One thousand Chicago Public School teachers and their supporters, including this correspondent, packed Daley Plaza in forty-degree temperatures on Wednesday for a rally protesting the city’s announced plans to close 54 kindergarten-through-eighth-grade schools next year. One-tenth of the protesters were detained and ticketed  (though police originally said they had been “arrested”) at a sit-in in front of school board headquarters a few blocks to the south. What they are protesting is genuine shock-doctrine stuff—an announcement utterly rewiring a major urban institution via public rationales swaddled in utter bad faith, handed down in a blinding flash, absent any reasonable due process. Though Mayor Emanuel is learning that the forces of grassroots democracy can shock back too. And boy, does he have it coming.
The story went down like this. Immediately following Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s defeat in the historic Chicago Teachers Union strike this past fall , the district, claiming massive underutilization of school facilities in light of an announced $1 billion budget deficit, began talking about closing perhaps 129 schools. The district CEO Jean-Claude Brizard—sacked soon after as a “distraction” to “school reform”—had once said he could only imagine closing perhaps three schools, given the paucity of schools performing better than the ones they would have shut down. Knowledgeable observers thought perhaps a dozen or two would end up getting the axe. (You can hear those details  in this panel discussion from February of this year).
It took a petition signed by an overwhelming majority of the city’s fifty alderman to even win hearings on the issue. But those hearings were a disaster—“cannibalism,” as one alderman described them, “Good people pitted against each other because each one was trying to save their individual school.” A war of all against all: just the kind of atomization any self-respecting shock doctrineer wants to see among his constituency. Karen Lewis, the Chicago Teachers Union president, called them a “sham” for all the effect she thinks they actually had on decision-making.
Then came Thursday, March 21, and the bombshell: the all-at-once announcement of the fifty-four schools to be shuttered. Even the aldermen who’d be responsible for managing the fallout in their wards weren’t informed in advance. And the announcement was made not by the mayor but current school CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett; Rahm, that brave, brave man, had scheduled the most important announcements of his term on a day when he was off on a Utah ski vacation with his family. “It’s a slap in the face of the citizens,” Alderman Bob Fioretti  said. “He’s not here to answer any questions or stand by his head of the school system. He knows the publicity realm. He’s nowhere to be found when he needs to respond to the people.” One sign at the rally had a cartoon of Rahm in ski togs, and a mayoral quote: “I did not run for office to shirk my responsibility.” Another addressed Byrd-Bennett: “Your Conscience Is Underutilized.”
Why is this a matter of conscience? Isn’t it reasonable to assume that declining enrollment figures mean some schools should close? Some schools, perhaps—but consider this school-closing plan in its sordid specifics. When Rahm finally  showed his face, sunburned from the ski trip, for a Saturday press conference (to brag about the opening of a new Walmart), he admitted, “there is a lot of anguish and I understand that and appreciate it.… But the anguish and the pain…pales compared to the anguish that comes by trapping children in schools that are not succeeding.” Which makes no sense, when you consider that many of the schools receiving new students perform at or below the levels of the schools that are being closed.
One of those closing schools is called George Manierre Elementary. Located within the boundaries of the former Cabrini-Green housing project, its students are to be sent to another Cabrini-Green school seven blocks away, Jenner Elementary, that has lower test scores. So Rahm is lying; no surprise.
He is also, cry parents at the affected schools, putting their children in far greater danger for violent crime—which perhaps is surprising, given how escalating youth violence has become his political albatross. Chicago’s public radio station WBEZ, whose education reporter Linda Lutton has done outstanding work on the story, profiled one of those parents, a woman named Karlyn Harris who volunteers at Manierre every day. They recorded her anguish after they broke the news to her: “Oh, my God, I knew it was on the list but I didn’t know it was gonna be the—bam, in my face today. Oh, wow.” A reason for her horror: gang turf. Between Manierre and Jenner, “it’s like a boundary. You step over this line, the cowboys get you, over here, it’s the Indians.” The ward’s alderman, Walter Burnett, notes the two schools have been “fighting since I was a kid.… These are lifelong grudges.” He worries that it will keep kids from going to school altogether. Which appears to be a problem district headquarters never much considered: according to a speaker at the rally, there was originally no safety plan, and the bureaucrat in charge of making it didn’t even know the names of the closing schools “until the media got to him.”
Here’s another issue of which the city has proven shockingly heedless: community. There is more to maximizing the utility of limited educational resources than measuring the capacity of school buildings and discerning whether they are 50, 75, or 100 percent full. There is also the fact that each school is an individual human institution, with its own human ecology. Keeping that community together—or at least thinking about whether each individual school is working or not working qua community—has value in itself: for the students, for the teachers (God forbid we think about their human needs), and for the larger community within which the school operates. When you close a school, you kill something: a network of trust (or distrust), a web of relationships (which might or might not be functional relationships), an environment. It is in this way that, when you listen to and read the coverage here, the school-closers and the would-be school savers talk past each other. You hear parents, teachers, and students literally moved to tears at the thought of the places they love closing. Then you hear the CPS people talking statistics.
Isn’t it possible to consider that shuttering even a school at 50 percent classroom capacity can do more harm than good? That shuttering a school at 100 percent capacity might do more good than harm? And that this good or harm might sometimes be hard to measure, but yet still valuable for all that? Beyond learning outcomes, isn’t experiencing a rich community, and having a role in building and maintaining that community, and watching adult role models build and maintain that community, a useful outcome for a young person? (See this piece  for the testimony of a college-bound high school senior named Lavell Short on how his “low-performing” elementary school, which is closing, profoundly contributed to his moral development.)
Community: Manierre is across the street from the massive Marshall Field Garden Apartments complex  (a privately financed experiment in moderate-income history), one reason why so many parents feel safe sending there kids there. And proximity provides another value. Here’s Harris, the volunteer at Manierre: “It’s like, when you step out of your house you’re right into this school. So it’s like you’re stepping out of your bed and you’re going into a dining room…It’s gonna tear the community down. Not only the students. It’s gonna be the parents. It’s like a mother’s kids being taken from her, that’s how I feel.”
But even this argument is granting city governments too much—because it presumes the utilitarian statistical arguments they claim to be making are intellectually legitimate. Are they? The brass have made that challenging to answer. The whole issue of measuring the capacity of school buildings, for example: it took an investigation from the Chicago Tribune  to discover that the city had been pegging arguments about which schools to close on an “ideal” class size of thirty students. That ghastly vision, “little mentioned despite months of public debate,” the Trib observed, all but accusing deliberate subterfuge—that a school full of classrooms with twenty-nine kids is too “empty” to be “efficient”—“allows the mayor and school officials to drive the public debate with attention-grabbing statistics. It has enabled the Emanuel administration to declare nearly half of all elementary and high schools underused, leaving 100,000 desks empty.”
From that, however, two further statistical subterfuges emerge. A large part of what school activist here spend their energy on is “data liberation,” prying forth information locked into PDF files—to compose data sets that, once the numbers are crunched, tell stories radically different from those issued by school headquarters on LaSalle Street. Just that sort of careful statistical work from the advocacy group Apples to Apples has discovered that, in fact, that it would be more accurate  to say the school closings aim at an average capacity of thirty-six students per class. A second node of statistical propaganda: note how the Trib cites “100,000 desks empty” in Chicago Public Schools. That means the Trib has effectively been conned—not to be too hard on the city’s marquee daily, because the Emanuel administration is such a skilled gang of con men. Spokesman frequently use that 100,000 figure, though sometimes they use the number 145,000. For instance, in this discussion —pay attention at at about 6:38, for this is a smoking gun—Chicago Board of Education vice president Jesse Ruiz, baldly states “we actually lost 145,000 students.”
