Mayor Emanuel’s education tactics met with disapproval

Chicago voters hold a dim view of Rahm Emanuel’s stewardship of public education after a tumultuous year that featured a teachers strike and the mayor’s push to close many neighborhood elementary schools, a new Tribune/WGN-TV poll shows.

Disenchantment with Emanuel education policy is particularly acute among minority voters, and that’s helping drive up negative views of the mayor’s overall job performance as he reaches the middle of his first term this week.

Nearly 6 of 10 surveyed said they disapproved of Emanuel’s attempt to downsize elementary schools, while just a third approved. Those numbers closely mirror negative feelings about Emanuel’s approach to public education, which he has labeled a top priority.

The general dissatisfaction was even greater among those with children in public schools — three-fourths disapproved. But even a majority of voters without so personal a stake expressed reservations about the way the mayor has dealt with Chicago Public Schools.

Since taking office two years ago, Emanuel has sought to portray the Chicago Teachers Union as an impediment to reform and progress in a struggling school system as he launched a series of skirmishes over a longer school day, teacher evaluations, pay and the closings that are scheduled for final approval in less than two weeks.

The bad blood helped fuel a seven-day walkout last fall, and in the aftermath, the mayor’s first choice to run the school district, Jean-Claude Brizard, was ousted. After all the drama, the poll showed the mayor has failed to erode voter confidence in the CTU.

Asked whom they sided with in the debate over public school improvement, 41 percent of those surveyed said the teachers union and just 19 percent said Emanuel. Another 36 percent said neither.

Those results are little changed from a Tribune poll a year ago, months before the strike. Chicago remains a union town, and teachers tend to be viewed sympathetically given the job they do.

The recent survey showed 54 percent of voters who said they had children in the public schools sided with the teachers union and only 9 percent with Emanuel. The gap was closer among voters who weren’t parents of public school children, but even then 38 percent said they favored the union’s point of view compared with 22 percent for Emanuel, with 37 percent saying neither.

The telephone survey of 800 Chicago voters with an error margin of 3.5 percentage points was completed May 6, just hours before news broke that retired judges, hired by schools officials to preside over public hearings on 53 proposed elementary school closings, had objected to 13 and expressed qualms about others.

The jurists issued written reports that Emanuel’s school board is not legally bound to heed when it takes a final vote May 22 on closing more than 10 percent of elementary schools. The reports painted school officials in some cases as being insensitive to the academic and safety needs of young children living in gang-plagued neighborhoods.

School officials strongly disagreed with such assessments, arguing that the critiques of judges in some cases exceeded the scope of what they were commissioned to do: weigh in on whether closing plans followed legal dictates.

For his part, Emanuel avoided a direct answer when asked last week whether the critiques might lead his school board to back away from some school closings he wants. At the same time, the mayor stressed that the schoolchildren of Chicago deserve the benefits of dramatic change in the system.

“We have to make the changes that are necessary so our children don’t continue to go to schools that are not achieving the goals that they need to achieve academically, and (not) locking them into schools that can’t do that,” Emanuel said.

For a big city mayor, few responsibilities can be more sensitive than those where youngsters are involved.

Emanuel has argued forcefully that the city’s more than 400,000 public school children are being shortchanged by bad finances he inherited, underenrolled schools that siphon funds that could be more wisely and efficiently spent, and lack of accountability for teachers.

The poll, however, indicates that most voters don’t see it that way, helping explain why the mayor’s school closing push has been met with a wave of skepticism, anguish and resistance from parents, students and teachers alike.

There is potential political peril in that for Emanuel, who presides over a city where the poll indicates opinions on him are increasingly shaded in hues of black, white and brown.

Emanuel ran for mayor in 2011 fresh off a stint as chief of staff to President Barack Obama, and that association with the nation’s first African-American leader may have helped Emanuel gain broad support among black voters.

But the overall poll results readily suggest that the honeymoon may be over for Emanuel with minority voters.

A year ago, a plurality of 44 percent of black voters said they generally approved of the job Emanuel was doing as mayor while one-third disapproved. On Thursday, the Tribune reported that nearly half of black voters disapprove of Emanuel as mayor. While schools aren’t the only reason for that souring, they appear to be a big part of it.

The current survey found that 74 percent of black voters disapproved of Emanuel’s overall handling of schools, and 77 percent disliked his closing plans. For Latinos, the comparable disapproval numbers were 64 percent and 69 percent.

Whites were split over Emanuel’s general performance on schools, with 46 percent approving and 44 percent disapproving. On the other hand, that group backed the closings at 51 percent to 40 percent who opposed.

The demographic realities of the city’s school system may help explain big differences in racial viewpoints on Emanuel.

A far larger share of white families send their children to private or parochial schools than do minorities, indicating that whites may feel they are less personally affected by public school developments than others. According to the U.S. census, non-Hispanic whites make up nearly one-third of the city’s population, yet school district numbers show white enrollment at less than 10 percent.

The poll revealed a clear correlation between voters who disagreed with Emanuel on schools and those who didn’t think much of him as mayor. Almost nine in 10 voters who said they didn’t like the way he handles schools also disapproved of his overall job performance.

What’s more, those who disliked Emanuel’s job performance also sided overwhelmingly with teachers in the debate over improving schools: 62 percent of them backed the CTU; just 5 percent backed Emanuel.

Parents of students enrolled in public schools also have problems with the mayor, the poll found. Only 40 percent of CPS parents approved of Emanuel’s job performance, while 53 percent disapproved. By a 2-1 ratio, they don’t think he’s in touch with people like them.

Breaking poll results down by geography, predominantly white wards along the lakefront were the only part of the city where Emanuel’s handling of schools was applauded, with 49 percent of voters in those wards approving and 39 percent disapproving. Similarly, lakefront wards were the only part of the city where voters backed the mayor over the CTU, 38 percent to 20 percent.

There also is a wealth gap in views on the mayor’s school policies, the poll found. Half of voters reporting annual income over $100,000 approved of the mayor’s handling of schools, while 37 percent sided with him over the teachers union and 56 percent said they backed his school consolidation moves.

Those making less than $100,000 were decidedly more downcast on the mayor over schools. Nearly 7 in 10 of those making less than $50,000 said they disapproved, a figure that was 62 percent for those making between $50,000 and $100,000.

Copyright © 2013 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC

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