particularly the urban ones, need help, and gifts like Chance’s are magnanimous gestures that really can make a difference. But I’m reminded of a similar gift to another city.
In 2010, Mark Zuckerberg gave $100 million to Newark Public Schools in a much ballyhooed announcement before an Oprah audience and to then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (back when he was popular and not as a meme). While that money is way more than Chance’s gift there are some important lessons to be learned.
Five years later, reporter Dale Russakoff released a widely-acclaimed book that laid out the results of that gift and set a narrative on that story. It was not a good assessment. The book tells a story of how the money was squandered by politicians, decision-makers, and people who didn’t appreciate how complex education reform truly is. It’s particularly a scathing indictment of Cory Booker, now NJ’s junior senator and a man who many speculate has 2020 presidential ambitions.
The problems were numerous. There was the political push to expand charter schools over existing public schools. There was Zuckerberg’s desire to have more flexibility to hire and fire teachers, which is a wildly idealistic viewpoint considering the power of tenure and teachers’ unions (and the fact that many of those protections are codified in state law). The story here though is that the money was there, but the institutional push by all stakeholders wasn’t.
This shouldn’t fall on Zuckerberg though. His gift was incredibly generous, and although he now might have political ambitions, back in 2010 he was a novice who wanted to do some good and provide a model to rebuild struggling school districts around the nation.
Cory Booker is a relatively popular politician in NJ. However, for many who watch NJ politics closely, there has always been rumblings that he is more of a politician of style over substance. For Booker and Christie to keep this gift a secret and for Newark community and school leaders to find out at the same time the rest of us were also finding out on “Oprah” means that the responsibility for coordinating and quarterbacking this gift lay on the shoulders of those two men.
Christie’s failings as a politician have since been exposed in his Bridgegate scandal, his failed presidential run, and his subsequent dealings with President Donald Trump’s campaign and administration. Booker managed to walk away from the whole mess in 2013 when he was elected to the Senate to replace the late Senator Frank Lautenberg.
There was some good from the gift. After all, the charter schools that were established do outperform Newark public schools, largely due to the fact that they’re properly resourced, even if they don’t really serve the broader population. Maybe that’s a lesson learned, more of the funding should have gone to broadly resourcing the entire school district.
This is not meant to be a hit piece on Booker. I don’t dislike him, and I’m sure he’s developed as a politician. I voted for him for in his Senate election. The point here though was about Chance’s gift to CPS. And this serves as an open letter of sorts to everybody in Chicago whose job it is to now sort out what to do with the money.
Chance’s gift came with two things. An indictment of Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner after a disappointing meeting prompted the gift and a call for others to give as well. Chicago, you have a fountain of local talent who are willing to give back. It’s time to show them you can do right by them.
CPS has one of the worst racial achievement gaps in the nation. This is driven largely by the fact that public schools are mostly segregated once again. In fact, northern public schools are more segregated than many southern public schools because many federal civil rights laws target based on areas with a “history” of segregation, which typically meant the Deep South and turned a blind eye towards the north.
With money and a political desire though, city leaders can force integration. And forcing it might be the only solution as Nicole Hannah-Jones wrote in an extensive piece for The New York Times Magazine. Despite numerous studies that indicate racial and socioeconomic diversity in classrooms has positive outcomes for all children, parents and school districts have proved that, given the choice, they will choose to self-segregate.
In the open letter, the three students tell Chance about the struggles of their neighborhood and how students from their school district are given fewer opportunities to succeed.
“As minority students we feel ignored and as though we don’t have enough support from bigger influences like you. Being born and raised in Chicago is not easy at all. There are so many stereotypes and restrictions we have as teenagers due to the frequent violence and crimes.”
This is a direct result of how segregated the schools and the city of Chicago is. Chance knows this, and he gave money to try and provide relief.
So here’s the point: If CPS is about to receive an influx of money and they want to encourage more donations, don’t misuse it on projects that need to unseat existing laws or experiments like charter schools like Newark did. Newark provided a poor example and discouraged continued investment from donors.
Chance has hopefully started a trend in Chicago of giving to public education. It’s up to Chicago now to show it deserves the money.
Chicago, invest in doing everything you can to build a strong public school system. Start that building from the bottom invest in and integrate your public schools.