Behind the racist school closings agenda

Lee Sustar looks at what's driving the school closings in Chicago and beyond as activists prepare to protest at City Hall on March 27.

Students and parents at Lafayette Elementary School march against their school's threatened closure (Bill Healy)Students and parents at Lafayette Elementary School march against their school's threatened closure (Bill Healy)

CHICAGO PUBLIC Schools (CPS) has set a dubious new record for school closings in announcing plans to close 54 schools, shutter 61 buildings and "turn around" six schools as part of 71 "school actions."

It's one of the most aggressive moves yet by so-called education "reformers," and its consequences will be felt nationally. The growing movement to defend public education will have to step up its efforts--not just in Chicago, but across the U.S.

In this city, there's nothing new in the substance of the policy--relegating Chicago's African American students to inferior education in the name of "reform." As Catalyst, the publication covering Chicago schools, notes: "Nearly 90 percent of the students in the closing schools are Black, though African Americans make up only about 40 percent of the district's entire student population" on the city's South and West Sides.

What you can do

In Chicago, join teachers, students, parents and community activists for a Rally and March to Stop School Closings on March 27 at 4 p.m. at Daley Plaza, 50 W. Washington.

Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) President Karen Lewis blasted Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who controls the schools through his handpicked board of education:

Closing 50 of our neighborhood schools is outrageous and no society that claims to care anything about its children can sit back and allow this to happen to them. There is no way people of conscience will stand by and allow these people to shut down nearly a third of our school district without putting up a fight. Most of these campuses are in the Black community. Since 2001, 88 percent of students impacted by CPS School Actions are African American. And this is by design.

The closures are a by-product of a plan launched nearly a decade ago: Renaissance 2010, a project of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, which aims to dramatically increase the number of charter schools in the city. While corporations bankroll new charter schools, CPS has systematically shut down 10 or 15 neighborhood schools each year.

The pretext has changed: in past years, the reason was that CPS schools had to be shuttered because of poor academic performance. This year, the reason is that they are "underutilized." So rather than lead the nation in smaller class sizes, CPS has decided to further entrench overcrowding in the schools and disrupt the lives of children and everyone who lives in their communities.

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THE CLOSURE of public schools isn't just an issue for Chicago, of course. School closings are being used to speed the privatization of public education in cities across the U.S.

In New Orleans, charters have virtually replaced public schools in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. In Detroit, some 41 percent students attend such schools. In Cleveland, tax money is being used to pit charters against traditional schools. In Philadelphia, nearly the entire school district is to be handed over to nonprofits, academic institutions and charter operators--but first the city has ordered the closure of 23 schools.

But the biggest fightback so far has come in Chicago, where community organizations have been resisting this agenda for more than a decade. When a new, more militant leadership took over the CTU in 2010, the union threw itself into the fight against school closings--not only to save teachers' jobs, but also to preserve neighborhood schools as part of the cohesiveness of the community. The CTU won its strike last year on the basis of a public program to defend public education and challenge the apartheid character of Chicago's schools.

In the aftermath of the strike, the CTU issued another study about the impact of racism in the city's schools: "The Black and White of Education in Chicago's Public Schools". The report highlighted the racist character of the city's actions:

Black communities have been hit the hardest--three out of every four affected schools were economically poor and intensely segregated African American schools.

These students face a wide range of challenges outside of school, including high levels of violence and trauma, but are still expected to serve as test subjects for unproven school reform schemes. Schools serving wealthier and whiter students would never be expected to fire the entire school staff; yet, this disruptive tactic has been used repeatedly on the South and West sides of Chicago. Moreover, school actions like closures and turnarounds disproportionately target experienced African American teachers. In 2011, African Americans--26 percent of all teachers--represented 65 percent of teachers in schools tapped for closure and 40 percent of tenured teachers laid off.

Parents, teachers and advocates for public education in the city, in fact, are drawing on a long history of resistance to racism in this city's schools, with lessons for everyone who wants to stop the corporate school reform juggernaut.

