Starving schools to shut them down in Chicago

December 14, 2017

Carlos Enriquez and Joe Andrews report from Chicago on a proposal that will close down four public schools--and what activists are doing to try to stop it.

DAYS AFTER returning to work from a long holiday weekend on November 28, Chicago teachers at John Hope College Prep and Harper High School were told their schools would close in June 2018, according to a proposal that the Board of Education is set to approve in February.

A few days later, the board added two more high schools to the chopping block: Paul Robeson High School and Team Englewood Community Academy. Teachers were left in the dark about what the closures would mean for their employment.

All four schools are located in Englewood, a predominantly Black, poor and under-resourced neighborhood on the city's South Side that is regularly stigmatized by the media, inside and outside Chicago.

High rates of gun violence and crime are the first things many people associate with the neighborhood, but when the whole story is told--one that exposes city officials' blatant neglect and divestment of Englewood and other South and West Side neighborhoods--a more complex picture emerges.

Not only does this portrayal misrepresent the reasons crime occurs to begin with, but it contradicts the fact that crime rates in Englewood have actually decreased 10 percent over the last year.

Parents, community and staff protest the planned closure of Harper High School on the South Side
Parents, community and staff protest the planned closure of Harper High School on the South Side (Chicago Teachers Union | Facebook)

While Donald Trump and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel continually call for more funding for an increased police presence in neighborhoods like Englewood, the city closes schools and guts social services. The effects of these cuts are then blamed on the people who suffer most from them.

THE CITY of Chicago is no stranger to vicious assaults on public education.

In March 2013, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) announced it would impose "school actions" on 71 schools throughout the city, including the closure of 54 elementary schools. Of those 54, an overwhelming majority were located on the city's South and West Sides.

At the time, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and the city's education justice movement rightfully deemed the proposed closures a continuation of education apartheid. In fact, of the thousands of students affected by the 2013 closures, 88 percent were Black.

The announcement for the closures took place less than six months after the historic 2012 CTU strike, which highlighted the full-blown racist attacks that the city of Chicago had been waging on public schools for years. The strike also showed the world a glimpse of what was possible when teachers, students and communities fight for the right to public education.

The announcement to close over 50 schools was a clear gut punch to all advocates for public schools, but it didn't stop the movement from building a resistance to Emanuel and CPS's draconian agenda.

In response to the announcement, the CTU, along with various community groups, organized a three-day series of marches through the South and West Sides to send a message to Emanuel that the movement wouldn't back down, as well as to expose the impact these closures would have on their respective communities.

In addition to the marches, there were public forums and even school occupations led by parents and neighborhood associations.

In the end, the movement was unable to save all the schools from closing, but we were victorious in saving a few, including George Manierre Elementary in Old Town, a neighborhood that has seen some of the city's most aggressive gentrification plans following the demolition of 24 public housing towers.

But more importantly, this heroic struggle to save those schools can serve as a blueprint for the type of fightback that will be necessary to confront this latest wave of racist school closures.

TODAY, EMANUEL and the Chicago Board of Education argue that the closing of "under-enrolled" and "underutilized" schools will save the city money for the construction of newer and better schools.

In its current proposal to close the four Englewood schools, the city claims it will use the $85 million in saved funds to help build a new high school in Englewood, according to CPS.

But not only does the city regularly fall short on its promises--at least when it makes them to poor and working folks--but the new school, if built, wouldn't open its doors until the fall of 2019. This means the 330 displaced students will have to find some other school to attend for the year in between.

As has been the case in the past, these displaced students will likely have to travel miles outside their neighborhoods to make it to class each morning.

Taken out of context, the closure of four "underutilized" schools in exchange for one great school in the neighborhood might not sound so bad, but past events have shown how the city presents these deals as progressive--while they time and again ravage poor and working communities.

The direct correlation between school closures and increased poverty and joblessness shows, vividly, the devastating effects of these closures across the city.

This time around, students, parents and teachers are already gearing up for a fight, in hopes of pressuring the Board of Education to vote down the proposal in February.

During a protest outside CPS headquarters on December 6, a student from Lindblom Math and Science Academy in Englewood told a local ABC News reporter how these "school actions" almost always play out:

First, [Mayor Emanuel] starves the school of the resources they need to be successful. Then he opens a new charter school in the area to siphon students away from their neglected neighborhood schools. After that, Rahm declares schools "underutilized" and slates them for closure.

THIS DE facto demolition of public neighborhood schools is all part of the long-term neoliberal transformation of the city, one that's turned nearly every public service--from schools and public housing to transportation and mental health services--into a bought-and-sold commodity.

By divesting almost entirely in public services, to the point that they're battered and crumbling, Emanuel and his ruling-class buddies can attempt to justify the privatization and commodification of these services.

In the same fashion that these schools are being starved to the point of abandonment, the city has done a neglect-and-scrap operation with nearly all of its public housing stock throughout the city, attempting to convince those most impacted that the replacements they offer will be well worth it and for the better.

Ask any of the 16,800 families displaced by the city's "Plan for Transformation" how these "replacement" plans have worked for them.

Put forward in 2000, the "Plan for Transformation" proposed 18,000 public housing units be razed and replaced by 25,000 new "mixed-income" units. As of end-of-year 2015, a decade and a half later, the city had only put 4,100 (24 percent) of those families in new units.

As far as the schools closed since 2013, none have been replaced, and the city now looks to lose even more.

While the city's current proposal calls for the closure of only four schools--versus the proposal for 54 in 2013--this attack is a continued effort to further assault those living in already under-resourced sections of the city.

In the face of continued attacks, however, there is continued struggle against them. Chicagoans, especially teachers, are well aware of the squeeze that runaway neoliberal development has put on the working people in their city.

As Trump and the Republicans try to ram through their tax bill--one of the largest transfers of wealth from poor to rich this country has ever seen--Emanuel and the rest of the Democratic Party machine have been implementing cuts of similar magnitude here in Chicago for decades-- revealing the bipartisan nature of the all-out barrage of austerity waged on working-class communities.

As further cuts come from all levels of government, a strong network of activists across the city will have to fight to stop these attacks from further destroying communities.

While many in the city will look to the 2018 local elections as a way of fighting back, history has shown the most effective way of fighting these racist assaults on education is bottom-up struggle.

Such a struggle would demand that the schools stay open and receive the funding they need to function properly, and if successful could forge an opening for larger demands that places our side not just on the defensive, but in the position to fight for the type of quality public education every student deserves.

CPS CHIEF Forrest Claypool was recently forced to resign in response to charges of "wrongdoing" after an ethics probe of his office, or what the district inspector general called "a full-blown cover-up," according to the Chicago Tribune. Activists should celebrate that fact, as his reign over CPS has been nothing less than an all-out racist class war on our schools.

Claypool has been the voice of cuts and closures since taking the position in 2015, and his corrupt stamp on the city goes all the way back to his days gutting public transportation as president of the Chicago Transit Authority.

There are a lot of reasons to applaud his resignation. But don't count on his replacement, Janice Jackson, to serve the interests of working-class Chicagoans.

This battle will be won through the actions of teachers, parents, students and community members coming together.

As the mayor continues to sell the city off to investors and speculators, the rest of us will have to remind him that it's not his city to sell--not to Amazon, not to private charters, and other corporate interests who want to steal the resources and services that every Chicagoan has a right to.

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