Monday marked the conclusion of a three-day series of protests by Chicago teachers, parents, and community members against the closure of up to 54 of the city's public schools. The Chicago Board of Education will decide the fate of those "underutilized" schools on Wednesday in what could be the biggest round of closings ever for a single American school district.
March organizers estimate that as many as 7,000 people may have participated in the marches by the time all three days are through. The rallies and marches were organized by a coalition including the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), which argued that the closures would endanger the schools' predominantly poor and African-American student population.
"These people are on a mission to pretty much destroy public education as we know it in Chicago," CTU President Karen Lewis told msnbc.
These protests are the latest chapter in a prolonged, bitter struggle between CTU, its allies, and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, President Obama's former chief of staff. During his year and a half as mayor, Emanuel has alienated CTU and other public sector unions by pursuing an aggressive school reform agenda and demanding painful concessions in union contracts.
A recent editorial in the Chicago Tribune summarizes the litany of grievances:
He angered teachers by pushing for a longer school day, one reason they wound up on picket lines. He infuriated other unions by pushing, at the bargaining table and in Springfield, for pension reforms. He didn't budget for expansion of the Chicago Police Department. He intends to cut a city subsidy for the health care of retirees. He put Chicago Public Schools on a path toward closing underused buildings.
But to the paper's editorial board, which also endorsed Emanuel for mayor, he's catching flak for "pushing for better schools and imposing tough economies."
In early September 2012, CTU went on a week-long strike—its first in a quarter century—to protest Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and Mayor Emanuel's education policy on a number of fronts, including threats to teacher job security, the spread of charter schools, and what they said were insufficient resources for economically disadvantaged students. While Emanuel claimed that the union was not legally allowed to strike on the key issues at play, CTU was able to extract some concessions from his administration.
CPS submitted its school closure proposal in late March, arguing that by "consolidating" students into a smaller number of schools, they would be able to more adequately provide each student with the resources necessary for a healthy learning environment. While CPS has been shutting down schools for years, this could be by far the largest mass closure.
"For too long, children in certain parts of Chicago have been cheated out of the resources they need to succeed in the classroom because too many of our scarce resources are being spent on maintaining underutilized, under-resourced schools," said CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett in a statement announcing the closures.
But opponents of the plan see things differently. They point out that the students being asked to relocate to different schools hail uniformly from poor neighborhoods, and argue that the city's plans would put them at an even greater disadvantage than before. Uprooting vulnerable students, they argue, will only serve to put them at greater risk.
“We've been suffering under this policies for over ten years in Chicago, and there have been study after study on school closings. What they've found is that unless children go on to significantly better schools, than the promise of closing schools doesn't really do anything," said Lewis. All it does, she said, is cut investment in the neighborhoods where schools are closing down.
Last week, a group of Chicago parents—with assistance from the famous labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan—filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Chicago in an attempt to halt the school closures. The suit claims that the proposed school closings would violate the American with Disabilities Act and Illinois Civil Rights Act by causing "significant disruption" to special needs students and "singling out poor and marginalized African American children to bear the educational and human costs of the closings."
Their case is bolstered by a Friday report from the Tribune finding that CPS "appears to have selectively highlighted data to stress shortcomings at schools to be closed, while not pointing out what was lacking at the receiving schools."
Chicago Public Schools was not immediately available for comment.