CHICAGO, IL -- On June 14, the Chicago Public Schools sent layoff notices to 850 school employees, including 550 teachers. The layoffs will hit hardest at those teachers working in African American and Latino communities. These are the communities that were targeted in the system's recent decision to close 49 schools - the largest single school closure in U.S. history.
Many view the layoffs and closures as payback by Mayor Rahm Emmanuel for a bitter but successful 9-day strike by the Chicago Teachers Union last September. But it is also a blow, not just to the public school system, but to the city's schoolchildren themselves.
The reality of budget cuts
The district is implementing massive budget cuts rather than look for the funding schools and children need. The union has proposed "redirecting tax increment financing (TIF) surpluses back to public schools, ending tax loopholes or raising a new tax levy for pensions that would stabilize the CPS budget."
Instead, at Kennedy High School, for instance, a reduction from $15 to $13 million will cause the elimination of four of its five counselors, the school librarian, a clerk and special education personnel. Blair Elementary, which focuses on special education, is getting a 75% budget cut, and will lose seven special ed teachers, one general education instructor, and up to eight paraprofessionals.
The education reform program of Mayor Emanuel has convulsed Chicago, with the third largest school system in the United States, since he left a position as White House aide in 2010, and was elected the city's chief executive.
Emanuel, a former Congressman and investment banker, has become a darling of the U.S. education reform lobby by implementing its demands for privatizing the public education system through establishing charter schools - privately-owned, for-profit schools that receive public financing - by attacking the Chicago Teachers Union, and most recently, by pushing forward the huge school closure.
The number of charter schools, which receive public money while being freed of many work and collective-bargaining rules, has doubled in Chicago since 2005, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. There are now about 100 of them in the city. The Emanuel administration has called for 60 new charter schools by 2017.
This is part of a concerted wave of privatization nationally. After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, instead of reopening closed public schools and rehiring teachers, city administrators turned to charter schools that now enroll more than 70 percent of students. Chicago's Center for Urban School Improvement, for instance, set up charter schools bankrolled by the Gates Foundation. One charter network alone, United Neighborhood Organization, runs 13 campuses serving 6,500 students. Charter schools are almost entirely non-union, and some have fought unionization efforts by teachers with the same ferocious tactics employed by private industry. Teacher salaries in Chicago average $74,839, according to CPS, while charter teachers average $51,000.
Protesting budget cuts
Since the mid-1990s, when Chicago Mayor Richard Daley took control of the city's schools, the mayor has had enormous power over them. Daley held office for 22 years, and implemented a widespread program of privatization of city services. That, and the decline of the city's industrial base, led to the flight of 200,000 people, of whom 180,000 were African Americans. While "white flight" was a phenomenon of the 60s and 70s, today the loss of decent jobs and deindustrialization makes it more and more difficult for African American and other working class families to survive in large cities, as the cost of living there goes up.
Daley began the privatization of the school system by closing "underperforming" schools, mostly in Black and Latino neighborhoods, and firing large numbers of teachers. Between 2001 and last year, the Chicago Public Schools district closed about 100 schools. Arne Duncan, the CEO of CPS during many of those years, was appointed Secretary of Education by President Barack Obama, who himself rose out of the Chicago political system.
Last September, Mayor Emanuel provoked a bitter 9-day strike by the Chicago Teachers Union, one of the largest affiliates of the American Federation of Teachers, by demanding that teachers' pay be tied to a "merit" system rather than a negotiated salary scale, as well as provisions to weaken their job security. The union, with widespread support among parents, defeated him. The strike became also a fight over the privatization and school closure program, although under U.S. law these are not issues for collective bargaining.
Afterwards, in what many view as an attack on the union, the Board of Education proposed in December to close dozens more schools. Thousands rallied and marched on March 27 in opposition, organized by the Chicago Teachers Union, UNITE HERE Local 1, SEIU Local 1 and the Grassroots Education Movement. They demanded that the district stop the closures and slow the expansion of charter schools, and focus on investment in public schools in working-class neighborhoods.
CTU President Karen Lewis urged students, "On the first day of school, you show up at your real school. Don't let these people take your school!" Over a hundred people were then arrested in acts of civil disobedience outside City Hall.
