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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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In the board’s view, Ritter said, that means getting rid of high-seniority teachers, who in these neighborhood schools are usually African American women -- and who are more expensive because of their seniority -- and replacing them with young whites from the suburbs who’ve been through a one-year “alternative certification program,” with six weeks of student teaching.

Deficit or Surplus?

The second reason the board gave for closing schools was a claimed billion-dollar deficit. But, Ritter said, every year the board projects a deficit but ends the fiscal year with a surplus. A year ago a $700 million deficit was predicted, but by last summer the board was $300 million in the black.

The board claimed that closing the 54 schools would save $560 million on construction and $43 million on operating expenses over the next ten years. But studies by the Pew Charitable Trust and Washington, D.C., auditor have found school closings don’t end up saving much money. School buildings are often difficult to sell and must be maintained, even when empty. Teacher leaders said vacant schools will blight already struggling neighborhoods.

So the teachers union  disputes the estimated savings. In Washington, D.C., then-Chancellor Michelle Rhee said in 2008 that she would save $23 million by closing 23 schools; instead the closings cost the district $40 million.

All along the board cited these budgetary reasons for closing schools, saying any closures had nothing to do with performance. But finally Byrd-Bennett said she would put on the list only the worst-performing schools -- the so-called “level 3s” -- again, those that had been disinvested from, with constant upheavals in staff and leadership. She promised that children from closed level 3 schools would move only to level 1 or level 2 schools. In a third of the cases, though, the transferred-to schools are also level 3.

The CTU wants the mayor to put more resources into schools, not fewer, and union leaders claim that reforming the city's tax increment financing system could put as much as $300 million back into school coffers. TIF programs were originally established to channel tax dollars directly into fixing up low-income neighborhoods, but now are being used to subsidize development in the city’s glitzy downtown.

How to Stop It

Sharkey said there are still opportunities to influence city leaders and decision-makers, at a time when gun violence is plaguing the city and many Chicago communities are not recovering from economic hardship.

“We are trying to give a vision about how we can actually stop this,” Sharkey said. He noted that today’s protests are part of a continuing plan to involve more Chicagoans in the struggle.

“The challenge we face is that the actual decision-makers are insulated from democratic decision-making,” he said.

No one made this more evident than Rahm Emanuel, off on a skiing holiday when the closings were announced, while  Byrd-Bennett said the closings were evidence CPS officials were “actually listening to parents” and that there was “incredible support” for the closings in the affected communities.

There will 213 new hearings now that specific schools have been named, according to Sharkey, and thus more opportunities to pressure lawmakers and appointed school officials. “If we do 213 begging sessions that is going to be really bad for us,” Sharkey said. The union wants to “turn them into organizing sessions.”

“If we build a large enough movement,” he said, referring to protest tactics of the civil rights movement and the 1960s, “we can provoke a real political crisis in the city. The mayor is going to have to figure out what he is going to do.”

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