Disaster Capitalism in Chicago Schools

Chicago’s Board of Education creates a crisis, and charter school operators reap the benefits.

Kenzo Shibata March 3, 2013

Charter operators weaken teachers unions and force schools to leave some students behind. (Brad Perkins / Flickr / Creative Commons).

In pub­lic pol­i­cy cir­cles, crises are called focus­ing events” — bring­ing to light a par­tic­u­lar fail­ing in gov­ern­ment pol­i­cy. They require gov­ern­ment agen­cies to switch rapid­ly into cri­sis mode to imple­ment solu­tions. Cre­at­ing the cri­sis itself is more novel.

Charter operators push back on any efforts of their staffs to unionize. When public schools close and charters open, teachers unions become weaker. Teachers unions are democratic institutions with ties to the communities they serve. When the public is disempowered, the small patronage army of the mayor becomes more entrenched.

The right-wing, free mar­ket vision of Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go econ­o­mist Mil­ton Fried­man informed the blue­print for the rapid pri­va­ti­za­tion of munic­i­pal ser­vices through­out the world due in no small part to what author Nao­mi Klein calls dis­as­ter cap­i­tal­ism.” Fried­man wrote in his 1982 trea­tise Cap­i­tal­ism and Free­dom, When [a] cri­sis occurs, the actions that are tak­en depend on the ideas that are lying around”

In Klein’s book The Shock Doc­trine, she explains how imme­di­ate­ly after Hur­ri­cane Kat­ri­na, Fried­man used the dec­i­ma­tion of New Orleans’ infra­struc­ture to push for char­ter schools, a mar­ket-based pol­i­cy pref­er­ence of Fried­man acolytes. Sec­re­tary of Edu­ca­tion Arne Dun­can was the CEO of Chica­go Pub­lic Schools at the time, and lat­er described Hur­ri­cane Kat­ri­na as the best thing that hap­pened to the edu­ca­tion sys­tem in New Orleans.” Dun­can is of the lib­er­al wing of the free mar­ket project and a major sup­port­er of char­ter schools.

There aren’t any hur­ri­canes in the Mid­west, so how can pro­po­nents of pri­va­ti­za­tion like May­or Rahm Emanuel sell off schools to the high­est bidder?

They cre­ate a crisis.

Each year, Chica­go Pub­lic Schools (CPS) projects a bil­lion dol­lar deficit. The announce­ment grabs head­lines and the Board of Edu­ca­tion announces that they must make seri­ous cuts. These cut­backs are nev­er at the top. The Board cuts edu­ca­tion pro­grams, after-school activ­i­ties, and forces more class­room costs onto its employees.

School clos­ings are announced tan­gen­tial­ly to the deficit announce­ment. In years past, the man­u­fac­tured bud­get cri­sis was used as an excuse to lay off teach­ers. Peo­ple were fired, class sizes swelled to epic pro­por­tions and — after the bud­get was rec­on­ciled — CPS mirac­u­lous­ly found a sur­plus. This past year’s final audit­ed bud­get showed a sur­plus of $344 mil­lion.

The Chica­go Board of Edu­ca­tion announced that it must close under­uti­lized” schools and con­sol­i­date stu­dents into receiv­ing schools” to save the dis­trict from the pro­ject­ed deficit. The Board argues that some schools sim­ply do not enroll enough stu­dents to stay open. A local teacher and par­ent pub­lished ten ques­tions to Chica­go Pub­lic Schools regard­ing how much can actu­al­ly be saved by clos­ing these schools. The Board’s respons­es revolved around the idea that pre­vi­ous admin­is­tra­tions have let the prob­lem get so bad they must act fast and close these schools or else the dis­trict will fall over a fis­cal cliff — sor­ry, wrong man­u­fac­tured cri­sis — but you get the idea.

So now we have a cri­sis. Schools closed and stu­dents shift­ed around the city. Many of them may have to cross gang ter­ri­to­ries to get to their receiv­ing schools. School vio­lence spikes. As Rahm Emanuel said in 2008, You nev­er want a good cri­sis to go to waste.”

If only there were a solu­tion lying around” to attach to this crisis.

At the end of 2012, the Chica­go Board of Edu­ca­tion approved addi­tion­al char­ter schools. The Wal­ton Fam­i­ly Foun­da­tion pro­vid­ed seed mon­ey for some of these schools. Char­ter school pro­lif­er­a­tion can take part of the blame for schools being under­uti­lized,” as they draw stu­dents from oth­er schools, but the Board’s met­ric for cal­cu­lat­ing uti­liza­tion is also suspect.

