Chicago Teachers: We Will 'Put Our Bodies on the Line' to Fight School Closures

Parents, students and community members 'outraged' by Mayor Emanuel's plan to shutter more than 50 city schools

The mass closings of more than 50 schools in Chicago is being met with outrage by the city's teachers, parents and students and an analysis shows that the 'uncompromising' move by Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and the office of Mayor Rahm Emanuel will cost the city as much--if not more--than the plan purports to save.

The CPS and Mayor Emanuel claim the closings are necessary to stem a $1 billion budget deficit and what they call a "utilization crisis," but an analysis of the school district's budget and closure plan documents by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) found that the plan could actually cost the city $1 billion.

In addition, says the CTU, the closings will cause "massive upheaval" and "adversely affect" more than 30,000 elementary school students across the city.

"We are the city of big shoulders and so we intend to put up a fight. We don't know if we can win, but if you don't fight, you will never win at all." - Karen Lewis, CTU president

"CPS is making all of these promises of how it will support these students and their schools, but once again, they're lying just to make families sympathetic to what they're doing," said Karen Lewis, president of the CTU. "They're promising students all of these things which will cost a billion dollars, which is the same amount of money they've claimed not to have."

Similar mass school closings are happening in other US cities, making what's happening in Chicago only the latest--and the largest--effort by the so-called "corporate school reformers" to close down public schools they deem "failing" while actively pushing the introduction of private or partially-private charter schools to take their place.

"You're looking at communities being destroyed, ripped apart. Outrage is everywhere," Chicago community activist Jito Brown toldNPR in an interview.

"This makes no sense," said Chicago native Zeus Arreola, 28, who has children at two schools slated for closure. "This city is not what it used to be."

As the Washington Post's Valerie Strauss writes:

School closings have become a tool of school reformers who say the action is needed either because the targeted schools have too few students or are failing academically -- even while they support the opening of charter schools in the same neighborhoods. In Chicago's case, both arguments for closing schools were made in recent years.

The Associated Pressreports that with 681 schools, the CPS is the nation's third-largest school district. And adds:

Chicago is among several major U.S. cities, including Philadelphia, Washington and Detroit, to use mass school closures to reduce costs and offset declining enrollment. Detroit has closed more than 130 schools since 2005, including more than 40 in 2010 alone.

But looking back on the trend, Strauss gives historical context for the CTU's contention that the cost-savings promised by the CPS are unlikely to be realized:

When Michelle Rhee told D.C. school residents that she, as chancellor of public schools in the nation's capital, was closing 23 under-enrolled schools, she promised that a lot of money would be saved that could be plowed back into academic programs in remaining schools. It didn't happen; an audit years later found that the closings actually cost the city $40 million.

Recent studies by education policy researcher Emily Dowdall, who works for the Pew Charitable Trust, found that among the key trends found when studying school closings was the growth of charter schools-- which "has just been very rapid, very massive over the last decade or so"--and the outsized and negative impact closings have on the poor, mostly minority students and communities.

Reviewing Dowdall's research, NPRreports:

On the national stage, civil rights activists argue that school closings are disproportionately hurting poor, minority communities. Everywhere Dowdall looked, she says, school closings are displacing poor, black and Latino students.

"It's not isolated in one or two cities that have lost lots of population. It's actually very common even in cities that are seen as economic successes, like Washington, D.C., like Chicago," she says.

That's why school closing are getting more attention, and community activists blame the Obama administration for letting it happen. The stated goal of the administration's education agenda is to shut down failing schools and promote the expansion of publicly funded, privately run charter schools.

And "as parents, students and teachers learned the fate of their schools," the Chicago Tribune revealed, "there was mostly anger, sadness and fear about what's to come."

Citing just one example, the Tribune reports:

To parents of students with special needs, the decision to close Trumbull Elementary in the Andersonville neighborhood on the North Side is just the latest battle in their war with CPS.

On Thursday, parents paced the sidewalks outside the school, handing out fliers in English and Spanish urging neighborhood residents and other parents to join their fight to keep the school open.

"We need your help now more than ever, as we continue to fight for our school," the flier said. "There is strength in numbers and together we can make a difference."

Thirty-seven percent of Trumbull's roughly 400 students have special needs, and parents said teachers and staff have a long history of working with those children. Sending them to another school worries parents and staff.

"The loss of familiar surroundings is difficult for kids with special needs," said Jennifer Steiner, an occupational therapist at Trumbull. "It's hard for them to transition to the unknown. It sets them back when there are changes in routine and they have to adjust to entirely new faces and new staff."

Community members, however--led by teachers from the CTU, parents, and affected students--don't plan to allow the plan to pass through unchallenged.

In a statement delivered earlier this week, CTU's Lewis was defiant as she declared preparations to fight back against the closings, the CPS and Mayor Emanuel's office:

We intend to rally, united and strong, on Wednesday, March 27, to send a signal that we are sick and tired of being bullied and betrayed. Some of us are going to put our bodies on the line -- because a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. And when we declare the victory, some of us will sit back and sing the lines of one of Mahaila Jackson's songs -- 'How I Got Over.'

Rahm Emanuel has become the 'murder mayor.' He is murdering public services. Murdering our ability to maintain public sector jobs and now he has set his sights on our public schools. But we have news for him: We don't intend to die. This is not Detroit. We are the city of big shoulders and so we intend to put up a fight. We don't know if we can win, but if you don't fight, you will never win at all.


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