Chicago Is Ground Zero for Disastrous "Free Market" Reforms of Education

Chicago has turned public schools into privately run charters. The results aren't stellar and other cities should beware

If you want a glimpse of what slash-and-burn free market education reform does in cities throughout the US, look no further than Chicago. Last week, Chicago Public Schools announced its plan to close 54 public elementary schools in the city by next year - about 8% of all public schools in the city. Almost all are located on the city's south and west sides in predominantly black neighborhoods.

In a city where the majority of black children live in poverty, in communities long plagued by hyper-segregation, unemployment, youth violence, and disinvestment, these neighborhoods will likely be thrown into further chaos, as students (91% of whom are students of color) are forced to cross into rival gang territories. Public schools, which served as one of the few remaining community anchors, will be shuttered.

Chicago Public Schools claims the move will save $43m annually, and is necessary to close a budget deficit of $1bn over the next three years. The district has a history of using questionable math, issuing loud proclamations of deficits to justify austerity measures like closures, then quietly discovering budget surpluses months later. Even if CPS is telling the truth about the size of its deficit, the numbers on closures don't quite add up. They would only shrink the district's deficit by a small percentage and only in the long term, at least according to the district's statements. Independent analyses also show that past closures have produced minimal or nonexistent savings for the district.

So if budget shortfalls aren't the real issue, why, in neighborhoods desperately in need of strong public institutions like neighborhood schools, would a district shutter 54 schools and "turn around" or consolidate 17 others? And if the deficit is the issue but savings wouldn't be seen for several years, why would CPS propose the largest number of school closures in American history, in one fell swoop, rather than proceed cautiously with a few each year for several years?

Perhaps because some within the district are looking to dismantle education as a public good by handing schooling over to free market forces, and they know the only way to accomplish this is through "shock doctrine"-style policies, ramming the closures down the throats of a citizenry that would never freely choose them.

The school reformers peddling neoliberal snake oil, promising the healing benefits of privatizing the country's public school system, are undoubtedly watching Chicago very closely, looking for strategies to export to other cities.

Over the past two decades, a remarkable consensus has solidified among both American political parties that free market reform is the panacea for all that ills public education. And Chicago has long been what education policy scholar Pauline Lipman calls the "incubator, test case, and model for the neoliberal urban education agenda," through programs like Renaissance 2010 (pdf), a program to close and "turn around" schools deemed failing (and the basis for the Obama administration's Race to the Top program), mayoral control of schools with an unelected CEO and school board, and the 110 charter schools that have cropped up in recent years.

The rise of charters has been central to the reform plans of current Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his predecessor, Richard M. Daley, including their school closure strategy. In the past dozen years, CPS has closed 75 schools; 40% are now run by private operators, most of which are charters. Of the schools targeted for "turnaround" under Ren2010, a process that includes firing all teachers at schools deemed low-performing, nearly all are now charters.

The district insists that the current spate of closures is necessitated by declining enrollment, but plans to open new charters are continuing full-steam ahead. Charter operators like the United Neighborhood Organization (UNO), for example, a close ally of Emanuel that runs 13 schools in the city and recently caught flak for giving millions in publicly funded contracts to executives' close friends and family like a kind of 21st century patronage organization, was awarded a $98m grant from the state of Illinois in 2009 and recently applied for $35m. The network has big plans to open new schools in the near future, amassing huge amounts of debt (serviced with public money) to fund its expansion.

Maybe the district's goal isn't to fix underutilization. Maybe CPS is more interested in expanding charter schools, privatizing public education, and weakening the Chicago Teachers Union. Charters, of course, are overwhelmingly non-union, and that is a principal appeal for reformers pushing them. Charter school students may not outperform traditional public school students, in Chicago or elsewhere, but they do help weaken teachers unions - the biggest potential roadblock to the free marketeers' agenda.

Not all teachers unions have had the willingness or wherewithal to resist that agenda; many have capitulated, or at least been complicit. But the Chicago Teachers Union has fought back. In November, 10 people were arrested in a sit-in outside Mayor Emanuel's City Hall office. Today, thousands of CTU members - alongside community activists, clergy, CPS students, and members of other unions - will return to City Hall, shutting down part of downtown in the middle of rush hour before many are arrested in an act of civil disobedience. The union and the communities will demand the district halt all school closings.

The school reformers peddling neoliberal snake oil, promising the healing benefits of privatizing the country's public school system, are undoubtedly watching Chicago very closely, looking for strategies to export to other cities. But the teachers and communities sure to be devastated by such policies should pay attention, too, as free market education policies spread from New Orleans and Detroit to Philadelphia and beyond, they might glean some useful lessons for resistance.

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