You can't sell us on charters

Rory Fanning reports from Chicago on an outpouring of community opposition to public school closures at a "community" meeting set up by pro-charter forces.

Parents, teachers, students and community activists protest CPS plans to close more neighborhood schoolsParents, teachers, students and community activists protest CPS plans to close more neighborhood schools

AT LEAST 400 parents and teachers packed the gymnasium at Chicago's Truman College on January 28 for the first of several scheduled citywide "community engagement" programs funded by the pro-charter school Walton Foundation.

The Walton Foundation--supported by the profits from the proud, union-busting corporate giant Wal-Mart--has given $478,000 to the Children First Foundation, a not-for-profit set up by Chicago Public Schools (CPS).

This money is being used to hire Loran Marketing Group to study and survey parents and teachers who face the possibility of more than 100 local schools being closed. With this supposed "community input," Loran Marketing and CPS hope they'll find propaganda techniques to help avoid the hostile climate that fueled support for the Chicago teachers' strike last fall.

Loran slated an hour-long PowerPoint presentation on its "vision" for the future of school closings in Chicago, to be followed by an hour-long breakout session where the audience could discuss their feelings and be studied by analysts. The media would be banned from the latter segment.

Phillip Hampton, CPS's executive director of "Family and Community Engagement," kicked things off. Two or three sentences into his introduction, he said, "CPS's primary concern was the welfare of each and every student."

"We don't believe you!" shouted a few voices from the stands. This triggered heckles, which eventually turned into a wave of shouts and chants later in the evening. Hampton proceeded, trying to ignore, yet visibly disturbed, by further comments like, "Get off the script!" and "We've heard this already!"

In front of a largely African American and Latino crowd, Hampton finally handed the microphone over to the all-white, suit-clad lineup of analysts from Loran Marketing Group. They picked up where Hampton left off and began to inaudibly outline the CPS/Walton Foundation "vision" for Chicago schools. The slides--seemingly intended to sedate the audience--were blanketed in impossible-to-read fine print and graphs.

At first, much of the audience didn't know what to make of the interruptions, but soon a majority was stomping their feet, clapping their hands,and yelling in unison: "No charters!" "The money is there!" "You have money to arrest our kids, but none to educate them!" "The people united will never be defeated!" and "They say cut back. We say fight back!"

The presenters stood with their faces flushed, often pausing awkwardly for extended periods. The whole dog-and-pony show was an embarrassing joke. It was eventually cut short at the 40-minute mark, when people refused to divide into discussion groups.

CPS and the Loran Marking Group came to pacify parents, teachers and students. Their hour-long "infomercial"--as CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey called it in an interview with the local ABC affiliate afterward--that was supposed to convince community members to support school closures had the opposite effect. As the audience made clear, "Don't close our schools--any of them!"

Recognizing the presenters' general confusion at the outcome of the event, one activist snuck up, grabbed the microphone and echoed a chant, "What do we want? Proper funding for all of our schools!" He received the loudest applause and endorsement of the evening.