“The massive school closings that have been part of CPS’s broader strategy dating back to the 1990s have drastic consequences: they tear apart school communities, disrupt deep and strong relationships between students, parents, and teachers, and dismantle organizations which are often students’ only centers of stability and safety.”—The Black and White of Education in Chicago
Chicago’s historically working class West Side has never been an easy place. Because of its concentration of poverty, the struggle for survival has always been part of daily life. The West Side has also been a center of social activism: From the Haymarket martyrs, to the Jane Addams-led Hull House, to today’s anti-poverty activists of Action Now!
Despite growing gentrification on the traditionally segregated West Side, most of the area remains majority Black and Latino. In 2013 quality education became a battleground as the Chicago Board of Education closed 50 schools, most of them in Black and Latino neighborhoods.
Over the past 3 months I attended meetings on the West Side about what to do in the wake of the closings. These discussions quickly expanded into topics like charter school proliferation, testing abuse, gentrification, scripted curricula, the school to prison pipeline, and Common Core. Expert speakers presented solid data as a basis for future action.
Valerie Leonard of the Lawndale Alliance noted that,”The West Side has really taken a disproportionate hit. The West Side has 17% of the [Chicago] schools, but we have absorbed 47% of the loss.” Chicago’s West Side was clearly a a major target in the war against public education.
This is the corporate driven so-called “education reform”. Walmart even provided money and staff to aid in the Chicago closings. West Side residents turned out in large numbers for public meetings and protests against the closings, but public schools with names like Henson, Emmett, Armstrong, Bethune, Pope, Duprey, Marconi, May, and Paderewski are now gone.
At the school board meeting where the 50 schools were closed, they were not referred to by their names, but by their numbers, as if they were incarcerated criminals in a bad prison movie.
The CPS leadership blamed “underutilization” and “budget woes” as the cause, but then announced that 31 new charter school were planned. An internal document from Teach for America says that the number may eventually be as many 52 charters.
The Raise Your Hand (RYH) school advocacy group reported that “47 percent of CPS charter and contract schools” were below CPS ideal enrollment numbers. Neighborhood schools are closed for such “underutilization”.
RYH policy analyst Wendy Katten estimated that the new charters will cost upwards of $255 million over the next ten years.
Charters will not solve the “budget crisis” and are not a panacea for improving education. Neither will the corporate-backed “education reform” schemes coming from the Department of Education under Arne Duncan with the support of President Obama.
CPS bureaucrats did their best to sabotage public discussion
Public discussion on the West Side is hampered because CPS is withholding vital information. Inquiries about school budgets, Safe Passage funding, school utilitization and class sizes have gone unanswered. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests have been ignored. A meeting with CPS operations chief Tim Cawley was promised but never happened.
CPS has been very busy on the West Side, but doesn’t want anyone to know exactly why. In a city with an unelected school board under the direct control of the mayor, dominated by the downtown wealthy elite, this is not hard to do.
West Side education justice activists are generally disappointed with the performance of Black elected officials who are supposed to represent their community. They want Rahm Emanuel voted out in the next election, although who would replace him is not clear. They want an elected school board and and demand that TIF money go to communities in need, not to glittering hi-rises downtown. They want a real democracy in Chicago so that all communities can enjoy quality education.
West Side residents have good reason to believe that much of this so-called “education reform” can best be described by what the Chicago Teachers Union calls education apartheid:
“Schools more than 99 percent students of color (“Apartheid schools”) have been the primary target of CPS school actions—representing more than 80 percent of all affected schools. These students face a wide range of challenges outside of school, including high levels of violence and trauma, but are still expected to serve as test subjects for unproven school reform schemes.”
Despite setbacks West Siders continue to organize community meetings. They picket and hold press conferences. They study the data and crunch the numbers. They testify at School Board hearings. They go to the state capital in Springfield.They organize voter registration to dislodge politicians hostile to public education. They run for Local School Councils and seek to improve them. They form alliances with other education justice organizations. They work closely with the Chicago Teachers Union. They brainstorm about what to do next.
CPS may be silent, evasive or dishonest
when questioned, but West Siders are still talking
The following are some highlights of what West Siders have been talking about in recent months:
The decimation of Black administrators, teachers and support staff: The percentage of Black teachers in CPS has been cut from approximately 40% to 25% since 2001. Black principals made up 55% of CPS 10 years ago. That is down to 46%. Black males are a rarity in administration at 12% and even rarer in teaching at 4%.
