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Monday, April 21, 2008

$100 million for museum?

Think what that cash could do for schools

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

Maybe we're asking the wrong question when we debate whether the $100 million Chicago Children's Museum should be built in Grant Park.

A better question is: Why is anyone spending $100 million on a children's museum in the first place?

When the civic good hearts go about raising the $100 million in private money for the controversial museum in Grant Park, they should ask themselves: Isn't there a better way to help the children? The answer is: Yes there is. Especially when Chicago's children have a crying need for better schools. Think of what $100 million could do by duplicating the demonstrable successes of, say, Marva Collins Preparatory School on the South Side.

The assumption that a children's museum is a good way to spend $100 million shouldn't go unchallenged. Yet, whether it is wise to pour all that money into a children's museum has been completely overshadowed by whether it should go into Grant Park or elsewhere. As far as I'm concerned it should go elsewhere; the proponents haven't made the case for plunking it into a lakefront park, since it has nothing to do with the lakefront or a park.

When it comes to which is the superior benefit—superb schools for hundreds more Chicago kids that $100 million could buy, or a fancy place where kids occasionally can go to turn knobs, mold clay and have an "educational experience"—the schools win hands down. Not that there's anything wrong with turning knobs and molding clay. However, there are things called priorities. Putting scarce resources where they will do the most good. Cost effectiveness. The greater good. You get the idea. I wish the museum backers would too. Take the $100 million and create some alternative, private schools. Or help support those that already are changing the lives of poor kids, kids from broken homes, kids afflicted with bad teachers or victimized by unmotivated and violent classmates. The kids that Mayor Richard M. Daley keeps talking about when he declares that the museum must go into Grant Park.

If we had more schools, such as L.E.A.R.N. Charter School, maybe we would have fewer shootings and killings, including one that started with a shove in the hallway of one of city's scary public schools. Or, maybe more high school graduates. One reason that we're not getting such schools is that parents are denied the publicly funded vouchers that they can use to choose where to send their children. Why? Because the interests of public school workers and their unions, the political system and the established order of things forbid it. What could a school such as Chicago Jesuit Academy do with $100 million? The West Side school has made life better for young men of "modest means" with its small classes, longer class day and longer school year. Its "wish list" includes library books, baseball mitts and even a three-hole paper punch for the office. L.E.A.R.N. Charter School, formerly the Lawndale Community School, is so successful at educating the disadvantaged that it gets 1,000 applications for a couple of hundred slots from parents hungry to give their children a better opportunity. San Miguel independent middle schools are in the Back of the Yards neighborhood and in the Austin neighborhood. Cristo Rey Jesuit High School serves Pilsen. The list goes on, and I'm sorry that I'm leaving a bunch off. There are others employing both innovative and traditional methods to change lives. The schools are the city's bread upon the water, whose benefits are returned to our community in many and unexpected ways.

For the sake of discussion, let's assume that $100 million, wisely invested, earns a 10 percent return, or $10 million annually. Chicago Jesuit Academy says it takes about $12,000 to educate one student for a year. That $100 million could create an endowment that would educate 833 students a year.

True, that doesn't sound like much when we're talking about hundreds of thousands of kids caught in the school system. But that's 833 more every year saved from the depredations of the city's school system. And if 833 isn't enough, then the civic-minded should raise another $100 million. Unfortunately, that kind of cash isn't fungible. It's harder to raise $100 million when donors know it would quietly disappear into desperate inner-city schools, instead of being on display in Chicago's front yard as a concrete and steel monument to their egos.

3 comments:

John Cox said...

Good thought Dennis. $100 million could help anything but the Chicago Public Schools. Putting more into that system is not going to cut the bureaucracy or upgrade the teachers. Energy is what is needed; energy derived from competition and the fear that they would lose students to private schools. Vouchers are the only way to awaken that energy and truly educate kids the way we need to.

John Cox

Anonymous said...

Thank you for bringing this to the attention of the public. I have long believed that the city should be concerned with education and infrastructure rather than beautifying the city for tourists. And that is exactly why the Mayor wants the Museum where he does - the tourists will love it.
More important, as you pointed out, why DO we need it? Schools are failing; many children have no hope for the future, infrastructure needs maintenance/rebuilding, and we still plant flowers and vie for the Olympics. Misplaced priorities are the least of it; the hopeless future of many children is the point.

Anonymous said...

Yes, $100 mil is excessive, but what the mayor wants the mayor gets. Sure the schools need money but throw all the money you want at schools and it still won't make some parents prioritize educ'n, or make them put their kids to bed at a reasonable time, or shut off the TV, etc.
BAD PARENTS ARE A VARIABLE THAT NO AMT OF MONEY CAN FIX!
The private/charter school concept only undermines existing public schools and move us further away from success. THE ANSWER? SCHOOL STARTS AT AGE 3 INSTEAD OF 5. OR MAYBE WE NEED TO INTERVENE AT BIRTH IN SOME CASES.