5 Reasons to Help Fight Chicago School Closures

On March 21, Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett announced the district’s plan to close 52 schools and 61 school buildings before the 2013-14 school year; two more schools are set to close by 2014-15, for a total of 54. The Chicago Board of Education will vote on the plan later this spring, determining the fate of over 30,000 CPS students.

Critics have denounced the plan — a misguided attempt to chip away at the district’s $1 billion deficit — as a racist attack on the city’s most vulnerable communities. 53 of the 54 targeted schools serve elementary students, 90% of whom are African American (in a district that is only 40% African American). Last Wednesday, thousands of Chicagoans turned out to demonstrate against the closures; 127 were detained and ticketed.

These community members were willing to risk arrest to save their public schools. Here are five reasons why you should be, too.

1. Poverty matters

The inconvenient truth behind the so-called “achievement gap” is that out-of-school factors are three times more powerful in determining student achievement than in-school factors. For decades, teachers have been scapegoated by school reformers. In reality, much of the blame for our nation's education disparities lies with those who claim to be leaders in the “education reform” movement — politicians and corporate leaders who would rather fund privately run charter schools than equip district schools and teachers with the resources they need to develop thoughtful citizens and community builders.

What they have deemed an “achievement gap” (a phrase that conveniently suggests a community deficit in low-income areas) is, in actuality, an “opportunity gap.” These Chicago schools aren’t failing their communities; the country is failing them.

2. Like you, teachers and students are the 99%

Political conservatives and low-wage workers alike are often quick to complain about the supposedly inflated salaries of America’s public school teachers. (On a fun side note, the average teacher pay in my home state of South Dakota is $35,201, the lowest in the nation.) Yet, teachers (and their students) are part of the same lower- and middle-class communities we are. Many states require teachers to earn Master’s degrees and, like other professionals, they deserve to be fairly compensated for their investment of time, money, and energy.

An attack against teachers is an attack against all public (and, ultimately, private) sector laborers. Instead of attacking teachers, America’s working people should march alongside them, creating a united front against corporate greed and unfair wages. As Orwell said, “We could do with a little less talk about 'capitalist' and 'proletarian' and a little more about the robbers and the robbed.”

3. All kids deserve safe, quality schools in their neighborhood

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis has noted that “since 2001, 88 percent of students impacted by CPS School Actions are African American, and this is by design.” Many of the targeted schools exist in areas deemed ripe for gentrification. If 54 more schools are closed, students will be required to travel unprecedented distances every day (many, through gang turfs), while likely overcrowding the schools they are expected to attend.

4. Public schools belong to communities, not politicians or corporate reformers

Under Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s leadership, Chicago “rewards political allies with charter schools that siphon off tax dollars while shuttering schools that serve as one of the few remaining social anchors in neighborhoods ravaged by job losses and the demolition of public housing.” This trend is not unique to the Windy City. In fact, the National Center for Education Statistics reports, “From 1999–2000 to 2009–10, the number of students enrolled in public charter schools more than quadrupled from 0.3 million to 1.6 million students. During this period, the percentage of all public schools that were public charter schools increased from 2 to 5 percent, comprising 5,000 schools in 2009–10.” 

Though charter schools initially were established as labs of education innovation, today they offer private interests an opportunity to run America’s schools. New, less experienced teachers — with fewer family obligations and little to no knowledge of their labor rights — are often given preference over traditionally-trained, veteran educators. Instead of a school board comprised of parents and community members, charters typically are governed by a board of business professionals, who use business metrics to evaluate both teachers and students.

Most egregiously, these schools often under-enroll high-needs students (those who have special needs and/or are English Language Learners) and counsel out those who cannot demonstrate “proficient” mastery of state and national standards. That being said, only 17% of charters outperform their district school counterparts, while 37% perform worse.

5. Your school could be next  

School closures are affecting dozens of communities across the nation, from New York and Los Angeles to Kansas City and Cleveland. In the past decade, thousands of school doors have been shuttered, crippling communities, displacing students and teachers, and demoralizing public school advocates.

Unfortunately, school closures are just one piece of a large-scale affront against the public sector, and community efforts to curtail the closures have had little success. Currently, six cities (including Chicago) are awaiting decisions on complaints filed under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, citing the disproportionate impact of school closures on low-income, minority youth. While this may seem like a bold step, 27 similar complaints have been investigated since 2010 and, ultimately, none were deemed civil rights violations.

“We don’t have the mechanisms to affect a nationwide moratorium of school closings of any kind,” explained Education Department spokesman Daren Briscoe.  

While this alleged fact is discouraging, Americans should follow Chicago’s bold efforts to decry school closures. Circulate petitions. Attend school closure hearings. Demand a quality education for all children. Fight the re-segregation of our public schools. Support teachers as working-class comrades. And, most importantly, remind your elected officials that our democracy is not for sale, and neither are our schools.

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Allison LaFave

A veritable tumbleweed, Allison grew up in South Dakota and graduated from Harvard College in 2010 with a B.A. in Comparative Religion. Her postgrad employment has run the gamut of super-liberal jobs, including legal assistant to a police misconduct lawyer; third grade teacher in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn; and jack-of-all-trades at an education nonprofit. Allison's first big concert was Willie Nelson (take that for what it's worth), and she prides herself on her ability to make wicked mix CDs à la 1993. When she's not aggressively Googling panda videos, Allison is asserting the superiority of South Dakota over North Dakota. (Naturally.)

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