Rahm’s scorched-earth assault on our schools

March 4, 2013

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has a list of 129 schools he might close--with devastating consequences for students, parents and teachers, reports Nicole Colson.

A WAR has been declared on public education in Chicago.

It's being waged by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his fellow Democrats, by charter school operators, and by the city's business establishment. Its aim, among others, is to undermine and cripple the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU)--payback for the CTU daring to stand up to Emanuel with its nine-day strike last September.

It's a war whose casualties will be teachers, communities and kids--tens of thousands of Chicago schoolchildren whose lives will be irrevocably disrupted if Emanuel and his handpicked school board get away with closing up to 129 neighborhood elementary schools.

The main battle today is over these schools on the chopping block, but that isn't the only front in the war--just as Chicago is far from the only city where public education is under assault.

The war is being waged across the country, from New Orleans to Detroit, and Los Angeles to Philadelphia. Public schools are being gutted--sacrificed on the altar of austerity, with excuses like "budget deficits" and "underutilization."

Students join with parents, teachers and community activists to stand against threatened school closures
Students join with parents, teachers and community activists to stand against threatened school closures (Sarah-ji)

In city after city, political leaders and public school officials are ignoring the voices from the communities that will suffer the most--invariably the poorest neighborhoods, and disproportionately people of color--and ramming through closings, even as they allow for-profit charter school operators to swoop in and open up new facilities, sometimes in the same buildings that were shut down.

This project is being pushed from the top of the federal government--and on this issue, there's not even the proverbial dime's worth of difference between Republicans and Democrats.

The Obama administration's "Race to the Top" program is driving the school "reform" and privatization agenda--with its provisions that tie extra education funding to states passing new laws to clear the way for more charters and to make teacher evaluations dependent on students' test scores. This model of education isn't about measuring teacher effectiveness, but weakening job security and diverting money and resources from the public system into the charters.

Back in 2010, when the U.S. Secretary of Education said that Hurricane Katrina was the "best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans"--because it cleared the way for the charter school takeover of the public schools--you could be forgiven for wondering how some right-wing Republican psycho won such an important position in the Obama administration.

But sure enough, it was Barack Obama's old friend from Chicago, Arne Duncan, who gave voice to the consensus among Democrats and Republicans alike--that the trauma inflicted on New Orleans, particularly its Black and poor population, was a price worth paying to turn the city into a laboratory for school privatization.

Corporate America is just as enthusiastic about school "reform" as the politicians. Using buzzwords like "innovation," "education reform" and "public-private collaboration," billionaires Bill Gates and members of the Walton family are funding the ideological offensive in defense of increased standardized testing, testing-based teacher evaluations, anti-union initiatives and more charter schools.

Their interests are easier to understand when you learn that the giant textbook publisher Pearson has a contract to produce Texas' standardized tests worth half a billion dollars--and media baron Rupert Murdoch hired the former chancellor of the New York City public schools to create an education division so Murdoch's News Corp. could get in on the action.

Little wonder that charters and standardized testing are high on the list of priorities for the school privatizers--right next to bashing teachers' unions.

With the highest unionization rate of any occupation, teachers and education workers are one of the last remaining bastions of organized labor--something like three in every 10 union cards in the U.S. are held by members of the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association.

The union-busters of both parties, not to mention Corporate America, would like nothing better than to see teachers' unions crippled and ultimately destroyed--and they're ready to use the excuse of education "reform" to do it.

ONCE AGAIN today, the epicenter of the battle over the future of public education is Chicago.

Last September, Chicago teachers held the line in their strike against the city, pushing back the reformers' most drastic demands. The CTU was able to mobilize unprecedented community support behind their struggle by tying together the issues of kids' learning conditions and teachers' working conditions.

With support from across working-class Chicago, and especially from the parents of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) students, the CTU proved it was possible to stand up to Emanuel and the reformers, and put forward an alternative vision of what our schools could look like.

That vision is based on the idea that every child deserves a fully funded school, with vital resources like textbooks available on the first day of class and heat throughout the wintertime; that students deserve wraparound services like counselors and social workers; and that standardized tests can't adequately measure a child's abilities nor a teacher's performance.

As Barack Obama's former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel had returned as Chicago's mayor with the teachers' union firmly in his sights. He was certain he had a "silent majority" of Chicagoans on his side when he presented the CTU with an insulting contract offer and basically dared them to strike.

Emanuel was wrong. With teachers rock-solid on the picket lines in communities across the city, and with support for the unions growing, not shrinking, over the course of the nine-day walkout, he was reduced to sputtering in front of the television cameras.

But after having to give up on many of the concessions he demanded from the teachers in that round, Emanuel and his new CPS CEO, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, have launched a different kind of attack.

Each spring for the past few years, the number of CPS schools on the list of those under consideration for closure or "turnaround" has grown. But this year, in a blatant act of vengeance for the strike, Emanuel and Byrd-Bennett are going for broke--the preliminary list of schools that could be closed because of supposed "underutilitization" is 129--over one-quarter of the total public elementary schools in the city.

The city claims these schools need to be shut down to save money and balance the budget. But even CPS officials admit that each closed school will save at most between $500,000 and $800,000--and their private estimates put the number as low as $140,000 per school.

