Taking on the board in Chicago

March 3, 2009

Jesse Sharkey, a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and delegate from Senn High School, describes how a new coalition challenged the board's plans to close or reorganize almost two dozen schools.

HUNDREDS OF parents, teachers, community activists and students held an angry picket in front of the Chicago Board of Education (CBOE) offices on February 25 in a last attempt to influence the vote on the future of 16 public schools.

The event marked the third large protest by activists during this round of attacks by the board.

Like they have each year in the past, the CBOE voted unanimously to close, consolidate, phase out or "turn around" the targeted schools. But shortly before the February meeting, the board announced reprieves for six schools originally on its hit list.

In previous years, board decisions were met by intense but largely localized protest, centered in the affected schools, but mostly ignored, including by the citywide media.

This year, the movement against the announced closures included the protests, a persistent press strategy and the participation of new forces, like the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) and a more active Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) leadership, plus several community groups. Together, they formed a coalition the Grassroots Education Movement.

Protesting the threatened closure of 16 public schools in Chicago.
Protesting the threatened closure of 16 public schools in Chicago.

The new, more militant tone was set early when teachers, some activists with CORE and some not, spoke out at the December CBOE meeting. It continued in January at a hearing attended by 500 people that linked the attacks on public schools to the city's Renaissance 2010 plan--a blueprint for school privatization and union-busting.

The protest changed the mood in the city, and for the first time put Mayor Richard Daley and his allies on the defensive. For example, when Ron Huberman, a career cop and former head of the Chicago Transit Authority, was named to replace Schools CEO Arne Duncan after he was drafted to be President Obama's Education Secretary, Huberman was booed in board chambers.

The removal of six schools from the chopping block marks the first time that the board has backtracked on its announced plans since Renaissance 2010 school closings were implemented.

None of the 22 schools originally announced were targeted fairly. But many activists believe the six schools spared the cut were well organized and spoke out in their own defense.

Teachers from Peabody and Holmes were regulars on protests and had begun picketing some of Renaissance 2010's corporate sponsors. Staff and parents at Yale and Hamilton organized brilliant hearings in their own defense, and Las Casas supporters managed to get their school's plight reported on the front page of the Chicago Tribune.

The usually pro-board media were forced to cover the opposition, for example, reporting that board members didn't read the testimony from the hearings, and that Franczek Sullivan, the law firm that provided many of the hearing officers, represents the CBOE in labor negotiations.

Not surprisingly, these stories and others were pushed by activists, whose own coverage of these events can be read at substancenews.net. But the new climate meant these stories have gotten a broader hearing.

At last year's vote, the CTU sent three staffers and made no serious attempt to mobilize its membership. This year, all the union's officers and best activists attended, and the union faxed notices to schools, opened its offices to phone banking, and showed up with picket signs and bullhorns.

The 16 schools and the activists who made this issue a dinner-table conversation throughout Chicago will keep fighting. A piece of legislation sponsored by Illinois state Rep. Cynthia Soto that would put a moratorium on school closings and reorganizations has made its way out of committee.

Our side will need to stay united. The new teachers' caucus CORE has been both the spark and the glue for this round of the fight. But can CORE translate its success at citywide activism into success in CTU politics?

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