Brandon Johnson, a West Side resident and CTU organizer saw the results after the 2013 school actions:
“More than 250 black teachers were impacted by the board’s decisions …Octavia Sansing-Rhodes, a black teacher at Herzl, brought an inspired, culturally competent pedagogy to her classroom. Her dedication was recognized and she was named WGN teacher of the month. Her school was turned over to a private operator and she was fired…”
In addition to being a racist educational policy, it is a body blow to an economywhich already has a black unemployment rate twice that of whites and a poverty rate nearly three times that of whites.
Teach for America (TFA) and the Academy of Urban School Leadership (AUSL): Organizations like TFA and AUSL replace veteran (often African American) teachers with inexperienced mostly young white teachers with little knowledge of the community. AUSL is especially active on the West Side. AUSL schools are “turnaround schools” where everyone is fired and then replaced with new staff. AUSL however does use union teachers whereas charter schools that employ many TFA’s usually do not. According to investigative reporter Curtis Black, these turnarounds have produced “mediocre results.”
According to juvenile court Judge Marianne Jackson who resides on the West Side, “Inexperienced teachers do not know how to read situations so they get frightened or confused and don’t know how to deal with them.” Simple misunderstandings can then escalate into a major disciplinary or juvenile criminal case. As a result, more young people are sent down the school to prison pipeline.
TFA wants non-union schools which cut them off from the Chicago Teachers Union and the Association of Charter School Teachers, important advocates for quality education. They also don’t want Local School Councils, making them less accountable to the communities they purport to serve.
LSC’s are a unique Chicago institution where parents and community members are elected to provide input on local school policies and budgeting. There will be a city-wide LSC summit in mid February to strengthen and revitalize these important institutions.
The acute shortage of pre-school education: Aminah Wyatt of Illinois Action for Children told us that only 1/2 of the children in the West Side North Lawndale community are in any kind pre-school program:
”Many of these children fall off the radar in terms of schools because they are in homes, not traditional child care. And then there are the children who are not accounted for all. We can’t find these children. So where are they? Some of them represent the homeless population.”
Many parents find the CPS pre-K program useless because it is half day. Aminah Wyatt is especially concerned about those children who aren’t in any programs at all, because they will enter kindergarten already behind their peers.
The inequities in school funding: Illinois bases school funding on property taxes which gives an unfair advantage to affluent communities. Even within CPS the West Side and other low income areas have traditionally been underfunded and under resourced relative to schools in more affluent Chicago neighborhoods.
This year CPS created a budgeting process making individual school funding even harder. Until this year budgeting within CPS has followed a “Teacher Allocated Budget” in which small swings in student enrollment at a school had no immediate effect on a school’s funding. Principals could hire experienced teachers without budget worries because teacher salary was not an issue.
This year CPS is following a new budget process that Sarah Karp of Catalyst Magazine described as every kid having “a price tag attached to them.” Karp believes this “student-based budgeting” will work to the disadvantage of both special needs children and veteran teachers, both of whom suddenly became more expensive.
This forces principals into making difficult decisions in already underfunded schools. It is another way to further destabilize neighborhood schools and the communities they serve.
Charter proliferation: Charter schools were originally designed to operate with minimal control from central bureaucracies in order test new educational methods.The results would then be shared for the benefit of all.
Today’s charters have largely abandoned that mission. They have been weaponized to break teachers’ unions and privatize public education. They generally perform no better than regular public schools and further divide parents in already distressed communities.
Some charters are mired in political scandals as contracts are doled to the well connected. Among them is the UNO charter chain, formerly led by the disgraced Juan Rangel who was very close Mayor Emanuel. UNO is now under SEC and State of Illinois investigation for financial fraud. UNO operates on the West Side among its other locations.
The West Side Austin community saw 4 grade schools closed in 2013 for “underutilization” only to see a charter school approved which is sponsored by the politically connected Moody Bible Institute.
Tammie Vinson, a special education teacher at nearby Oscar DePriest school, said that while CPS claimed the lack of money was one “the driving reasons for closing schools, but now they’re supplying money to open charters, and it doesn’t make sense.”
CPS parent Zerlina Smith pointed how budgets were slashed at the surviving neighborhood schools as money was diverted to the new charter.
The introduction of a Noble Street charter school into the West Side came under fire from Dwayne Truss because of its discipline policies where loose shirttails and untied shoes mean $5 fines.
According to Truss,”If you get so many demerits, you have to take what they call an attitude adjustment class that you have to pay for in the summer because if you don’t, you don’t move up to the next grade.” A FOIA query revealed that Noble Street collected almost $387,000 in fines from 2008-2012.
Katie Osgood, a teacher at a Chicago psychiatric hospital testified at the Board of Education about how Noble Street traumatizes students:
“We’ve seen an alarming number of students being admitted to the hospital with depression, severe anxiety, and increasingly with actual suicide attempts all directly tied to these schools’ discipline, academic, and retention policies.”
