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Are the Chicago School Closings Racist?

Almost all of the 54 schools targeted for closing serve primarily black and Latino students. All are in poor neighborhoods, affecting 30,000 students and 1,000 teachers.

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Bad for Kids

CTU organizer Martin Ritter, a former high school teacher, said teachers oppose the closings because they would “further disrupt already impoverished neighborhoods,” families’ lives, and children’s learning, besides furthering the privatization of public education.

School closing opponents are also concerned that making kids walk further to school, and especially across territory controlled by rival gangs, puts them in danger. Johnson asked, “Is this going to discourage students from regularly attending school?”

Jesus “Chuy” Campuzano, a South Side activist, attended several hearings and described them as a puppet show. “We turn on the news and hear about shootings all over Chicago,” Campuzano said. “We feel that you close more schools down, more shootings and violence in the city.”

In fact, Ritter said, high schools initially on the closing list were removed precisely because of the threat of gang violence.

Only two members of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s appointed seven-member school board have work experience in the Chicago Public Schools, Ritter said. “We firmly believe the mayor of Chicago and his education advisers know little about public education,” he added. “None of them know anything about these neighborhoods.”

Teaching Under Duress

Teachers and school workers are, of course, wondering about their job security if school starts next year with 54 fewer campuses. A key issue in the recent strike was what would happen to teachers displaced by closings.

The union made some critical gains in that area. Teachers now follow their students to their new schools, with seniority. And now at least half of new teachers hired must come from the pool of displaced teachers. But teachers lost ground on how long they are paid while in the displaced teacher pool, from a year down to half a year.

Teachers knew, though, when the strike was over, that they were facing an even bigger fight over the future of public schools in Chicago, one that would require sustained and growing activism. In the 2011-2012 school year, 10 schools were closed and seven “turned around” -- a process that involves firing every staff member, from principal to janitor, almost none of whom are rehired. Six turn-arounds are proposed for this year.

In November, teachers held a  sit-in at City Hall to protest potential closings, and 10 people were arrested when they refused to leave without speaking to the mayor.

A Disaster of Their Own Making

The union opposes what leaders call a “manufactured crisis”: a series of intentional policy decisions to underfund public schools while boosting charter schools. Once public school enrollment drops, the board can close public schools and justify charters.

The board’s rationale for closing schools has changed from month to month. The original reason was what it called too many “empty seats,” claiming that CPS had lost 145,000 students between the 2000 and 2010 censuses. But the correct figure, it turned out, was only 30,000.

If the targeted schools have empty rooms, Ritter explained, it’s because, unlike wealthier schools, they lack science and computer labs, music rooms, art rooms, libraries with librarians.

And teachers question whether low enrollment is an issue at all; CPS is using 30 students per class as a measure for whether a school is fully utilized. Brandon Johnson is worried that class sizes will only rise.

“We know that these school closures are setting things up for class sizes that are out of control,” he said. “That is terrifying. Class size is a predictor for student outcomes.” A CPS spokeswoman argued in the Chicago Sun Times that even 40 students in a class is acceptable for Chicago schools, if led by what she described as a successful teacher.

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