That's a drop in the bucket compared to what the city claims is a $1 billion Chicago Public School budget deficit. Then again, the $1 billion figure is highly suspect considering that similar claims last year turned out to be false. According to an audit by the CTU, CPS has not a $1 billion deficit, but a $344 million budget surplus.

THUS, THE latest "crisis"--and the solution of school officials to close "underutilized" schools and consolidate students into "receiving schools"--is manufactured.

As Chicago Reader journalist Ben Joravsky noted, if the city wanted to solve the alleged deficit, it has the money--starting with the so-called tax-increment financing fund (known as TIFF), a slush fund made up of diverted property tax revenues and controlled by the mayor to be released to the developers he wants:

[The mayor] says he wants to save money by closing underutilized schools. Fair enough. But the controversial metrics he uses to define underutilized are fixed so that hundreds of schools could fit the bill. And the money he'll save by closing schools is relatively paltry--once you calculate the cost of transferring teachers, moving kids, mothballing buildings, etc. It certainly can't be worth this turmoil...

And, of course, you could find the money you need to keep these schools open by dipping into the TIFF slush fund--$1.4 billion and counting. Why, they could probably hire art, drama and music teachers in every school just by taking the $29.5 million [Emanuel] wants to give to some of the world's richest developers to build an upscale skyscraper in one of the wealthiest corners of town.

It's also hard to know what CPS means by "underutilized." An independent investigation of CPS data by the Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education coalition found that "76 percent of CPS elementary schools had entire grades above the recommended class size limit set by CPS in 2011," according to Catalyst Chicago.

Clearly, the statistics that supposedly show underutilization at more than 300 schools have been manipulated.

Meanwhile, with more than 100 school closures looming over students, parents and teachers, CPS is continuing to approve new charter schools, backed by private groups including the Walton Family Foundation.

Anyone worried about school budget deficits might want to take a look at United Neighborhood Organization (UNO). One of the main charter operators in the city, UNO has $67.8 million in outstanding debt, despite having received $100 million in state money in 2009--the largest subsidy ever given to a charter operator in state history, according to Isabel Nunez in the Huffington Post. This year, UNO is asking for another $35 million from the state.

Yet Emanuel defends opening new charters, even as neighborhood schools are threatened with closure, because "there's a level of choice there," he claims. For the majority of CPS students, however, charters--which rig admissions to keep out the students they don't want--aren't any choice at all.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Public Schools are being reduced to a bitter competition that the teachers' union compares to The Hunger Games:

Chicago Public Schools has told Chicagoans that if they want a school to stay open, they will have to fight for it. They will have to beg for resources that should be available to all, and in a sadistic game put forth by CPS, where individuals and their lives are mere pawns, parents, children and teachers are pitted against one another in a battle for a basic citizen right--a neighborhood school.

The consequences of the closures would be devastating: For teachers forced out of jobs they have held for years, for parents scrambling to find school alternatives for their kids, and for students who have to attend new schools--which for some will mean taking their lives in their hands by leaving their neighborhoods and traveling across gang boundaries in a city where 319 school-age children were shot during the 2011-12 school year.

BUT ACROSS the city, people are refusing to accept Rahm's edict--and are fighting to keep their schools open.

The outrage has been felt at public forums held about the closings. Hundreds of parents, students, teachers and community members packed the meetings around the city--in the Pilsen, Uptown, Wicker Park and Austin neighborhoods, and many others. The anger has been palpable--and school officials were left scrambling to find a way to justify closings.

At one meeting on the city's Southwest side, more than 1,000 people attended. "We're not stupid!" Deborah Wilicki, a teacher at Kanoon Elementary School, told the officials arrayed at the front of the room. "We know what you're doing. The fact that we have to come here and beg for what already belongs to us is a travesty."

Alexia Gonzales, whose children attend Pickard Elementary School, said: "I'm not here for one school. I'm here for Pilsen...Where is my tax money? Going to charter schools? What we need is arts and music. We need basic physical things, like a roof. Respect my teachers. Let them teach! Support our schools, don't break them!"

At a "community engagement" meeting in Uptown--this one funded with money from the Walmart Foundation and designed to "survey" parents and find ways to market the school closings in a more palatable fashion--400 people packed an auditorium, yelling at flustered moderators: "No charters!" "The money is there!" "You have money to arrest our kids, but none to educate them!"

Meanwhile, many of Chicago's aldermen--who largely lined up behind the mayor's teacher-bashing during the strike--are now trying to sound like defenders of public schools. The 1st Ward's Proco "Joe" Moreno went on Fox Business News during the strike to denounce the CTU. Now, he appeared recently at a packed school closings forum in the Logan Square neighborhood to try to claim he's fought for public schools--but was promptly booed off the stage.

It could be that those in the room caught more than a whiff of hypocrisy from Moreno--who, in addition to teacher-bashing, is a charter proponent and graduate of the UNO 2005 "Metropolitan Leadership Institute."

Aldersheep like Moreno may try to save neighborhood schools in their ward--but their strategy plays into the CPS "Hunger Games" by pitting parents and kids from different schools against one another in a fight over supposedly scarce resources.

As the CTU rightly argues, we should oppose all school closings and stand up against Rahm's scorched-earth war on public education--because the future of our kids and communities is at stake. As the union said in a statement, "Our children, their families and teachers deserve better. They deserve a guarantee."

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