5:12am

Thu May 23, 2013
Education

Losers In Chicago School Closings Target Elected Officials

Originally published on Fri May 24, 2013 10:54 am

A day after school officials approved shutting down 50 schools, the Chicago Teachers Union and community activists say they'll hold a voter registration and education campaign. The union is agitated that Mayor Rahm Emanuel, school board members and some lawmakers failed to listen to parents, teachers and others who called for the schools to remain open.

Before they voted yes on the sweeping school closure plan, school board members faced a torrent of criticism Wednesday. Protesters tried to conduct a sit-in at the front of the boardroom, but security officers escorted them out.

Sonya Williams, a parent who had come to testify in defense of her school, said she understood the passion and the outbursts.

"It's just like going to a long funeral and no one will close the casket yet," she said. "The fate of your position, the fate of your job, the fate of your children are up in the air, and they're based on a few people making a decision."

This was the last time before the vote that people could make their pitch to keep schools open. Chicago Alderman Bob Fioretti was among them.

"Substantial research shows that closing schools and moving students increases the dropout rate and the incidence of street violence," he said.

Chicago's 'School Utilization Crisis'

The arguments did not deter Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who, along with Mayor Emanuel, has argued that Chicago has to "right-size" its school district. They have said demographic shifts in mostly black neighborhoods left schools underutilized — plus, the district faces a budget deficit of a billion dollars.

Byrd-Bennett said the district had held marathon hearings, and it was time to do what's right.

"Like it or not, this system does have to change. By addressing our school utilization crisis, we have an opportunity to redirect limited resources to make investments in what matters," Byrd-Bennett said — investments that she said would let the schools students shift to have computer labs, libraries, art classes and air conditioning.

In a nearly unanimous vote, the board approved shutting 49 elementary schools and one high school program.

Okema Lewis, a parent who has kept track of the school board for a decade, called it a sad day.

"Underutilized — what does that mean? You had the option to put other things in the building if you wanted to utilize the building, not even children. You got communities. You got people need GED classes. All kind of services could have been used in the building. Half the building would have been a school, half would have been used for the community," Lewis said.

First District To Close So Many Schools At Once

Hearing officers had recommended that the school board take more than a dozen schools off the chopping block. In the end, the board voted to save four.

Outside school board headquarters, Jesse Sharkey with the Chicago Teachers Union said that wasn't progress.

"There's an old expression, which is, 'Don't put a knife into my back 6 inches, pull it out a couple and say you're doing a favor,' " he said. "This move is irreversible, deeply harmful for the people in the schools, and they have no evidence to say that it's going to work."

Chicago becomes the first district in the nation to close so many schools at once. Timothy Knowles, head of the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago, says this effort will be closely watched.

"The true test is really going to be whether children perform better over time and whether the city makes good on its promise of safe passage," he says. That is, putting enough adults on the streets to help children get to and from school safely.

Zeroing In On School Governance

The fight over school closings is part of a political showdown that began earlier in the school year when teachers went on strike for the first time in 25 years. This week, Mayor Emanuel said he was standing firm on the school closings: "I will absorb the political consequence so our children have a better future."

The Chicago Teachers Union backs lawsuits filed by parents to block the closings, arguing that they disproportionately affect African-American students and harm special education students.

The school board in Chicago is appointed by the mayor, and teachers union President Karen Lewis said the fight must eventually move to the ballot box.

"Our next plan is to have to change the governance of CPS [Chicago Public Schools]," she said. "Clearly this kind of cowboy-mentality, mayoral control is out of control. We're starting our deputy registration, and we will be registering voters across the city."

Their goal is to push the mayor and others who backed the school closings out of office, and to gather support for an elected school board.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. The battle over school reform in Chicago has parents and teachers in that city outraged. Yesterday, school board officials approved shutting down 50 schools - the most schools closed for any district in the country. The Chicago Teachers Union says the mayor, school board members and some lawmakers did not listen to those who opposed the school consolidation.

NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: School board members faced a torrent of criticism before they voted yes on the sweeping school closure plan.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You don't concede on this. We don't concede on this.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

CORLEY: Protesters tried to conduct a sit-in at the front of the board room but security officers escorted them out. Sonya Williams, a parent who had come to testify in defense of her school, said she understood the passion and the outbursts.

SONYA WILLIAMS: It's just like going to a long funeral and no one won't close the casket yet. The fate of your position, the fate of your job, the fate of your children are up in the air and they're based on a few people making a decision.

CORLEY: So this was the last moment that people could make their pitch to keep schools open. Chicago alderman Bob Fioretti was among them.

BOB FIORETTI: Substantial research shows that closing schools and moving students, it increases the dropout rate and the incidence of street violence.

CORLEY: The arguments did not deter Chicago Schools CEO Barbara Byrd Bennett, who along with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, has argued Chicago has to right-size the city's school district. They said demographic shifts in mostly black neighborhoods in Chicago left schools under-utilized. And the district also faces a budget deficit of a billion dollars. Byrd Bennett said the district held marathon hearings and now it's time for the district to do what's right.

BARBARA BYRD BENNETT: Like it or not, the system does have to change. By addressing our school utilization crisis we have an opportunity to redirect limited resources to make investments in what matters.

CORLEY: Investments that Byrd Bennett said would allow the schools that students shift to to have computer labs, libraries, art classes, air conditioning. It was a unanimous vote as the board approved shuttering 49 elementary schools and one high school program.

Okema Lewis, a parent who's kept track of the school board for a decade, called it a sad day.

OKEMA LEWIS: Underutilized? What does that mean? You had the option to put other things in the building if you wanted to utilize the building. Not even children. You got communities. You got people need GED classes. You got all kind of services could have been used in the building. Half of the building would have been a school. Half would have been used for the community.

CORLEY: Hearing officers had recommended the school board take more than a dozen schools off the chopping block. In the end, the board voted to save four.

Outside school board headquarters, Jesse Sharkey with the Chicago Teachers Union said that wasn't progress.

JESSE SHARKEY: There's an old expression, which is don't put a knife into my back, you know, six inches, pull it out a couple and say you're doing a favor. This move is irreversible, deeply harmful for the people in the schools, and they have no evidence to say that it's going to work.

CORLEY: Chicago becomes the first in the nation to close so many schools at once. Timothy Knowles, the head of the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago, says this effort will be closely watched.

TIMOTHY KNOWLES: The true test is really going to be whether children perform better over time and whether the city makes good on its promise of safe passage.

CORLEY: That is, putting enough adults on the streets to help children get to and from school safely. The fight over school closings is part of a political showdown that began earlier in the school year when teachers went out on strike for the first time in 25 years.

This week the mayor said he was standing firm on the school closings.

MAYOR RAHM EMANUEL: I will absorb the political consequence so our children have a better future.

CORLEY: The Chicago Teachers Union backs lawsuits filed by parents to block the closings, arguing they disproportionately affect African-American students and harm special education students. The Chicago School Board is appointed by the mayor and union president Karen Lewis says the fight must eventually move to the ballot box.

KAREN LEWIS: Our next plan is to have to change the governance of CPS. Clearly, this kind of cowboy mentality, mayoral control, is out of control. We're starting our deputy registration and we will be registering voters across the city.

CORLEY: With a goal of pushing the mayor and others who backed the school closings out of office, and to gather support for an elected school board.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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