Update: Chicago’s School War

Against the Current, No. 165, July/August 2013

Rob Bartlett

CHICAGO PUBLIC SCHOOLS took a hit on May 22nd as the appointed Board of Education of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) voted to close 50 schools, of the 54 originally targeted for shutdown — in the largest closing of public schools in U.S. history. This was done despite an outpouring of opposition, expressed by thousands of parents in more than 100 meetings mandated by state law to allow parental and community input into the process.

Additionally, two simultaneous three-day marches through the south and west sides of Chicago drew hundreds of marchers who passed through many of the neighborhoods to be affected by the closings. The vote is yet another move to weaken public education, destabilize Black and Brown neighborhoods, and punish the Chicago Teachers Union in the wake of the CTU’s successful strike last fall.

This is a real blow to struggling communities where neighborhood schools are one of the few remaining stabilizing institutions, to students who will be forced to transfer to other schools further from their homes — often at greater risk of violence when they cross gang boundaries — and to teachers and other support staff who will lose their jobs.

The entire process highlights the undemocratic nature of the school system in Chicago, which remains one of the most segregated systems in the country. Of the schools slated for closure, the vast majority are in predominantly African-American or Latino neighborhoods where the Board has disinvested for years and promoted charter schools that have siphoned off students from the neighborhood schools.

The Board was mandated by state law to produce a list of schools proposed for closure last December, but the CPS board lobbied the state to allow them to postpone public disclosure of their list for three months to shorten the time for opposition to the closings to organize.

Despite this, an impressive outpouring of vocal opposition and public opinion opposed the closings spearheaded by “Mayor 1%” Rahm Emanuel. A Chicago Tribune poll in early May found that 60% of the public opposed the closings, while only 30% approved;  among parents of public school children the numbers in opposition rose to 75%. Views on whom they trusted on educational issues were similarly lopsided in support of the CTU over the mayor.

Many people felt that their opinions didn’t matter after Rahm stated that the time for debate was over, even before all the hearings had occurred. A sign of the depth of public opposition to the closings was reflected in reports by retired judges, who oversaw the public hearings, to recommend that 13 of the 54 schools not be closed due to concerns over safety and other issues raised during the hearings. The decision of the school board to ignore the judges’ recommendations is now subject to a lawsuit by CTU.

As the struggle evolved, parent groups like Raise Your Hand exposed the flawed formulas used by CPS to claim that schools are underutilized. Unless classes had 30 students on average, they were labeled under-enrolled and in many cases the CPS formula allowed class sizes of 30 to 36 students per room. The accommodations and needs of special education students were completely ignored in the utilization formulae.

One of the arguments of the Mayor and his hatchet woman, CPS CEO Barbara Byrd Bennett, was that students would be moved to better performing schools. However, the majority of the designated “welcoming schools” often had test scores indistinguishable from the schools slated to be closed. They were often similarly underresourced.

The growing coalition of parents, community organizations and unions opposing the mayor’s plans needs to reassess and retool for the fights ahead. Campaigns for an elected school board, to oppose mayoral control, stop the flow of money from schools into TIF districts, and to tax the rich are under discussion. [TIF stands for “tax increment financing,” a scheme that drains huge sums from CPS. See http://www.chicagomag.com/Chicago-Magazine/The-312/April-2012/How-Much-Do-TIFs-Cost-the-Chicago-Public-Schools/ for a discussion of how it operates — ed.]

Pressure for an electoral campaign in opposition to Rahm will pose questions for how to continue organizing a movement to fight cuts in public services, forge deeper links among parents, teachers and the community, while also pressuring elected officials on the local and state levels without falling into a purely electoral strategy.

July/August 2013, ATC 165