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A profile of courage in Chicago

Adam Newman | Tuesday, August 27, 2013

John Kennedy’s 1957 Pulitzer Prize winning book, “Profiles in Courage,” tells the story of eight senators who defied the interests of their party and/or the wishes of their constituents by doing what they believed was right.
A magnificent work that spans American history, “Profiles in Courage” today largely seems to tell a story of a time past than present, as there is far less courage in politics to write of today.
There are many reasons why, including the increased influence of money in politics, the rise in superpac funding that allows unlimited campaign donations from any union, be it individual or corporation. Political primaries driven by ideological extremes, the polarization of the media and gerrymandering districts are also a few main ones.
However, one unlikely member of the Democratic party, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, has shown why he deserves a profile in courage for the reforms he has backed for the Chicago Public Schools System.
Over the past 10 years, Chicago has experienced major demographic and population changes. The number of school-age children (five- to 19-years old) has declined by 18 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to census data. This has led the CPS System, with a capacity of 500,000 seats, to only welcome approximately 400,000 students and allow 140 of the 681 schools to be half-empty or more. Most of these half-empty schools are in the heavily African-American south and west neighborhoods, as the African American population has declined by 17 percent over the past decade.
The relatively low number of CPS students, in addition to the bad economy, has led CPS to face a staggering $1 billion deficit in 2013. In response, in May 2013, Emanuel’s administration announced the closing of 49 elementary schools and one high school. There has been a major outrage over this decision for many reasons, but one of the most pressing has been layoff of over 2,000 teachers and other employees of CPS.   
In a 21st-century world, providing highly effective government services at a low cost is crucial to attracting new residents, attracting business investment and growing the local economy. However, aligning policies with this vision has been nearly impossible due to politics. Chicago politicians, similar to politicians in other major cities, have used government services as a way to allow their constituents secure, decent paying jobs. While sanitation workers and janitors individually do not have much power, they have organized into large and politically powerful groups that provide their political leaders votes and campaign contributions in exchange for protecting their financial interests. This has led to policies made to benefit the special interest groups within government at the expense of the population as a whole.
While many believe it is important to protect government workers, they should know that no city with a bloated public sector can maximize its economic potential. Inefficiencies in government may save the jobs of government workers, but the subsequently necessary increase in tax revenues and cutting in other investments stifles economic growth that hurts everyone else. This is neither a Democratic nor Republican idea – it is simple economics.
There is no doubt that it is tragic for anyone to lose a job, especially in a bad economy. It is simply the way an organization must conduct itself. Top-flight organizations, such as Goldman Sachs and others have been forced to make layoffs and consolidate offices in recent years due to the economic downturn in order to stay not just solvent, but competitive. While the plan will save $560 million over ten years, CPS will invest over $200 million into the consolidated schools that will welcome displaced students.  
The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and other advocacy groups representing education workers have fought back bitterly against the cuts. The president of the CTU has called the plan “racist” and called Emanuel a “bully” and “liar”. The union has also geared up to challenge Emanuel during his re-election in 2015. With 30,000 members – all of whom live in Chicago – and deep financial assets, they will certainly make his re-election much more difficult.
Emanuel has said in response to the criticism and electoral threats, “I will absorb the political consequences so our children have a better future. If I was to shrink from something the city has discussed for over a decade about what it needed to do … because it was politically too tough, but then watch another generation of children drop out or fail in their reading and math, I don’t want to hold the job.”
There is no doubt that Rahm Emanuel is exactly what the city of Chicago needs after decades of politicians with too much profile and too little courage.

Adam Newman is a senior studying political science. He can be reached at anewman3@nd.edu.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not
necessarily those of The Observer.