Chicago school closings met with civil disobedience

Thousands of people filled Daley Plaza outside of Chicago’s City Hall to protest the proposed closing of 53 elementary schools. About 120 members of SEIU Local 1, UNITE HERE Local 1, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), the Grassroots Education Movement, and other community organizations sat down in front of City Hall to protest the closings and were arrested.

“When is this going to stop?” asked Finola Burrell, a Chicago Public School teacher and parent at the demonstration.  “If we do not fight now, we’re going to pay later. We must make sure that our community schools are not destroyed—our neighborhoods are not destroyed. If we sit idly by, all of this stuff comes tumbling down.”

Administrators for Chicago Public Schools (CPS) said that the schools slated for closing were under utilized and that the school district needed to save money because it was facing a $1 billion deficit.

Karen Lewis, CTU president, that the reasons given to justify the closings are bogus and that the closings are racist.

“Let’s not pretend that when you close schools on the South and West sides, the children affected aren’t black,” said Lewis to the protestors. “Let’s not pretend that’s not racist.”

Eighty-six percent of the pupils affected by the closings are African-American or Latino students.

At one time, it appeared that as many a 100 schools would be shut down. The threat to close so many schools led to grassroots organizing campaign of parents, students, teachers, and public school advocates to keep the schools open.

Lewis said that movement to save neighborhood schools would continue despite Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s pronouncement that the closings are a done deal.

“The message is this isn’t over,” said Lewis to Jaisal Noor of the Real News. “No matter what they think or what they believe, this is not over. There are a variety of ways to deal with this, but one of the most important ways is to motivate people to take responsibility for their own destinies. And that’s what this is about.”

Lewis said that the mayor could expect more civil disobedience to protest the closures. “(Civil disobedience) is the actual area where the people have control,” said Lewis. “We don’t have control over the courts. We don’t have control over the legal system. We certainly don’t have control over the legislature. But this is a place where we do have some control.”

CPS administration said that classes in the schools being closed weren’t big enough. According to the CPS’ administration, 30 pupils per elementary class is the optimum number of students in a class.

But classes in Chicago schools in general are already overcrowded and transferring students at the closed school will make matters worse. “CPS class sizes are already among the highest in Illinois,” said Lewis. “Last year, early grade classrooms in the city were on average larger than those in 95 percent of the districts in the rest of the state.”

Instead of increasing class sizes by closing schools, CTU says that CPS should be looking for ways to reduce class size because research shows that smaller classes, especially for young students, produces better outcomes.

A study of a Tennessee experiment on the impact of class size by Frederick Mosteller of Harvard University found that “it was clear that smaller classes did produce substantial improvement in early learning and cognitive studies.”

“Smaller class sizes are a proven school policy that works, narrows the achievement gap, and is manageable for both our teachers and students,” said  Dr. Carol Caref, CTU research director.

Mayor Emmanuel and his school board, however, say that smaller class sizes aren’t possible because the school district has a $1 billion deficit.

But opponents of school closings say that the deficit wouldn’t exist if the mayor had his priorities straight. According the Grassroots Education Movement, a coalition of groups that support public schools, one of the mayor’s first acts as mayor was to give a $50 million corporate tax cut. One of the beneficiaries of the cut was the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, the largest commodities exchange in the world and a top contributor to the mayor’s election campaign.

The closing of the schools will also put student safety at risk.

“These (proposed closings) unnecessarily expose our students to gang violence, turf wars and peer-to-peer conflict,” said Lewis. “Some of our students have been seriously injured as a result of school closings. One died. Putting thousands of small children in harm’s way is not laudatory.”

Lewis added that there is no safety or transportation plan in place that could help mitigate the impact of school closings on the children, their parents, or the community.

“The city has already raised (Chicago Transit Authority) fares and now they expect parents to put their five-year-old on a crowded city bus in order for them to get to school, when they used to be able to walk to a school in their neighborhood,” said Lewis. “The way this is being done is an insult and it is disrespectful.”

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