Char­ter schools become the solu­tion” lying around for par­ents who want to keep their stu­dents close to home in a school that will not be closed the fol­low­ing year. Many char­ter schools have been infused with addi­tion­al resources, mak­ing their facil­i­ties look shiny and new. Par­ents, through the mar­ket-based choice” sys­tem (which is revered by Fried­man­ites), may enroll their chil­dren in these new schools. That is, unless their chil­dren have spe­cial needs, are learn­ing Eng­lish, or are sim­ply bad at tak­ing tests. Reuters recent­ly pub­lished a report that showed how char­ter schools cream” stu­dents to get the kids they want.

Char­ter schools that invest heav­i­ly in pub­lic rela­tions cam­paigns receive pos­i­tive press, but when stacked against mag­net schools, which are pub­lic schools (staffed by union teach­ers) with bar­ri­ers to access, they do not outperform.

Stu­dents with spe­cial needs, lim­it­ed Eng­lish pro­fi­cien­cy, or with­out a reg­u­lar place to call home are forced to fight over lim­it­ed resources in the pub­lic schools.

This scene is play­ing out at school clos­ing hear­ings held by CPS, under­writ­ten by the Wal­ton Fam­i­ly Foun­da­tion. School com­mu­ni­ties are forced to make the case for keep­ing their schools open. At a recent meet­ing on Chicago’s north side, schools that take in home­less stu­dents from the blight­ed Uptown com­mu­ni­ty were pit­ted against schools with pro­grams that address spe­cial needs. Some observers likened the scene to the young adult nov­el-turned-film The Hunger Games, where chil­dren are forced to fight to the death for the amuse­ment of the 1%.

In real life, our rulers don’t both­er to stick around and watch the fruits of their pol­i­cy. But they’re more than hap­py to ben­e­fit. The Chica­go elites’ char­ter schools are self-per­pet­u­at­ing gifts. The recent UNO Char­ter School Scan­dal shows how peo­ple con­nect­ed to char­ters can dole out con­tracts to friends and fam­i­ly. The UNO net­work was the recent recip­i­ent of $98 mil­lion in state aid to build more schools.

The head of UNO, Juan Rangel, was co-chair of Chica­go May­or Rahm Emanuel’s elec­tion cam­paign. Mem­bers of Rangel’s orga­ni­za­tion are now in the busi­ness of installing Illi­nois state rep­re­sen­ta­tives, the very peo­ple who hold the purse strings of these state grants. This is the face of the new munic­i­pal polit­i­cal machine.

Char­ter oper­a­tors push back on any efforts of their staffs to union­ize. When pub­lic schools close and char­ters open, teach­ers unions become weak­er. Teach­ers unions are demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tions with ties to the com­mu­ni­ties they serve. When the pub­lic is dis­em­pow­ered, the small patron­age army of the may­or becomes more entrenched.

The sale of pub­lic schools to char­ter oper­a­tors can­not be done slow­ly. The fast pace of cri­sis man­age­ment obscures the graft from the pub­lic. UNO specif­i­cal­ly needs to oper­ate under these cri­sis man­age­ment conditions.

UNO oper­ates under $67,800,000 in out­stand­ing debt. The $98 mil­lion state gift can­not be used to pay back this debt because it has been ear­marked for cap­i­tal projects, name­ly build­ing or improv­ing schools. The only way to keep the UNO patron­age train rolling is by con­tin­u­ous­ly expand­ing and open­ing schools, with con­struc­tion con­trac­tors serv­ing as poten­tial allies come elec­tion time.

The free-mar­ket think tank Amer­i­can Enter­prise Insti­tute recent­ly praised this par­tic­u­lar brand of char­ter school. The use of patron­age in gov­ern­ment hir­ing was a major argu­ment Fried­man­ites used for pri­va­tiz­ing pub­lic ser­vices. AEI prais­es UNO’s assim­i­la­tion­ist” phi­los­o­phy of teach­ing immi­grant youth so per­haps AEI finds more mer­it in dilut­ing non-Euro­pean cul­tures than in end­ing patron­age. I’m not exact­ly sure where that fits into the free mar­ket ortho­doxy, but then again, the con­tra­dic­tions in the phi­los­o­phy far from end there.

Fried­man­ites often crit­i­cize redis­trib­u­tive poli­cies as pick­ing win­ners and losers.” From the man­u­fac­tured schools cri­sis to the mar­ket-based solu­tion of char­ter schools, it appears that the free mar­ket” mod­el picks win­ners and losers; the win­ners being the polit­i­cal­ly con­nect­ed and the losers being the rest of us.

This arti­cle was reprint­ed with per­mis­sion from Jacobin.

Ken­zo Shi­ba­ta is the social media coor­di­na­tor for Chica­go Teach­ers Union and a found­ing mem­ber of CORE-The Cau­cus of Rank-and-File Edu­ca­tors. He is a for­mer class­room teacher who recent­ly received a mas­ters in Pub­lic Pol­i­cy from North­west­ern University.
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