The corporate deformers strike back

December 13, 2012

Rachel Cohen reports on the city's war on public schools--and the efforts of teachers, students, parents and community groups to build a grassroots resistance.

IT'S TEXTBOOK disaster capitalism: Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the city's new CEO of the public school system, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, are retaliating for the Chicago Teachers Union's (CTU) nine-day strike in September that succeeded in holding the line against corporate school "deform."

Now, some 140 of the district's nearly 600 public schools hang in the balance.

Each year for the last decade, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has taken disciplinary actions to close, turn around, consolidate or otherwise restructure neighborhood schools it judges to be "underperforming"--while opening new charter and contract schools that offer a boon to well-funded, corporate charter operators.

This year, Byrd-Bennett, notorious for decimating public school systems in Cleveland and Detroit, is threatening to impose five years' worth of school closures at once.

Speaking ominously about the need to "right-size" the district in Chicago, Byrd-Bennett got state lawmakers to waive a state law requiring that planned closures be announced in December. Meanwhile, she has promised sweeping cuts--and justifies them with a budget crisis manufactured by the CPS board in July and claims about what she calls "underutilized" schools that are supposedly draining dwindling resources.

Chicago education justice marching for an end to school closures last spring
Chicago education justice marching for an end to school closures last spring

In its budget for the 2012-13 school year, CPS chose to wipe out every penny of its financial reserves--not to fund desperately needed repairs to crumbling schools or hire the staff required for the rich curriculum and wrap-around health and counseling services Chicago's students deserve, but to open a modest number of additional seats in prized selective-enrollment schools and to float another $76 million to charter schools.

As a result, the school system's credit rating was downgraded by Moody's. But more importantly, the structural inequalities at work in Chicago's apartheid school system grew more extreme.

Schools throughout Chicago's predominantly Black and Latino South and West Sides experienced continued, systematic disinvestment, even as they were surrounded by a cordon of charter schools sapping their enrollment--at least for those students able to navigate the charter application procedures and survive the routine disenrollment of students with behavioral or learning challenges after the charters receive per-pupil public funding at the start of each school year.

As a consequence, CPS now claims it has 140 "underutilized" neighborhood schools, where enrollments don't match the district's standard--which is set at a ludicrously high level of overflowing.

As a parent at a recent public hearing on planned closures pointed out, the "underutilization" excuse for wiping out schools is racist to the core. CPS only considers small classes to be a waste of resources where the vast majority of students are Black and Latino.

Since 2001, 88 percent of students affected by CPS school actions have been African American, and 80 percent of schools targeted have had student populations that are 99 percent students of color.

A NEW report published by the CTU has brought these staggering facts to light. "The Black and White of Education in Chicago's Public Schools--Class, Charters and Chaos: A Hard Look at Privatization Schemes Masquerading as Education Policy" delivers a powerful analysis of the interests driving such shock doctrine measures and the effect on school communities.

The report explains that Renaissance 2010--CPS's program of school destabilization and privatization that served as a model for nationwide attacks on public education--was drafted by the Commercial Club of Chicago. The Club's corporate elite could pay higher taxes to fill the district's need for funding without breaking a sweat. Instead, they fill their own pockets by backing policies that hand public school facilities and funding to a network of unaccountable private firms and foundations.

This year, Byrd-Bennett sold the Club, along with city and state politicians, on a plan to push back until March 31 the announcement of just how many of the city's supposedly underused schools would be closed. That's months after the deadline for parents to choose alternative schools for students displaced by closures.

In exchange, Byrd-Bennett promised not to seek any new closures for the following five years. But she didn't promise anything about "turnarounds," where a school's entire staff is fired, nor about consolidations and phase-outs, closures by other names.

Bizarrely, Byrd-Bennett claimed in her speech to a packed Commercial Club luncheon that by leaving the closures a looming threat for several additional months, CPS would be more accountable to affected communities. She said:

In the past, there has been too much uncertainty around changes to our schools. Year after year, Chicago Public Schools did not do an adequate job of engaging communities in these critical decisions, and year after year, students, families and communities were left wondering of what was to come. That ends this year.

It's true that each year, teachers, parents and students have fought for their schools to be spared--and too often, they are disappointed. Last year, parents organized to occupy Piccolo Elementary, which was slated for turnaround. Despite bitter opposition, all 17 schools targeted for destructive disciplinary action were approved by a rubber-stamp vote by the billionaires on the appointed school board.