AFT President Randi Weingarten sent them a message, saying, "Chicago's reckless mass school closure agenda will destabilize neighborhoods, threaten our children's safety, fail to improve learning or save money, and create a domino effect of destabilization in schools across the city. It is part of a disturbing trend in cities across the country by the powers that be to ignore what parents, students and teachers demand and what our children need in favor of failed policies."
Out of the 54 schools proposed for closure in 2013, 88 percent are African-American and only 125 of the 16,119 total students-0.78 percent-are white. The racial and economic polarization of Chicago was visible in the announced closure of George Manierre Elementary, where the surrounding neighborhood includes both the townhouses of one of the city's poorest public housing projects, and the burgeoning condominiums of the well off, costing millions of dollars.
As marches swept the city, young 9-year-old Asean Johnson became a firebrand spokesperson. Not even tall enough to see over the lectern at one rally, he shouted out to Mayor Emanuel "You should be supporting these schools, not closing them!" He voiced parents' anger at the racial bias in the closures as well. "It is 90 percent of school closings [that affect] African Americans. This is racism right here," he declared. But later he added, "No matter what the color is, no matter if you're Asian or Chinese, it doesn't matter. You should not be closing these schools!" Finally, in front of the board itself, he led parents and teachers chanting, "Education is a right; that is why we have to fight!"
Johnson's role reflected that of students in other cities fighting closures. In Philadelphia, where the board is closing 23 schools, mostly in African American and Latino neighborhoods, students walked out of classes May 17. AFT President Randi Weingarten was one of those arrested in an earlier protest on March 7.
On May 18, Chicago students, parents and teachers organized a three-day March for Educational Justice. Following the march, the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, took four schools off the list, including Marcus Garvey Elementary, Asean Johnson's school.
Hecka children left behind
Then on May 22 the Chicago School Board announced its decision to close 54 schools. Parents and teachers shouted and wept as the board deliberated. One, Wanda Wilburn, told them, "These parents and these teachers are not dollar signs. They are people with feelings and lives." Their protests saved five schools, at least for the moment, including Manierre Elementary.
The Chicago Sun-Times said the board's decision was made "in less time than it takes to boil an egg." The Chicago Tribune, the mayor's close ally, called it "a good day for CPS because it begins the process of reinvention," which it defined as the "benefits of shifting kids into higher-performing schools [and] closing old, bulky, half-empty school buildings." Diane Ravich, education professor and former Assistant Secretary of Education, called it "a day of infamy in Chicago and in the history of American education. School boards exist to protect, improve, and support public schools, not to kill them."
"These were political decisions, not decisions made in the best interests of children." accused Weingarten. Karen Lewis called it "a day of mourning for the children of Chicago. Their education has been hijacked by an unrepresentative, unelected corporate school board, acting at the behest of a mayor who has no vision for improving the education of our children. Closing schools is not an education plan. It is a scorched earth policy."
Critics accused the board of using false and misleading claims to justify the closures. 46,000 students will be affected, they say, not 30,000. The board claims public schools had lost 145,000 students. In reality, enrollment had declined by 75,000, and 47,000 of those students had gone to charter schools, making the real figure 28,000. Most of the city's loss of students happened 30-40 years ago, at the height of deindustrialization. The school district claimed a "$1 billion deficit" made closures necessary, but in fact, since students don't disappear, and other schools will require more funding, there will be no cost savings at all from the closures.
Some closures seem directly designed to benefit charters. In 2011 the district tried to close Jacob Beidler Elementary School and turn it over to a charter. Teachers and neighborhood parents marched against it, and the proposal was temporarily withdrawn. This year, it was back on the closure list.
In a reaffirmation of her role in the strike and in fighting the closures, Karen Lewis was reelected CTU President by a wide margin shortly before the board announced the closures. In response to the decision, she announced the union would join legal suits against the district, accusing it of discrimination against disabled students, of racial bias, and of violating the recommendations of independent commissioners.
The union also declared that it would begin a political campaign to oust the mayor, City Council and state General Assembly members who supported the closures. It called for a voter registration campaign to enroll 100,000 new voters, and to build a neighborhood organization to get them to the polls.
"We will go door-to-door in neighborhoods where people's schools have been shut down and their jobs have been lost," Lewis said. "We may not win every seat we intend to target but ... we can win some of them."