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FROM THE first attempts to steer the growing Black population into segregated schools in the 1930s to today's more sophisticated, corporate-backed "education reformers," Chicago politicians and school authorities have carried out a persistent effort to keep Black students in segregated, inferior schools. In the 1920s and 30s, that meant channeling the city's booming African American population into ghettoes.

Over the decades, there's been a constant theme: Prestigious business elites claim to act on the basis of civic virtue while Democratic machine politicians connive with real-estate speculators to make a buck. The ward heelers of 75 years ago would envy at today's setup, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel 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.

It's no coincidence that the South Side lakefront and the nearby Bronzeville neighborhood have seen a disproportionate share of school closures since the 1990s, as developers have pushed gentrification in the area. When the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) undertook a "plan for transformation" in the 1990s that involved the demolition of high-rise housing units and the dispersal of residents into the federal Section 8 subsidized housing program, one of the first targets were lakefront properties in an area long sought by developers.

Since then, the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization (KOCO) has linked the fight for affordable housing to the defense of neighborhoods schools. KOCO's Jitu Brown summed up the struggle last year: "We tie it to a gentrification agenda. We tie it to a racist agenda. We feel like the voices of parents and the people most directly impacted are not respected."

If this sounds like a conspiracy theory, take a trip--in person, or through Google's "Street View"--to the site of the Cabrini-Green housing development on Chicago's North Side, populated overwhelmingly by African Americans. The largely demolished buildings have given way to expensive row houses and upscale retail stores, as Rory Fanning noted.

With the nearly completed demolition of Cabrini-Green has come school closures. Sojourner Truth Elementary School was closed a decade ago to make way for a charter school. Nearby Schiller Elementary was shut down five years ago. In its place: Skinner North Classical School, a selective-enrollment school with an enrollment that's 41 percent white and 23 percent Asian.

Another example of the school closings/gentrification dynamic is Lathrop Homes, another predominately African American housing development on the city's North Side. A low-rise development along the river, Lathrop never experienced the social problems of Cabrini-Green and other housing projects. But it sat on valuable real estate and had to go.

With the demolition came the shutdown in 2010 of George Schneider Elementary School to make way for the Alcott High School for the Humanities, which admits students by lottery.

The Alcott High School is paired up with an elementary school of the same name, providing the largely white student population in the upscale Lincoln Park neighborhood with a way to bypass the competition for the city's selective-enrollment high schools. (Alcott School decades ago had a predominately Puerto Rican enrollment before an earlier wave of gentrification transformed the area).

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THERE ARE some changes in these policies, of course. The corruption in CPS under Prohibition-era Mayor Big Bill Thompson, when school officials blatantly looted the system, has given way to a parade of Power Point presentations in which CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett explains to school board members why the district must be "right-sized" by shuttering neighborhood schools because of a decline in the city's population of school-aged children.

The corrupt patronage these days comes not from adding Cousin Ed to a no-show job in the basement of CPS headquarters, but through city funds funneled to politically connected private businesses that take over city services.

Exhibit A is the United Neighborhood Organization, better known by its acronym UNO. While it presents itself as an advocacy group for the city's Mexican-American community on the Southwest Side, UNO's fortunes soared under former Mayor Richard M. Daley, who relied on the organization to politically corral the fast-growing population of Mexican immigrants and turn them into reliable votes for machine-approved candidates. When Rahm Emanuel announced his intention to succeed Daley, UNO boss Juan Rangel was an early supporter. The benefit to UNO: its emergence as one of the top operators of charter schools, all of them nonunion.

