Rahm Emanuel's cruel and appalling public education plan

Powerless 18-year-olds don't need more hurdles to high school graduation

Rahm Emanuel.
(Image credit: Jim Young/REUTERS)

America's elites are in total agreement: A high school education no longer cuts it in our modern economy. We've got to do better, they say. College for everyone!

As such, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has a plan to give high schoolers a swift kick in the pants.

Emanuel wants to make having some post-high school plan a requirement for graduating in Chicago's public school system. An array of options would meet the requirement: A college acceptance letter is obviously the big one. But acceptance into the military would also count, as would a job training program, an apprenticeship program, a "gap year" program with travel or volunteer work or research, or a job offer.

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"We all need to change how we think about what it means to be a high school graduate — a diploma alone isn't enough anymore," said Janice Jackson, the chief education officer of the Chicago Public School system.

"Just like you do with your children, college, post-high school, that is what's expected," Emanuel added. "If you change expectations, it's not hard for kids to adapt."

The very spirit of this idea is appalling.

As some of the most powerless people in the American labor market, high school graduates need fewer hoops to jump through, not more. How on Earth are these requirements going to help them?

Now, Chicago does have some quirks worth pointing out. Admission to Chicago's community colleges is already guaranteed to every graduate of the city's public high school system. Illinois law also requires all community colleges in the state to admit qualified students — assuming that space is available. And Chicago offers a program that effectively makes community college free for any student who gets a B grade average or better in high school, and who meets a few additional requirements. So ideally, Chicago's community college system comes close to operating as a fallback option that every high schooler could rely on to meet the new requirements.

In practice, though, getting enough resources to the community college system so that it can actually function as such a fallback will be nearly impossible. Emanuel has pushed city budgets that cut funding to public education in Chicago. The Illinois state budget has been slashing education spending as well. Deny sufficient resources to community colleges, and their tuition could become too high or they might not have enough space for everyone after all. Deny resources to K-12 public education, and fewer students will graduate with that B average.

And why is it that a post-high school education is now "what's expected," anyway? The standard answer is that advancing technology has made skills more important. But this ignores the reality that the economy has chronically failed to produce enough jobs for everyone for decades now. And after the Great Recession, the problem became vastly more acute for young people just entering the job market.

Think about the broader dynamics of our economy: When workers are perpetually competing over a too-small supply of jobs, employers have all the power and can be picky. They can demand a college diploma for everything. They can avoid hiring people who will need to learn on the job. They can stop investing in training programs.

Let's also remember that there are innumerable honorable middle-class jobs that require not a moment in a college classroom.

Interestingly, it's not clear that Emanuel's plan will even pass legal muster. Illinois state law allows school boards to place additional requirements on graduation. But Emanuel's idea is uniquely problematic in that it makes graduation conditional on acceptance by some third party like an employer, a college, or the military. As Angus Johnston, a City University of New York historian of student activism, observed: "It's not a requirement that you look for a job, or apply to college. It's a requirement that some gatekeeper finds you worthy."

At any rate, the Chicago Board of Education — which Emanuel himself appoints — will take up the mayor's proposal next month.

They should remember that high school graduates are already effectively being thrown into an economic cage match where there are far too few jobs and resources to go around. Many graduates must lose out in this scramble by sheer mathematical necessity. In that context, the idea that we need to "change expectations" for high school students, or "change how we think" about high school, is cruel and perverse.

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Jeff Spross

Jeff Spross was the economics and business correspondent at TheWeek.com. He was previously a reporter at ThinkProgress.