Posted by: Mark Nielsen | June 13, 2008

School’s Out… Forever?

Classes at my school wrapped up this week, possibly for the last time ever. Due to funding problems, Chicago Mennonite Learning Center will suspend operations for the 2008-09 school year, to do some fact-finding and determine if and how to re-open in some altered form.

I’m on a committee from Mennonite churches around the metro area, which is reviewing the situation and making some recommendations to the school’s board about future steps. Essentially, the problems arose from a combination of some minor past mismanagement, and greatly increased competition from charter and contract schools in the area. Who’d have thunk it? School reform in Chicago these days means a handful of savvy administrator/fundraisers get to set up public schools that function like private ones… with waiting lists, special programs, and a new brand of institiutionalized elitism. Meanwhile, the kindergarten in the “ordinary” public school down the street from ours reportedly had almost fifty kids this year, with one teacher.

So we at CMLC got lost in”no man’s land”: we charged a low enough tuition to be a workable option for families fleeing that blithely imbalanced CPS system (gee, what a surprise!). Yet we have no single on-site church to help us cover the daily costs beyond our tuition income (another 35% or so?). Couple that gap with a lack of experience getting the big grants from non-Mennonite sources and foundations, and you have a recipe for a financial crumble.

Last year, when the current principal looked like she would have to quit to take care of her elderly mother, I even applied to be the principal at CMLC. She ended up staying, solving her elder-care problems a different way. But even though I may have been effective in the role, I’m now glad it went down this way. For one thing, the amount of change I would have wanted, and the institution’s inability to move forward with those radical changes, would probably have frustrated me. Or else I would have focused on the students, teachers and curriculum, and as a result even the modest dollar-chasing that our principal has done this year would have been reduced in the process. There’s only so many hours in a day, after all, and I’ve never been the type to live, sleep, and eat my job. At the end of the day, I want to watch 30 Rock (who knew I’d agree with the lesbian community that funnygirl Tina Fey is red hot). I want to write a blog, or do a few other things that are for me and my family, activities not beholden to the Almighty, Soul-Crushing Buck.

I’ve worked on and off with small not-for-profit organizations for years, and our nation’s dirty little secret is that most of them are two steps ahead of broke, because they’re caught unknowingly in the middle of some serious class warfare. The infrastructure and free market system that holds sway in the U.S. means that most power structures don’t mind  letting the working poor or lower middle class languish away in substandard situations. In fact, we could make a case that it’s one more case of the rich getting richer, and the poor poorer. It’s no joke that community centers, small schools and local social service institutions are forced to compete with the Goodman Theaters, Northwestern Universities and Advocate Healthcare Systems of the world. Yes, they’re nonprofit in origin, but their bottom line and their fundraising force are both huge. Full disclocure: I’ve been a Goodman subscriber, and I’m an NU alum who got some serious grant money back in the ’80s to even be able to go there. So I’m not advocating pulling the plug on them. I just think we could do a better job of spreading the love around.

But since the flawed, shortsighted, trickle-down, “thousand points of light” economic policies of the Reagan ’80s, which eventually led to the disparity we’re now faced with, nobody’s had the guts to admit we’re building this disparity into the very DNA of our culture. As long as the housing market was strong, and the Dow kept going up, nobody made a big ruckus about the economic losers, either here or abroad. But the house of cards is wobbling. So now what?

Obama shows signs of having some good sense, with things like the removal of Bush’s tax breaks for our wealthiest citizens and institutions. But even in a “Yes We Can” atmosphere of change, I suspect that our evenly divided Dem-publican society is too risk-averse to get ahead of the curve, on the environment and the new global economy and several other areas where there are quiet, looming crises — crises that have nothing much to do with Iraq, Iran, or the frickin’ inheritance tax. So maybe we’re in for a long, slow slide downward for the foreseeable future, until things get bad enough for folks to wake up and re-orient their priorities. Still, I’d rather have free-thinking Barack in the driver’s seat for those crises than political panderers and pawns like Clinton and McCain. Barack’s got the stones to make the tough calls –and believe me, there will be some — but he’ll do it with a measure of justice and fairness that gives more people a stake in the outcome.

Personally, I may or may not stay in teaching. I may move from kindergarteners to community college Composition 101 students, finally put this useless (so far) Masters degree to better use. Or I may sell out, write pithy corporate marketing copy for $50K a year, take advantage of dropping real estate prices in the far-flung suburbs, and leave the city and its problems to other well-intentioned swimmers against the tide. Because lemme tell you, people: I’m tired of using my best years and varied skillset in the service of losing propostions.

You might say I’ve “been schooled”, in more ways than one.


  1. Wow.

  2. Is that a wow over the content, or a response to my own discouragement about continuing the fight?

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