Complaints about UNO's charter operations and connections to City Hall have for years been shrugged off as carping from naïve leftists who can't face up to the failures of CPS and Chicago Teachers Union officials bellyaching because UNO charter teachers have stayed nonunion. Now, thanks to an investigation by the Chicago Sun-Times, we know better: Rangel and his cronies siphoned off millions in state money for their operations to benefit family and friends. The scandal has put so much pressure on UNO that, after years of viciously fighting every effort at unionization, UNO has finally agreed to be neutral toward teachers' efforts to organize.

But Rangel is far from the only beneficiary of CPS's effort to downsize itself. Each year, the district hosts a charter school fair that's promoted on city buses and leaflets around town. By contrast, in 2012 CPS canceled its own low-key annual exhibition of selective enrollment and lottery-based schools, ensuring that mastery of the complicated process and tips for entrance exams are left to disproportionately white middle-class parents who have the time and resources to research such matters.

If CPS is losing student enrollment, it's in part because school officials are showing them to the door. As the CTU report on school reform notes, "Underutilization is CPS's excuse to close and/or consolidate neighborhood schools in Black communities and hand over facilities to unaccountable private operators." Chicago billionaire Bruce Rauner proposes buying up 100 closed schools and leasing them to charter operators, setting up private investors to skim taxpayer money and get tax deductions.

Yet if CPS kids show up at charter schools with special needs or emotional and behavioral issues, the charters often "counsel them out"--that is, push them back toward CPS.

Then there's CPS's own quasi-charter "turnaround" system--handing over "failing" schools to the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL), which takes over schools after CPS fires the staff and rehires only a select few.

Launched by a Chicago financier, AUSL has colonized CPS. Former AUSL leader and Chicago Board of Trade boss David Vitale is president of the Chicago Board of Education. His sidekick, Tim Cawley, ran finances at AUSL before taking his current job as CPS chief operating officer.

Dwayne Truss, a community activist in the Austin neighborhood in Chicago's West Side, pointed a finger at AUSL at the February 27 meeting of the Chicago Board of Education: "The mayor and the corporate community's sole purpose is to privatize schools--neighborhood schools--in African American and Latino communities. We reject all school actions and proposed turnarounds which only promote crony capitalism, and not a quality education for our children."

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ACTIVISTS AREN'T about to surrender, however. Teachers and community groups plan to keep up the protests and demand that CPS provide for the safety of children who will be forced to cross gang boundaries to attend new schools. Parents of students in schools long starved of resources will hold the school system accountable for providing the promised libraries and air conditioning that were denied to underfunded schools. And grassroots parent activists across the city--along with the CTU--will keep pressing for smaller class sizes.


This will mean the renewal of a long-term struggle for racially equitable education in Chicago, which has historically centered on segregation and overcrowding in the city's schools.

"Double shifting"--forcing African Americans to attend schools for half a day to relieve overcrowding--was a chronic problem in Chicago schools from the 1930s through the 1960s, until a mass boycott movement finally forced CPS to address overcrowding and oust its reactionary schools chief. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor noted that the often-forgotten Chicago school boycott movement mobilized 224,000 Black students to stay out of Chicago public schools in October 1963, and tens of thousands more students would boycott in the following years.

Building that kind of movement will take time. It was, after all, nearly a decade into the civil rights movement in the South before the Chicago struggle took off. Today, working people are still struggling to recover from the effects of the worst recession since the 1930s.

At the same time, it's disorienting to many activists when Democrats like Rahm Emanuel--formerly President Barack Obama's right-hand man--pushes this agenda. There's a bipartisan agreement that there's no alternative to austerity whether its across the board cuts in the federal budget, a slashing of the post office or the "reform" (privatization) of public schools. After all, if Social Security and Medicare are on the chopping block, is it really possible to save neighborhood schools from closure?

The answer is yes. The rising activism across Chicago--and around the country--highlights a growing realization among parents, teachers and students that the corporate plan to dismantle public education has nothing to do with improving education.

The protest against school closings set for March 27 in Chicago will be an important step toward giving that sentiment voice. The corporate school reformers won't stop until they've completed their privatization agenda--unless we stop them first.