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Letter to the Editor: Stop claiming Mayor Emanuel’s CPS plan is ‘elitist’

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Over the past weeks, a great deal of controversy has erupted surrounding Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s proposed “Learn. Plan. Succeed.” initiative to increase high school graduation requirements for Chicago Public Schools students. The proposal states that for graduating seniors to obtain high school diplomas, evidence must be provided of post-graduation plans. This can take the form of a college acceptance letter, a community college enrollment, military commitment or entry into a job or internship. Starting with the class of 2020, this plan not only could instill increased motivation in students, but also create a mindset change in the community through providing a structured path to a post-high school transition into adult life. Many have given unfavorable reviews of Emanuel’s plan, arguing it ignores the real problems facing Chicago students, or wrongly calling it elitist and discriminatory.

As a low-income student of color, I have gone through some of the same problems facing many students in Chicago who come from households of lower socioeconomic statuses. From personal experience, I know students of these backgrounds can often lack high level standards for success, compared to their peers with greater resources. Raising expectations helps to increase overall awareness about the necessary steps to achieve concrete goals. Even for disadvantaged populations, college needs to be characterized as a necessity, rather than a luxury, in order to initiate meaningful social change.

Some may argue that college itself is merely an elitist social requirement, but the realities of a modern global economy require even minimum wage workers to be more educated than formerly necessary. Emanuel’s plan could help some of Chicago’s most vulnerable youth transition into the workforce. This is the same rationale that leaders like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) often use to justify the creation of free higher education programs; Emanuel’s plan does not hinder growth, but provides pathways and tools for growth.

Dismissing an idea as discriminatory or classist without objectively examining facts simply avoids the difficult societal debates needed to solve some of our most pressing problems. In order to solve social issues, we need the government to provide solutions rooted in the free market principles at the core of this country. This requires preparing young adults for successful admittance into the workforce. The U.S. will never overcome economic inequality if the job market is not opened up to everyone; unfortunately, what holds many minorities back is the lack of a college education. Emanuel’s plan ensures that graduates not only walk out of high school with just a paper diploma, but with a plan for life.

The cycle of poverty is vicious and consuming; I have seen and experienced it myself. To escape it often requires a lot of pushing and pulling, and “Learn. Plan. Succeed.” does just that. It’s often argued that education can be the fastest ticket out of poverty. In decades past, this was satisfied with a high school diploma, but moving forward, the minimum education requirements will need to be increased, which is why Sanders, among others, has placed such an emphasis on free community college. The only way underprivileged people can be helped is if they are given access to the same privileges afforded to those of upper-class backgrounds.

Those criticizing Emanuel’s CPS plan have claimed that it discriminates against poor youth, not taking into account important situational issues. But, the CPS website clearly states that students with extenuating circumstances, such as family issues or other responsibilities, will be exempt from the requirement. Critics may say Emanuel is attempting to fix a nonexistent problem by diverting attention and keeping students deprived of resources in CPS schools. However, policy analyst Rodney Estvan told the Chicago Tribune that this plan will hopefully lead to more counselors being hired by the district, resulting in greater access to guidance toward higher education. None of the arguments against the plan take into account concrete, objective facts about what Emanuel is trying to do.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” In a way, Emanuel’s plan is similar to the education policy changes in the mid-20th century, in which many states increased compulsory education requirements. At the time, these initiatives were difficult and unpopular, but in the long run, they have led to concrete progress as U.S. society has benefited from more educated citizens. Historical precedent provides objective evidence that increasing education requirements has a beneficial impact on society. If given a chance, “Learn. Plan. Succeed.” can do the same for Chicago.

Khaqan Ahmad, SESP freshman

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