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Mass Public School Closures in Chicago Spark Civil Rights Lawsuits

“This city has worked systematically to undermine our public education system and destabilize certain communities," said CTU's Karen Lewis

(Photo: Milosh Kosanovich/flickr)

The mass public school closings in Chicago have sparked a pair of federal civil rights lawsuits charging that the closings have a discriminatory impact on African-American students and students with disabilities.

The suits are asking for an injunction to halt the closures of 53 elementary schools for a year, and come a week ahead the Chicago Public Schools board voting on the closures.

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis is hoping the "courts listen to these parents" and "stop this assault on our schools, our students and our communities.”

“This is a tragedy in the making,” added Denise Burns, one of the plaintiffs and the mother of a child living with a disability.

The first lawsuit charges the Chicago Board of Education of violating Title II of the ADA for not allowing the necessary time the children in special education need for "a timely and orderly process either for the proper review and revision of the individualized education programs..." or "for the extra services and counseling such children require to make the difficult transition."  It reads, in part:

By putting off their decision on the closings to the eleventh hour, or the very end of the school year – for the largest closing of public schools in American history – the defendants place the plaintiff children and other children in special education at far greater risk than their non-disabled peers. The late date makes it impossible to conduct the closings without significant disruption to the programs in which these children participate and without adequate provision for the special safety risks faced by children with disabilities. In violation of federal law, this late, ill-timed, and ill-prepared program for the closing of 53 elementary schools will have a discriminatory impact upon the plaintiff children and other children with disabilities, compared to their non-disabled peers.

“These proposed closings will inevitably put our students at greater risk for academic failure,” stated Kristine Mayle, CTU Financial Secretary and a former special education teacher.

The second suit adds that the closings violate the Illinois Civil Rights Act:

In conducting closings since 2001, the defendants have used various shifting criteria that they allege to be race neutral but that always have the effect of singling out poor and marginalized African American children to bear the educational and human costs of the closings. For the 72 schools that defendants have closed to date, African American children make up more than 90 percent of the displaced children; and in currently proposed closings, they make up more than 80 percent of the displaced children. Yet African American children constitute only 42 percent of the children in the public schools.

The impact on African American children is in stark contrast to the impact on white children – who have been almost universally insulated from the negative educational consequences of school closings.

Frances Newman, another plaintiff and parent, said, “The Board says they use neutral criteria, but somehow they keep finding criteria that will single out only African-American children.”

For CTU's Lewis, the closings represent a pattern of attacks on public education.

“This city has worked systematically to undermine our public education system and destabilize certain communities," added Lewis.

"There is no magic bullet," said Lewis, "but we do know that research-based policies, targeted resource investments and reforms that are geared towards nurturing environments put our schools on track for steady improvement."

On May 18, 19 and 20 students, teachers, parents and other supporters are rallying under the banner of “Our City. Our Schools. Our Voice” to protest the school closings and what they see as an "assault" on public education.

Sponsored by the CTU and a coalition of other groups, the protesters will engage in a "long march," with simultaneous marches planned from the South Side and West Side of the city that will head downtown for a rally.

Lewis said that the action is necessary because Chicago Mayor "Rahm Emanuel is dedicated to entering the history books as having destroyed the most public schools in one year than anyone."

"We have no choice but to use the power of organizing and direct action to engage in what will be a long fight to restore sanity to our school district,” she said.


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