Somehow, Byrd-Bennett reasons that refusing to tell school communities whether they will come under this year's budget ax will be more "engaging." The decision to push back the announcement represents a calculated effort to deflate resistance and buy additional time to gauge just what scale of devastation the city can get away with, in the aftermath of a teachers' strike that united and inspired Chicagoans to stand up for teachers and schools.

But if this logic worked with the Commercial Club, it hasn't fooled the student, union, parent and community activists dedicated to the fight for education justice.

BITTER EXPERIENCE has proven that school closures endanger students forced to travel, often across gang lines, to new schools; damage educational outcomes at receiving schools that are destabilized by an influx of new students; and deepen inequalities as facility and funding resources are extracted from neighborhoods already blighted by poverty, high unemployment, evictions and foreclosures, and cuts to public services.

Plus, the closure of up to a fifth of public schools would hit the teachers' union hard. Already, years of closures, combined with the opening of charter schools, has led to a drastic fall in the number of Black and Latino teachers a district where students of color predominate.

Already, the CTU has collaborated with a broad range of community organizations to protest the threatened closures and challenge the mythology that the charters are superior. In early November, hundreds of people protested and sat in at City Hall, where leading corporatizers like Republican Bruce Rauner enjoy unchecked access to Rahm Emanuel. City officials showed they preferred to arrest 10 activists rather than grant a single meeting with the mayor.

In early December, CPS convened a commission to study underutilization that called for a series of poorly publicized hearings around the city. So far, the hearings have largely drawn out parents, students and teachers incensed by Byrd-Bennett's threats.

On December 8, the CTU joined with the Grassroots Education Movement--a coalition of union, parent and community groups--to host a third annual education summit. The summit is usually timed to gather activists to respond to the latest round of threatened school closures.

This year, some 600 people came together, representing an impressive range of struggles. Workshops were led by CTU teachers, clinicians, students, parents and activists to focus on issues like the need for wrap-around services; alarming trends of overtesting that dominate classroom time and curricula; utilization of Local School Councils, which were the result of grassroots demand for community control of neighborhood schools; and the myths and realities of charter proliferation.

During two breakout sessions, students from Engelwood High School on the South Side and Lane Tech on the North Side were joined by activists from Social Justice High School, where walkouts and sit-ins helped turn back a series of firings and course cancelations last year. They discussed the need for greater funding for their schools, which lack the corporate donors, private scholarships and well-organized fundraising efforts of charters.

Parents opposed to overtesting pointed out that not only does the emphasis on high-stakes standardized tests shape curriculum, but it cultivates a competitive, unequal system. Rather than seeing their kids pressured to perform well enough on a Scantron to make it into a great, well-resourced school, parents want all Chicago's children to have excellent public schools in their neighborhoods.

A session on charterization revealed the profitable interests behind the charter schools, whose performance consistently trails the testing results of Chicago public schools. Charter teachers and organizers described from their own experience how the drive to cut costs and attract corporate sponsorship place extraordinary burdens on individual teachers. These teachers tend both to be less experienced and lower-paid than those in public schools. And charters divert decision-making and evaluation to the oversight of managers with business degrees, but no teaching credentials.

Clinicians spoke about how thinly stretched vital staff has become in a district where only 200 nurses serve all of Chicago's schools and counselors take on high school case-loads of up to 360 students.

A final, packed workshop was devoted to a strategy session on fighting closures. Participants broke into groups based on regions of the city, where teams brainstormed ideas for actions, targets and allies. Plans for further citywide actions are developing.

AT ITS December 19 meeting, the Board of Education is expected to announce plans to open more charter schools, following up on a deal known as the Gates Compact. Signed in 2011, the agreement promised that CPS would "match" $100,000 of funding from Microsoft magnate Bill Gates' "philanthropic" Gates Foundation with $23 million more in public funding for charters!

Though the Board's meetings are cloistered and unresponsive to community participation, activists are preparing to protest the hypocrisy of the Compact arrangement--where taxpayers provide 230 times more funds than a billionaire puts up--in the midst of a supposed budget and "underutilization" crisis.

The CTU and its allies in the education justice movement are also planning a big rally for Martin Luther King Day weekend. These steps will be critical to building a citywide rebellion that demands an end to all school closures, effective immediately.

Years of localized struggles in defense of individual schools have inspired and trained leading activists in the hardest-hit neighborhoods. The threat of an unprecedented set of closures this year requires a truly massive and unified resistance.

The people profiting off the destruction of public education won't give up their efforts to break the CTU and turn community schools into private test-score factories without tremendous pressure. The priorities of the city--and the luncheon tables where politicians dine with the city's wealthiest elites--will have to be turned upside down to stop the closures and fund the schools Chicago's students deserve.

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