Chicago's Unfair School Closings Will Gut Remaining Supports for Kids

Newly appointed Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett speaks, accompanied by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel at a news c
Newly appointed Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett speaks, accompanied by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel at a news conference, Friday, Oct. 12, 2012, in Chicago. Emanuel replaced his embattled public schools chief Jean-Claude Brizard with Bennett, a veteran educator and administrator whose experience in Cleveland, Detroit and New York will help take Chicago school reforms “to the next level.” (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

As I write this, Chicagoans are out in the streets, some prepared to be arrested, in protest of the latest wave of school closings announced earlier this week. The closing of public schools has provoked a major conflict along race and class lines, and is a serious issue for all who care about the direction of our city and about fairness.

It was surprising and sad to read of Chicago public schools' CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett's announcement that the 54 public schools to be shuttered are primarily in African American and low-income neighborhoods. This is an act that will worsen the deep inequities that are the taproots of racial segregation in Chicago. To this day, despite its progress, this is one of the most racially segregated cities in America. We have a moral imperative to speak up and demand that the education system treat all of our city's children equitably, independent of race and class.

The official line about why these schools are being closed is that they are low-performing, low-enrollment schools that must be sacrificed to fill a budget hole of a billion dollars. Even if this is true, the $43 million annually that might be saved by closing these schools will be barely significant. The savings line sounds even weaker when one considers that, as The New York Times reported on March 22, "Some studies have shown that savings are often less than anticipated," and that, "It is not clear that students displaced from shuttered schools end up attending better ones."

Pair these findings with two findings from Catalyst's investigative reporters: First, "Nearly 90 percent of the students in the closing schools are black, though African Americans make up only about 40 percent of the district's entire student population." And second, "In the past, most of the closed schools have eventually become charter schools," and you have clues that begin to lead to the true endgame of school closings.

Charter schools use tax dollars, but are run privately and are not required to admit all students from the surrounding neighborhood.

Where will the kids end up? Kids who are African American or Latino, are low-income, and who have only attended low-performing schools may be less likely to meet a charter school's admissions criteria. Kenzo Shibata, social media director for the Chicago Teachers Union, explained in a recent radio interview that "One thing we know about the charter schools is they don't enroll students with special needs, they don't enroll students who are English language learners, so it creates another tier of education in the city which we don't need. We need to have fully funded public education for all students." This wave of school closings moves us in the opposite direction.

This is not an academic issue. Last weekend, as I attended a labor and community forum hosted by the Chicago Alliance Against Racist & Political Repression (CAARPR), a group based on the West Side that has been working on this topic for many years, the discussion turned to how the school closings would impact neighborhoods. Activists and community leaders talked about the lack of community based organizations for kids. Schools are important neighborhood-based organizations providing a neutral, stable space for kids to learn, play and be safe. By closing these schools, we are gutting the remaining social infrastructure for many of the city's children.

This is about privatizing of one of the last few public assets in America: public education. Advocates of privatization have grabbed up just about every public institution imaginable: electric and telephone utilities, parks, housing, even our highways. Now we are witnessing an overt effort by players like the Walton Family Foundation -- the wealthy heirs of Walmart's founder -- to hand over public schools to the private sector.

The Walton Family Foundation, Catalyst Chicago magazine reported Jan. 30, paid $478,000 to finance a series of meetings this winter to plan the school closings. Those who are in the best position to solve the problems in the lowest-performing public schools weren't at the table. The Waltons are not members of our community. They have no vested interest in our community's well-being. Rather than having meetings funded by outsiders to try to figure out how to further marginalize low-income families and neighborhoods, the city should be putting resources into those schools and asking community members what they need to survive.

The protesters have it right. We should not sacrifice the neediest schools, emptying the classrooms and handing the keys -- and taxpayers' dollars -- over to the privatizers. Shame on all of us if these closings actually happen.