As Dwayne Truss remarked,”This what happens at Noble Street. This is what they want to bring into our community”. Noble Street is closely associated with hedge fund operator and GOP candidate for governor Bruce Rauner, an ally of Mayor Emanuel.
Race to the Top and standardized test abuse: Although City Hall and CPS usually get the most criticism, Valerie Leonard made the point that the federal Race to the Top program deserves its share too, “It encourages those massive school closings that we see from city to city. It also encourages a lot of this testing that’s going on. It also encourages tying teacher performance to student test performance.”
Teachers do not control the West Side’s poverty and resulting social problems that affect student learning.
For states to to compete for Race to the Top funding they must agree to fund charter schools the same as public schools, agree to a dramatic increase in standardized testing as well agree to the controversial Common Core standards. Valerie Leonard told us,” The federal government has basically dangled carrots around the country with no guarantee of funding for these so-called reforms.”
She was also very critical of CPS entering into the Gates Compact in exchange for funds from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation because it favored school closings, standardized testing and privatization with very little money actually coming to Chicago.
The endless parade of standardized tests do not help students become critical, creative and curious lifetime learners. In an era when even kindergarten children are subjected them, the Chicago Teachers Union published a report debunking the test mania:
“Standardized testing grew out of the American tradition of using quantitative attempts to measure intelligence as a pretext for racist and exclusionary policies. Todays tests still discriminate and together with inequities in housing, employment, education, and health care, contributes to the achievement gap.”
Cassandre Cresswell a CPS parent and member of More than a Score, a group opposed to testing abuse, urged West Side parents to join the national movement and opt out of the tests:“We can say no, we don’t want our schools to be evaluated by this kind of testing because it is not meaningful enough for what [children] should be learning.”
School actions and gentrification: Two things I hear often on the West Side are,”They don’t want us here,” and “They want the land,” meaning that school closings are part of a disinvestment process that drives out Black and Latino working class people to make room for more affluent people (mostly white).
Dr. David Stovall, an education policy professor at UIC notes that the closings are concentrated in gentrifying areas, “This is a piece in the larger picture of making Chicago a ‘global city’ and displacing residents seen as undesirable.”
This kind of disinvestment and social dislocation has helped lead to the exodus of 200,000 African Americans from Chicago.
The low wage economy: One of the most important factors for student success is the income of the parent. Gloria Warner, President of Action Now, a community group active on the South and West Sides, made this point:
“There is a direct link between poverty and increases in violence and crime, as well as decreases in educational achievement. When workers make a living wage, it helps build up the whole community”
Ellyson Carter of West Side Action Now stressed the importance of more money flowing into the West Side economy,” We’re fighting for a minimum wage to be raised in the City of Chicago up to $15 an hour. We have a referendum on the ballot certain precincts to do this.”
Both the Chicago Teachers Union and Action Now are strong supporters of the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago (WOCC) which has led several Fight for $15 strikes since being founded in 2012.
“Tell no lies. Claim no easy victories”—Amilcar Cabral
I’d be a liar if I told you that morale is high in Chicago’s education justice movement right now. After the historic CTU strike of 2012, it was The Empire Strikes Back. CPS doubled down on teacher persecution, continued its traditional neglect of student needs and closed 50 schools. A lot of people are feeling fearful and discouraged. CPS teacher Tara Stamps said it best on a cold January night in a meeting held in the Austin neighborhood near where I live:
“The pressure that teachers are under is being transferred to our students because our teachers are so beleaguered. They are beat up on from the time they walk into the building until the time they leave. I believe it’s intentional, the amount of paperwork, the amount of accountability—and I’ve come to hate the word accountability. Because the only people being held accountable are the teachers. Nobody else. And what breaks my heart is that all of these things happen and the only people who are going to pay the price are our children…
…I know what happened during the strike, that you felt passion and anger that provoked us to action. And we cannot, and I know it’s hard, because I feel it too, but you cannot rest and think that this malaise will take care of itself. Because all of the data has shown that all of this change, not change really, but desolation and destruction, has not stopped. And the only people who can stop this are parents, students, teachers and solidarity.”
As I attended meetings, I kept thinking about the WWII London Blitz when German bombers leveled whole sections of the city, but rescue workers kept searching for survivors in the rubble and wondering how to rebuild. Powerful economic forces are attacking West Side with disinvestment, foreclosures, low wage jobs, unemployment and school closings, creating the “desolation and destruction” so eloquently described by Tara Stamps.
