Chicago school closings challenged

By DAVID BERNT

— CHICAGO— Students, parents, and teachers from across the city are fighting back against what could be the largest school-closing plan in U.S. history. Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s handpicked school board has proposed closing 54 public elementary schools, primarily in the heavily African American south and west sides of the city, affecting more than 30,000 students.

In the face of this unprecedented attack on public education a tidal wave of protest has erupted from the affected communities. Close to 10,000 people demonstrated in downtown Chicago at the end of March to protest the proposed school closings. Thousands of parents and students have packed community hearings on the closings throughout the city to send a message to the school board that their schools will not be closed without a struggle.

The Chicago Teachers Union, fresh off a massive strike last September, has continued its fight against Rahm Emanuel’s attempt to privatize public education by leading the struggle against school closings.

Emanuel claims these schools are “underutilized” because of enrollment declines. While enrollment has in fact declined in many of these areas, largely due to gentrification, activists note that the schools are not underutilized. The CPS board’s underutilization statistics are based on a 30 student per classroom formula, hardly a reasonable size for an elementary school.

Despite his claim that all he cares about is improving the education of Chicago students, Rahm Emanuel and his appointed school board have ignored extensive research showing that smaller class sizes improve student performance and graduation rates. Recently, a CPS spokesperson was quoted as saying that class sizes don’t matter, and that a high quality teacher “could take 40 kids in a class and succeed.”

Additionally, the proliferation of charter schools has siphoned off students from the traditional neighborhood schools. Charters, which are non-union and unaccountable to local school councils, have been lauded by corporate “reformers” as the panacea for the social problems facing impoverished urban school children. Yet CPS’s own statistics show charter schools do not outperform neighborhood schools.

The real intention of charter schools is to weaken the teachers’ union and undermine community and parent influence on their children’s education while allowing enterprising and well-connected “education” organizations to profit from the spoils of privatizing.

A case in point is the United Neighborhood Organization (UNO), the largest charter school operator in Chicago. UNO’s director, Juan Rangel, is a big-time Chicago political power broker, a critical Latino vote mobilizer for the former Mayor Daley and later for Rahm Emanuel.

The Chicago Sun Times recently exposed Rangel’s end in this political deal. On top of his own six-figure salary, the Sun Times revealed that Rangel siphoned millions of tax dollars to friends and family through construction and other contracts with the charter schools he controls.

CPS claims it is facing a $1 billion budget shortfall necessitating the school closings. CTU and community and parent organizations have noted that the closings will result in nominal cost savings in the long term but will cost more money in capital costs in the short run. Activists have pointed out that hundreds of millions of dollars of property taxes are diverted from CPS to Tax Increment Finance funds, which are used by the mayor to dole out tax breaks and subsidies to developers and corporations.

Past beneficiaries of the funds include Boeing, Sears, and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. While the school board pleads poverty, it plans at the same time to open dozens of additional charter schools. It doesn’t take a fifth-grade math class to understand the arithmetic of Rahm Emanuel’s priorities.

While Rahm Emanuel and his political benefactors laugh all the way to the bank, 30,000 Chicago school children are paying the price. In addition to disruptions such as losing developed student-teacher relations is the fact that many elementary-school children will have to walk as much as 10 blocks through crime-ridden neighborhoods.

Community-teacher protests have already had success. The school board had initially planned to close 123 schools, but scaled down its plan and removed all high schools from the closing list. The Chicago Teachers Union and community organizations have vowed to continue the fight until all schools are taken off the closing list. CTU has called for parents to have their children report to closed schools on the first day of instruction in the fall—an act of mass civil disobedience in the spirit of the Occupy movement.

As massive cutbacks sweep across the nation’s school districts, the movement in Chicago provides a critical example of how to fight back.

Must-see video on Chicago schools crisis: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f79AqKTiSgs

Photo: Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis speaks to press after strike vote in June 2012. By M. Spencer Green / AP