The Axe Falls on 50 Chicago Public Schools

David Moberg

Community members reasoned, raged and begged for mercy at a school board meeting about the fate of 54 Chicago public schools. (Chicago Teachers Union)

At times, the meeting of the Board of Education of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) on Wednesday took on the air of a mass mock trial; at others, it seemed like a public execution. On the dock were 53 elementary schools and one high school charged with underutilization of space and underperformance. The prosecutor—CPS superintendent Barbara Byrd-Bennett—charged that those crimes led to an even more grave offense: unbalancing the budget. The proposed punishment? Off with their heads, or rather, shut their doors and merge them with other schools in the largest single closing of urban public schools in U.S. history.

As they had done in rounds of community public hearings leading up to this hearing, parents, community leaders, city council members, teachers union leaders and teachers decried the closures from nearly every angle. They challenged the idea of the mass shutdown, saying the plan is unworkable at the speed and scale CPS has proposed. They noted the closures are unlikely to fulfill CPS’s stated goals of saving money or improving education. They called the plan racist” for concentrating 90 percent of the closures in majority black neighborhoods. And they argued the closures would worsen the lives of school children — especially the most vulnerable with learning disorders or other disabilities — by disrupting them so abruptly.

And people also came to the podium to plead for their own beloved individual schools. They tried rational arguments: Our test scores are better than you think. They’re improving fast. And they’re better than our rival, which is not closing. Or they claimed the school wasn’t underutilized: It just has lots of disabled kids who by law need smaller classes.

They blamed the authorities, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his lackeys, for causing the problem: for not pursuing new taxes, for continuing to divert taxes from the schools into tax increment finance funds (which the city refuses to use for the schools), for planning to spend money on future mega-projects—a casino and sports arena—not education, for pursuing a not-so-secret agenda of opening new, publicly funded charter schools at the expense of neighborhood public schools (even though overall, charters perform no better).

They appealed for empathy: Our school is a community center, and if it closes, people won’t want to move here, and blight will spread. Our kids will be in danger, crossing gang lines, going through underpasses, traversing busy thoroughfares.

They begged for mercy. They shouted and cursed. They chanted, Whose schools? Our schools.” They sat down in protest. They sang We Shall Not Be Moved” as guards dragged them away.

They lambasted the hearings as a charade. They pointed to the recommendation of a panel of retired judges to spare 13 schools. They called upon history; the recently and resoundingly re-elected Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) President Karen Lewis said to the judges, the Board of Education, You’re on the wrong side of history, and history will judge you.”

They even called upon God, concluding the testimony with one mother’s heartfelt prayer.

In the end, prosecutor Byrd-Bennett gave a last-minute reprieve to four schools and postponed another school’s axing for a year. With the exception of two no” votes on a school closing that would deprive a largely Latino neighborhood of all its public elementary schools — which still passed — the judges’ verdict came unanimously on all of the other schools, 6-0, a swift if bureaucratic execution.

Today is a day of mourning for the children of Chicago. Their education has been hijacked by an unrepresentative, unelected corporate school board, acting at the behest of a mayor who has no vision for improving the education of our children,” Lewis said in a statement. Closing schools is not an education plan. It is a scorched earth policy. Evidence shows that the underutilization crisis has been manufactured. Their own evidence also shows the school district will not garner any significant savings from closing these schools.

This is bad governance. CPS has consistently undermined school communities and sabotaged teachers and parents. Their actions have had a horrible domino effect. More than 40,000 students will lose at least three to six months of learning because of the Board’s actions. … Who on the Board will be held responsible? Who at City Hall will be held responsible?”

While Emanuel portrays himself as the adult making tough choices on behalf of the kids,” the education justice movement, which aims to strengthen communities and to reduce inequality as steps towards better education, sees him as captive of a corporate elite. That corporate elite apparently wants the mayor to be even tougher. On Monday night in a Chicago Economic Club address, billionaire hedge fund owner Ken Griffin — a backer of a Republican gubernatorial bid by financier Bruce Rauner, a charter school advocate and advisor to Emanuel — expressed second thoughts about his support for Emanuel. The mayor failed to fight hard enough against the teachers’ strike last fall, he said, and should be closing twice as many schools.

The condemned schools have not yet been formally executed. The CTU had citizen lobbyists in Springfield today rounding up votes — when not getting arrested for civil disobedience — for legislation imposing a moratorium on school closings. On behalf of citizen plaintiffs and CTU, attorney Thomas Geoghegan last week filed suits claiming that CPS was violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and engaging in racial discrimination. Tomorrow CTU will start training registrars to sign up voters, many of who are not likely to vote for Emanuel in 2016.

The odds are long that these or any other actions will stay the closing of the schools condemned today, but they indicate that the axe has not fallen on the education justice” movement in Chicago.

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David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

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