The Corporate Blitz on Chicago’s West Side has certainly taken its toll, but there is a resilience of spirit that has not been extinguished. Life goes on, changed perhaps, but life finds a way. And so does the resistance.
West Sider Roberta Wilson, an 86 year old retired Chicago Public Schools (CPS) employee who marched with Dr King against school segregation in 1963 said this:
“I’ve been out on the battlefield for a long time.I worked on the North Side for 29 years and believe me, up above Fullerton Ave you don’t see any charter schools. They’re in the African American community. That’s why parents need to get up and get out of the house and fight for all the children. So what I’m saying is, we need to hit these streets and do what we have to do.”
The CTU strike of 2012 terrified the barons of LaSalle Street from the big banks and hedge fund operators down to their spokesperson Rahm Emanuel. The CTU had called out the city elite for its institutional racism, for its callous attitude toward quality education and for its impoverishment of the city’s working class.
As the strike unfolded, it was clear that the Chicago’s working class had united across racial lines in support of the striking teachers. In 2013 Chicago’s working class once again united across racial lines in its overwhelming opposition to the school closings.
In my 38 years living in the most segregated urban area of the north, I had never seen that kind of multiracial working class unity. It was the cry of a people on behalf of the young. It is a cry that continues to be heard.
The pathological values of the very rich
“Research experts want to know what can be done about the values of poor segregated children; and this is a question that needs asking. But they do not ask what can be done about the values of the people who have segregated these communities. There is no academic study of the pathological detachment of the very rich…” ― Jonathan Kozol, Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools
Education justice activists often say that the Chicago school closings “were never about the money.” Actually they were all about the money. It is true they were never about saving money. They were about making money.
Neighborhood disinvestment and destabilization means lucrative contracts for charter school operators, investment bankers, real estate speculators and building contractors. The public relations term for this is gentrification. The more accurate term is ethnic cleansing.
But this is bigger than Chicago’s wealthy elite. Wall Street sees education as a goldmine for investors. Besides the national charter chains like KIPP, there is profit from the mind numbing standardized tests and the lifeless scripted curricula from companies like Pearson. There is the expensive hardware and software that accompanies online testing and online teaching.
The attacks on public education help feed the school to prison pipeline, a pipeline that is increasingly being privatized for profit.
But this just short-term gain. What about the systematic attack on children’s social skills, playfulness, imagination, curiosity and lifetime love of learning? Imagine the damage this does to their developing humanity. Then think about how this prepares them for a lifetime of precarious but very profitable low wage labor.
Of course the elite send their children to schools designed to encourage their social skills, playfulness, imagination, curiosity and lifetime love of learning. Clearly they have other plans for their offspring.
The miseducation being pushed on the West Side and communities like it is useless for ending poverty and racism, the two biggest problems these communities face and the two biggest enemies of their schools.
A feature of American capitalism since its beginnings, poverty and racism are both very profitable. To put it bluntly, eliminating poverty and racism would mean transforming the US economy from top to bottom. West Siders have traditionally resisted both poverty and racism, fighting for liberation from these evils.
The school motto of the now closed Mathew Henson School on the West Side was “Education is liberation! Peaceful! Positive! Productive!” Corporate domination over the minds of children is one way to counter both resistance and liberation.
It is a battle that Chicago’s West Side cannot win on its own.
This is modern neo-liberal capitalism at work, where everything and everyone are viewed as prey for profiteers. It is truly a global system whose impact is felt locally everyday. It is imperative that the education justice movement deepen its understanding of this reality. Whether you believe that capitalism can be made to work for all, or like me, you think socialism is the answer, that kind of knowledge is power.
The destructive social pathology of Chicago’s wealthy elite can be countered by solidarity among Chicago’s working class people, a solidarity that must extend across racial divisions, neighborhood boundaries, city limits, state lines and yes, even national borders. For as the downtown civic boosters like to say, “Chicago is a global city.”
Our job in the education justice movement to make it a global city that can educate everyone to their fullest human potential. Nothing less is acceptable.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that AUSL schools were non-union. That is incorrect. They employ union teachers after the “turnarounds”.
New charter school approved for Austin by Christa Smith
Upsized classes, downsized education by Brian Jones
How Inequality Hollows Out the Soul By Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett
AUSL turnarounds called ineffective, expensive by Curtis Black
Unmasking the Chicago charter scam by Kevin Moore and Rachel Cohen
Disappearing acts: The decline of black teachers by Brandon Johnson
Structured out of a job by Sarah Karp
The Black and White of Education in Chicago from the CTU Research Dept.
Behind the racist school closings agenda by Lee Sustar
Trickle-down Gentrification by Karen Narefsky