Education

Rahm Emanuel's Outrageous New Graduation Requirements Would Help the Military Recruit from the Very Schools He Guts

The city of Chicago is encouraging military enlistment as a "postsecondary pathway."

Photo Credit: Sarah-Ji / loveandstrugglephotos.com

Mayor Rahm Emanuel provoked ire Wednesday when he announced a new requirement that Chicago Public School students must prove that they are enrolled in “postsecondary pathway like a university, community college, or an apprenticeship in order to graduate. A “military acceptance/enlistment letter” is included among the options for meeting the criteria, raising concerns that Emanuel is helping the Department of Defense recruit from one of the most impoverished and racially segregated school districts in the country.

Inspired by the corporate education reform movement, the change is being rolled out by a mayor who is already widely reviled for shuttering a historic number of public schools, disproportionally impacting poor communities and children of color across the city. Emanuel’s simultaneous crackdown on the rights and job security of educational workers prompted the Chicago Teachers' Union's 2012 strike, its first in 25 years.

The new rules, which must still be approved by the Board of Education, could present one more barrier for students who make their way through a gutted school system to get the diploma that they have earned, particularly for those who do not have the resources or time to obtain evidence of their post-graduation plans. According to CBS, undocumented or incarcerated students would be required to apply for a waiver to the rule.

A press release sent to AlterNet by Emanuel’s office lists “concrete steps” that would “meet the District’s ambitious proposed graduation requirement.” The second step listed is a “Military acceptance/enlistment letter.” When reached by phone, Emanuel’s press office repeatedly declined to explain, on the record, why military enlistment was included on the list and is being encouraged by the district. The press office of Chicago Public Schools did not immediately return a request for comment.

By including military enlistment in a list of now-mandated post-graduation plans, the Emanuel administration is effectively turning the students under his care into cannon fodder for the U.S. military. He is encouraging military enlistment in a high-poverty district where less than 10 percent of students are white and roughly 80 percent qualify for federal meal programs.

Emanuel is also inviting the U.S. military to target students of color. According to a study released in February by the Chicago Urban League, “The Chicago Metropolitan Area enrolls the largest percentage of black students in public schools (22 percent of the student body) when compared to the other major metropolitan areas with populations over 1 million residents.” Meanwhile, the district is profoundly segregated. As The Atlantic noted last year, “In Chicago, 96 percent of both black and Latino students attend majority-poverty schools.” And the Chicago Urban League writes, “Even when compared with other major urban areas, the Chicago metropolitan area stands apart in its degree of economic and racial segregation.”

The students caught in this segregated school system are also targeted by the Chicago Police Department, whose pattern of racist violence against young people was documented in 2014 by We Charge Genocide, an initiative led by youth of color. A Department of Justice probe released in January documented numerous attacks against teens, including one incident in which “officers hit a 16-year-old girl with a baton and then Tasered her after she was asked to leave the school for having a cell phone in violation of school rules.”

Cesar Hernandez is a 19-year-old organizer with Chicago Freedom School who graduated from Mather High School last year. He told AlterNet that Emanuel’s rule will only compound military recruiters’ targeting of black, brown and poor students. “This is feeding into a pipeline that is making them go into the armed forces,” he said.

“Rahm Emanuel has already closed schools in the south and west sides of Chicago, and he has decreased funding every year from schools in the west and south side. Communities already lack in resources of counselors,” Hernandez continued. “He’s acting as if young people don’t know what they want to do with their lives. He’s saying that, in order for you to get out of this institution, you have to go into these programs.”

Poor people are significantly more likely to die in U.S. wars. A study published in the Memphis Law Review in 2016 found that "America’s economic downturn means that increasingly it is not the governing class, but the working class that disproportionately sends soldiers to fight and bears the burden of physical and mental war wounds." According to researchers Douglas Kriner, associate professor at Boston University, and Francis Shen, associate professor of law at the University of Minnesota, “even more than previous wars, Iraq and Afghanistan have been working-class wars.”

In an interview with “CBS This Morning” on Wednesday, Emanuel sought to portray the rule change as a tough-love initiative to boost achievement. “We want to make sure our kids do not see graduation from high school as the end point, but all of them have a plan and all of them have a specific acceptance on how to go to post-high-school education,” he said.

Emanuel’s heavy-handed layoffs have targeted counselors as well as other educational workers, making it unclear how he plans to get students the resources they need to get their graduation requirements.

Aaron Hughes is a Chicago-based member of Iraq Veterans Against the War whose mother is a teacher in the Chicago Public Schools. “They've taken everything from these communities to perpetuate war and expand militarism, and now they want to take these children from these communities and put them in them military,” he told AlterNet. “When you join the military you are taken out of your community and become part of a system that is not about serving your community, but about corporate and political interests.”

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Sarah Lazare was a former staff writer for AlterNet and Common Dreams. She coedited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahlazare.