The battle over school closures heats up

November 19, 2012

The corporate school deformers are pushing ahead with their offensive--but as Mark Hannan reports, the resistance is building among ordinary Chicagoans.

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 be 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.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett speaks as Mayor Rahm Emanuel looks on
Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett speaks as Mayor Rahm Emanuel looks on

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.

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.

Earlier in the day, CPS announced that its new CEO, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, would seek a four-month extension on the December 1 deadline for announcing the list of schools slated for closure, consolidation or turnaround.

Setting aside its questionable legality, such a delay would mean that parents would miss critical deadlines for enrolling their children in educational alternatives for the next year--and likewise, it would narrow the time for opponents of closure to get their arguments and their protests heard.

The rationale given by CPS for extending the deadline only confirms that officials have been unable to find authentic grounds for continuing to close neighborhood schools while simultaneously opening charter schools. But Emanuel and the city remain stalwartly opposed to the proposed school closures moratorium. On the contrary, neither the mayor nor Barbara Byrd-Bennett has agreed to speak with anyone opposing the closures.

For those familiar with the newest big-salary, out-of-towner brought in to run CPS, this should come as no surprise. Despite the language of a recent letter sent home to CPS parents championing a "rigorous and respectful community engagement process," Byrd-Bennett has made a career out of ignoring community input--and being accountable to one person only.

Byrd-Bennett got her first taste of unaccountable autocratic control as the superintendent in New York City's Chancellor's District. The "district" was a haphazard conglomeration of schools deemed to be performing poorly and heaped together under the control of Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew. After two years of Byrd-Bennett heading it up, the Chancellor's District was said to be a "national model for turnaround school efforts."

In 1998, Byrd-Bennett was appointed by Cleveland Mayor Michael White to be the CEO of Cleveland Public Schools, also under the exclusive control of the mayor. For seven years, Byrd-Bennett rang up an impressive list of scandals and abuses, ranging from spending disproportionate amounts on voucher students and outside "cosmetic" renovations to schools; to mismanaging resources and manipulating data; to awarding herself a $54,000 bonus the same year she fired 52 assistant principals and 172 school teachers.

Byrd-Bennett is alleged to have have treated herself to lavish dinners and extensive travel paid for out of a special fund provided by wealthy Cleveland business interests. Critics claim many of those same business interests were on the receiving end of "tax abatements, exemptions and reductions on property taxes" doled out through CPS policy decisions made primarily by Byrd-Bennett.

Meanwhile, during her seven years in near-complete control, the Cleveland Public Schools showed no "marked academic improvement," according to Voice of Detroit, an independent newspaper.

But if her slow-motion failure in Cleveland wasn't proof enough, Byrd-Bennett's time in Detroit showed she can also wreak havoc at a fast pace.

In 2009, Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb--invoking his complete control over Detroit Public Schools (DPS)--hired Byrd-Bennett as Chief Academic and Accountability Auditor. Paid over $200,000 despite working only two days per week, Byrd-Bennett quickly found herself at home with the disinvestment, privatization and cronyism synonymous with Bobb's oversight.

While continuing to raise the district's debt Byrd-Bennett handed out lucrative upper management positions to her friends and former colleagues; contracted with her son-in-law, Edmenson Suggs, for a $107,250 analysis of the DPS athletic program (which never materialized), and facilitated a historic $40 million book contract with her one-time employer Houghton-Mifflin Publishers.

FOR CHICAGOANS concerned with the state of public schools, this should raise significant red flags. But it should also sound familiar--the city has followed a similar agenda, though not at the same pace, in recent years.

The minor difference between Chicago school leaders is that the former CEO Jean-Claude Brizard led successful attempts to close, downsize, and turnaround public schools by attacking schools as "underperforming"--whereas Byrd-Bennett has swiftly the rhetoric to be about "under-enrollment."

As her bread-and-butter approach--so successful in Detroit that the district has over 54,000 students enrolled in charter schools--the rhetoric of under-enrollment plays fast and loose with the truth. In fact, under-enrollment is often an outcome of the very same policies used to justify school closures.

Despite their differences in tactics, Brizard and Byrd-Bennett have a lot in common. For example, Brizard was a 2007 graduate of the Broad Superintendent Academy, were Byrd-Bennett served as Superintendent Executive Coach starting in March 2006.

In fact, the list of graduates from the Broad Superintendent Academy reads like a veritable Who's Who of urban-school district leaders--often enough, in districts under direct mayoral or state control. For his part, Robert Bobb graduated in 2005--current or past leaders with ties to the Broad Foundation program include New Orleans, Oakland, Washington, D.C., St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Minneapolis and others. And the list expands exponentially when it includes individuals serving in other management capacities.

This overabundance of public school officials with connections to the Broad Foundation poses sharp questions about who is really running the public education in the U.S. More and more, the answer seems to increasingly involve the "philanthropic" foundations of three billionaires: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. There are other big-money foundations involved in what education reform expert Joanne Barkan calls "venture philanthropy," but these three are the main players.

Aside from their astronomical wealth, one common theme unifies these three foundations--a belief that schools should be run like businesses, not schools. This is most easily shown by the fact that Broad's Superintendent Academy and Residency in Urban Education programs recruit almost exclusively from people who are former business executives or who have earned MBAs.

By and large, district superintendents, high-level managers and charter school operators who graduate from these programs are not educators--and this is by design.

The result of private wealth and corporate values being injected into public education over the last decade has been an unprecedented lurch toward the privatization and corporatization of public schools. Unless it is confronted, the end result of this seismic shift could well be the wholesale takeover of public education by wealthy private interests.

But among students, parents, teachers and community members, some people are calling out this theft of our schools for what it is. The Chicago teachers' strike this past fall shows the extent to which ordinary people are willing to stand up and fight. The support and solidarity for teachers in September united individuals and communities across racial, socio-economic and geographic boundaries in a common defense of the right to public education.

This same spirit mobilized the diverse crowd that gathered in City Hall on November 2. As Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey told the protesters:

Our message is clear--we are not going to stand by and allow these fat cats to strip our schools of their resources and put people out of work in order to further line their pockets with our dollars. We want the mayor, the board and their politically connected billionaire friends to know that parents, teachers, students and the community are going to do whatever we can to save these schools and give our students the resources they need.

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