Stunning, stunning, stunning: As even the district’s official school closing documents acknowledge, the number “145,000” refers to the number of Chicagoans between the ages of 0 and 19 the city has lost, a large number of which are not even school age, many of those who are school-aged not being CPS students. So Apples to Apples ran the numbers of students CPS has actually lost: only about 30,000, about a fifth of their mendacious claim. It’s enough to make an honest person want to scream.
Here, meanwhile, are other statistics—accurate statistics. Five schools, almost a fifth of the total, are in the Carbrini-Green ward, the 27th—a prime area for gentrification over which real estate developers salivate. (Here’s Mrs. Harris: “I think the reason they really wanna close this school here is because of the land. I don’t know how much these homes cost, over here, or condos—$200,000?”) The area is dotted with high-performing magnet schools; but of course none of the Manierre kids are being reassigned to those—they’re being assigned to a school that’s 98 percent black. Eighty percent of students affected by school closings, in fact, are black; but only 40 percent of students as a whole in the system are black. (Signs hoisted on the dais of the rally on Daley Plaza starred the faces of African-American heroes whose names adorn some of the schools being closed: writer Henry Dumas. Singer Mahalia Jackson. Eighteenth-century scientist Benjamin Banneker.)
“Everybody on the board did not look at this decision as numbers on a spreadsheet,” said Rahm at his sunburned Saturday press conference. “We looked at it and viewed it as what can we do to have every child have a high-quality education regardless of their neighborhood, regardless of their circumstances, regardless of where they live.” Yeah, right. There is a reasonable suspicion that a lot of these shuttered schools are going to be turned over to charter operators. In 2012, belying every “underutilization” claim, the school board announced  plans to open 100 new charter, “turnaround” and “contract” schools over the next five years. Considering that fact, here are some other accurate statistics  concerning the United Neighborhood Organization, or UNO, the city’s most prominent charter company, whose CEO, Juan Rangel, is a major supporter of Mayor Emanuel. $1.5 million: the amount a company owned by the brother of a top UNO executive, Miguel d’Escoto, got for work as the “owner’s representative” for UNO school construction. $10 million: the amount another d’Escoto brother stands to make installing windows in UNO schools. $98 million: the amount of the state grant to UNO for school construction from which this beneficence derives.
It’s about real people vs. really rich people, read another of the Daley Plaza placards—rich people like school board president David Vitale, the former CEO of the Chicago Board of Trade, vice chairman fo the DNP Select Income Fund, board member for United Continental Holdings, for which he was paid $216,688 in 2011. And Juan Rangel, about whom I stumbled across a puff piece in Hispanic Executive with the unintentionally hilarious headline “Revolutionary Chicago-based Group Refuses to ‘Act Like a Nonprofit’,”  with the following unintentionally hilarious quote: “Rangel also works to combat the misconceptions surrounding nonprofits. The CEO says many young people believe nonprofits are well-intentioned, but offer little room for advancement and require taking a ‘vow of poverty.’”
You see why Chicago teachers are angry. And why they’re not going away. And why they promise more civil disobedience. “So lemme tell you what you’re gonna do,” shouted Karen Lewis at the rally. “On the first day of school, you show up at your real school! You show up at your real school! Don’t let these people take your schools.” They just might. They’ve beat Rahm before. They could beat him again.
Rick Perlstein is the author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, winner of the 2001 Los Angeles Times Book Award for history, and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (2008), a New York Times bestseller picked as one of the best nonfiction books of the year by over a dozen publications. A former online columnist for The New Republic and Rolling Stone and former chief national correspondent for the Village Voice, his journalism and essays have appeared in Newsweek, The Nation, the New York Times, and many other publications. Perlstein has been called the "chronicler extraordinaire of American conservatism" by Politico and the "hypercaffeinated Herodotus of the American century" by The Nation. He lives in Chicago, where he is at work on a book on the 1970s and the rise of Ronald Reagan. He plays jazz piano on the side.