11/24/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Head Lice or Handguns: Which Concerns You More?

My kids attend Chicago public schools. The oldest is in high school; the youngest is in grade school. I'm willing to bet that if one of their teachers discovers a case of head lice in the classroom, that school will notify my wife and me. But let's up the ante. What if one of their teachers finds a gun in the school? Will that school let us know? Your guess is as good as mine. As I learned from Chicago Public Schools officials last year, a principal is not required to share that bit of safety-related information with parents.

I want to be clear. I have no reason to believe that guns were found at either of my kids' schools last year. Of course, I also have no reason to believe that either school would have told me had it happened. I started asking CPS officials about this issue last fall, after I learned about some arrests made inside of the building where my seven-year-old attends school. I learned about those arrests not through official channels, but by cobbling together information from other sources several days after the fact. The school eventually confirmed the basic details.

In the wake of those arrests, a number of us wanted to know what type of incident would have to occur at the school before parents would be notified. When one of the principals stated in an open meeting that she would not inform parents even if a gun were found in the school, we had our answer.

While I appreciated the principal's candor, her statement definitely threw me for a loop. It prompted me to ask CPS officials whether CPS had a policy regarding parental notification when a gun is found in a school. (The answer: CPS has no written policy; the decision is the principal's to make.) I also asked whether CPS would be willing to provide parents with skeletal data about certain serious violations of its Student Code of Conduct within CPS schools each year.

Make no mistake -- I wasn't interested in tracking offenses like "smokin' in the boys room" or name-calling on the playground. I was seeking data on those offenses that CPS calls Group 4, 5 and 6 violations of the Student Code of Conduct -- things like aggravated assault, gang activity, possession of a "dangerous object," arson, etc. Would CPS be willing, I asked, to provide parents with information about the numbers and types of Group 4, 5 and 6 violations that have occurred in its schools during a given school year? I made it clear that I wasn't interested in the names of the kids involved or the discipline meted out by the schools. I certainly appreciate the issues of student confidentiality, as well as the rights of the accused.

In any event, many months after I made my request, CPS told me it did not believe the release of such information "is warranted at this time."

CPS surely has the ability to compile and provide such information. The organization generates an awful lot of data for public consumption, and CEO Ron Huberman is hard-pressed to speak for even two minutes without referring to the importance of "metrics" in his "data-driven" organization.

With just a couple of clicks of the mouse, you can slice and dice the district's ACT scores by race and gender. If you're having a hard time falling asleep, you can sift through budget information about CPS's debt service funds. And if you're interested in learning the percentage of "disabled students" who "perceive that teachers ... believe in students and encourage them to think, work hard and do their best," CPS has just the report for you. But why, you may ask, should CPS provide parents with "hard data" about guns and gangs in their neighborhood schools?

As I told CPS officials, I'd like to see that information made available because Chicago parents are consumers, as well as underwriters, of CPS's product, which is public education. Given that role, parents should be informed consumers. If CPS's "metrics" reveal that the number and nature of serious code violations exceed the comfort level of parents at a particular school, those parents can take action -- either by demanding change or moving their children to a different school.

Why won't CPS release such data (which can easily be scrubbed of student-specific information)? The folks on Clark Street will continue to cite student confidentiality concerns, but I tend to think that the information would, on balance, be too damn depressing for all concerned -- certainly nothing that would make the mayor look good.

I'm reminded of what Chicago's Civic Federation said a few months ago, when it analyzed some much-publicized claims of academic reform in our city's public schools:

The people in charge of self-evaluation within CPS have not wanted to be messengers bringing bad news. And there is no independent public evaluator either at the state or local level. The vested interests have no incentive to publicize the reality. ... Chicago's school children are still left behind; and they will stay that way until Chicago's political leaders and citizens -- especially those who live in the inner-city neighborhoods served by the worst schools -- decide that school quality and the best interests of students should come first.

In other words, keep folks in the dark about what's really going on in their kids' schools, and those folks will be less likely to raise hell.