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In Chicago, a Battle Over School Closures Heats Up

As corporate school reformers push ahead with their offensive, resistance to their plans is building among ordinary Chicagoans.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Juggernautco | Creative Commons

 

On the Friday before Election Day 2012, Chicagoans got a taste of U.S. democracy in action--two tastes, actually. There was a display of democracy in action from ordinary citizens joined together in a common struggle--and an opposing display of democracy inaction by city officials and the hirelings who do their bidding.

A group of 200 parents, students, teachers and community members gathered November 2 in City Hall in front of the office of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office in a spirited and defiant attempt to have their voices heard.

According to media reports, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) may be targeting as many as 100 public schools for "actions" like closure, consolidation or turnaround in 2013. This would a bold escalation of a program of disinvestment and charterization of public schools that has been taking place in Chicago and nationwide for a number of years.

In a city where the school board is without any substantial educational experience--having been undemocratically selected by one man, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, for political reasons rather than professional skills--the message from the protesters in Chicago's City Hall was simple: Meet with parents, students, teachers and community members and take our demands seriously.

Impassioned speakers at the protest reiterated the call made in a unanimous vote of Chicago Teachers Union delegates earlier in the fall: a moratorium on school closures and other school actions.

Emanuel and CPS officials insist that the actions are needed at the schools because they are "under-enrolled" and because they face difficulties as measured by test scores. But as Dr. Pauline Lipman, a leading member of Teachers for Social Justice, said, "Schools do not fail, and they do not under-enroll--it is done to them."

Though CPS's specific plans haven't been announced, it's clear which schools will be targeted for closure or some other action--neighborhood schools in predominantly low-income Black and Latino/a neighborhoods on the city's West and South Sides. The city is talking about shutting down nearly one in every seven of the 681 public schools in the CPS system.

In addition to the closures, CPS is reportedly proposing to open 60 new charter schools in the next few years--on top of a total of 96 operating in the 2012-13 school year. School officials maintain there is no connection between the closures and the new charters--but, of course, nonunion charters are exactly what has been draining resources and students from neighborhood schools.

As Windy Pearson, a member of the group Action Now and a Local School Council member at Herzl Elementary--one of the schools facing the ax--told the crowd:

The truth is that closing neighborhood schools has nothing to do with improving education or fixing budgets. It has to do with making more room for charter schools that are operated by rich corporate businessmen. The real agenda is to privatize our schools. CPS and Mayor Emanuel want to do to our schools what Mayor Daley did to parking meters. Well, we're not going to let them!

Among the other speakers, Pauline Lipman called out the racist logic of charter-ization: "If this is so good, why aren't they doing it in white, affluent neighborhoods?" Still others focused on the issue of class size--one parent described classes of 40 or more students at Albany Park Multicultural Academy. The protesters chanted and sang civil rights movement songs into the evening. By 11 p.m., 10 people representing seven community groups were arrested for sitting in front of the closed doors of the mayor's office.

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But while the demonstrators waited in vain for a representative to speak with them, it turned out that that CPS had already done its speaking for the day.