March 28, 2013 7:10 pm

A Report from Chicago

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Photo by Frank James Johnson

By Adam Heenan

Yesterday the Coalition of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and the Chicago Grassroots Education Movement (GEM) held a rally and march in downtown Chicago in protest of the 71 planned school actions including 54 school closures, the largest slate of closures ever attempted in the US.  Nearly 7,000 students, parents, teachers, and community members took over the streets, and more than 150 individuals were ticketed for civil disobedience by sitting in the street across from City Hall, a testament to the dedication of the individuals ready and willing to do whatever is necessary to fight back against a failed policy of corporate education reform.

The school actions are almost exclusively in African-American and Latino neighborhoods, drawing the attention and ire of civil rights leaders like Jesse Jackson, and legislators such as Bobby Rush and a cohort of progressive aldermen.  At the legislative level, a committee for transparency, the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force has demanded that Chicago Public Schools provide a 10 year master-plan, and yet they continue to ignore the law, asking for “just one more round of closures, before a 5 yr. moratorium” last December.  Feigning transparency of its own, tens of thousands of parents, educators, and students attended community “hearings” in evenings throughout January and February, demanding NO school closures, to panels of CPS bureaucrats who noted that what was said without listening to the words.

Though this current back fight-back comes in the wake of the successful teachers’ strike in which the CTU, lead by President  Karen Lewis and members of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), school actions are nothing new in Chicago.  Teachers and community members have borne witness to the failed policy for twelve years, the first closures happening in 2002, and orchestrated by the then Chicago Public Schools chief Arne Duncan, now US Secretary of Education for the Obama administration   CORE gained attention from Chicagoans and CTU members particularly by standing up against school closings in 2008, and since it’s elected leadership the CORE-lead CTU has produced multiple research-based studies regarding issues around educational justice in Chicago’s public schools. The most recent study lambasts the mayor-appointed CPS school board for using school closings and charter-school proliferation as a means to gentrify black and brown neighborhoods with high-real estate value.

Unlike in years past, when CPS’ justification for closing and turning around schools was “under-performance,” this year, the current CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, has argued that due to $1 billion cuts in CPS’ proposed budget, we must close schools that are “under-utilized.”  Byrd-Bennett, a Broad-Foundation Executive Coach, came to Chicago in 2012 after similarly closing schools in Detroit Public.  Almost immediately after the announcement in January that according to CPS 129 schools in Chicago are “under-utilized,” organizations such as IL Raise Your Hand went to work on the math according to CPS: by definition, “underutilized” equals anything under 30 students in a classroom, and does not account for students with special needs, and according to CTU budget researchers, school closures on this magnitude will actually cost, not save, up to $1 billion.

The Grassroots Coalition lead by CTU and GEM maintain that we need to invest in our schools as opposed to close them.  That closing schools creates difficult classroom conditions for students due to transitioning into conditions of over-crowding, and increased gang-violence in a city that is already plagued with violence like few other American cities.  The Coalition maintains that the closing and turning around of schools in the manner in which the decisions are made is not transparent, and without sufficient community input, and  ultimately is a racist, segregationist policy that is more of the same failed-experiment corporate education reform that we have been subjected to for the past twelve years, and that which has similarly spread throughout the nation’s major cities, and now into the suburbs and rural areas.  While many on the outside believe that a decision has been made and all is said-and-done, readers should know that this fight will continue, and civil unrest throughout the city will also continue until our voices are heard and we have an equitable seat at the decision-making table.

For updates on School Closures, follow #CPSClosings on Twitter, and read more at