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In an historic, unprecedented move, the third largest school district in the United States has experienced an impressively harsh blow to its students, teachers, and parents: the Chicago Board of Education has decided to shut down a staggering 50 public schools. This move will affect more than 30,000 students; approximately 90% of those students are African American and many others Latin American. The reason: Mayor Rahm Emanuel desires to save Chicago half of its deficit to the cost of $500 billion. A staggering number, to be sure. The logic behind this decision is such that schools that are underutilized and/or under performing will be eliminated at the close of the academic year while allowing the city to meet its budgetary needs. Tom Tyrell, a Chicago Public Schools official says, “We’re paying for a 100,000 empty seats across the board…It just doesn’t make any sense to keep paying for thousands of empty seats when we have an opportunity to restructure and put some assets into communities that have typically been under served.”
Diane Ravitch, former Assistant Secretary of Education to President George H.W. Bush has been quoted as saying, “Rahm Emanuel does not have an educational plan, he has an economic development plan.” Teachers, parents, unions, and students have taken to the streets in protest, citing that this decision will endanger the students who will now have to walk greater distances to reach their designated school and their overall educational experience will suffer as classroom sizes will increase to accommodate the influx of students. Jesse Sharkey, vice president of the Chicago Teacher’s Union, has said the school board’s decision creates “a very massive, radical and, frankly, irreversible experiment here on other people’s children.” One question leveled by opponents to the closures is: where is the proof that this move will be effective?
Prior to its decision, the school board heard a wave of protest and calls to keep the schools open by members of the community, many of whom attempted to stage a sit-in outside of the boardroom doors where the decision would be made; they were ultimately escorted out by security. Upon announcing its decision to shut down the schools, Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett sided with Mayor Emanuel in stating that Chicago needed to “right-size” its education system in order to remain financially solvent: “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,” indicating that the resources to schools could be shuttled towards computers, libraries, and air conditioning within the buildings that will remain open, to name a few perceived benefits. The school board passed the measure almost unanimously: 49 elementary schools and 1 high school would pay the price of the budget deficit and shut down. Emanuel was quoted as saying, “I will absorb the political consequence so our children have a better future.” Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teacher’s Union, however, described the closures as, “a day of mourning for the children of Chicago. Their education has been hijacked by an unrepresentative, unelected corporate school board, acting at the behest of a mayor who has no vision for improving the education of our children…Closing schools is not an education plan. It is a scorched earth policy.”
Not all students believe they will have a better future. One recent video that is taking the Internet by storm is of 9-year-old Asean Johnson of Marcus Garvey Elementary School, one of the schools slated to close at the conclusion of this school year. Climbing to the top of a large podium with the help of nearby adults, Johnson begins rather quietly before ultimately calling Mayor Emanuel out on his decision to close the schools, beseeching:
“Don’t do this to me! You know what happens to kids in this city! I need this!…Rahm Emanuel does not care about our schools. He does not care about our safety.” This sentiment echoes that of many adults who fear students will be forced to walk through dangerous neighborhoods where they will be exposed to increased incidences of violence and crime. With a rallying cry that brought an entire crowd to chanting, Johnson declares, “Education is our right! That is why we have to fight!”
As a teacher, this news hit me in a way that was very visceral and very real. After researching this topic, I found that parents and other adults are filing lawsuits against the city of Chicago, citing the decision as racist and a violation of civil liberties, including the Americans with Disabilities Act. These lawsuits have been granted four days of hearing to begin on July 16, 2013 to decide if the decision should stand and the schools shut down.
Lawsuits aside, my greatest concern lies with the students and families who are affected. It is well known among educators that smaller classes are better environments for student learning; it offers individualized attention, greater focus on positive learning outcomes, and it keeps teachers from burning out too quickly. Larger classroom sizes often lead to discipline problems and additional strain on school resources. Furthermore, students who require further assistance due to learning disabilities or physical concerns may find fewer teachers available to give them the personalized attention that they need and deserve.
We know too well that often education is a portion of the public sector that is often placed on the chopping block as one of the first places where budget deficits can be closed. This move in Chicago, however, is historically the largest school closing in a single city. The arguments given by school board officials do not fit their goals: “right-sizing” schools does not necessarily equate with downsizing schools. While I can understand wanting to invest into programs and services for schools, Byrd-Bennett’s comment of needing to place funding into what matters most was incongruous with what every teacher and every parent would say matters the most: it’s not air conditioning or art supplies… it’s the students themselves. It was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who said, “There is nothing more frightful than ignorance in action,” and this is a grand example of ignorance in action. If officials believe that students will not be affected by the school closures they are mistaken: all students will be affected, many of them for the worse. Unfortunately, it seems that education policy is made in stuffy boardrooms by individuals who have not entered classrooms since they were students themselves. There have been many times where I have felt that education policymakers need to be teachers or administrators who have spent extensive periods of time within school buildings interacting with students, teachers, and parents. Those who work in schools on a daily basis can attest to what students truly need in order to succeed. As a country we desire an educated public. We crave innovation, creativity, ingenuity, intelligence, and success. We want our students to be able to successfully compete against countries that have higher test scores and greater levels of student academic achievement, especially in an ever-increasing global economy. Yet if students are deprived of educational opportunities in order to save money, these very characteristics will dwindle. John Marsden says, “We kill all the caterpillars, then complain there are no butterflies.” If they take away the schools where children learn to spread their wings and fly, becoming better individuals as a result of their educational experiences, what will become of us? Will this become a precedent for other school systems?
The Educator’s Room will continue to follow the developments in this story and bring you additional information as it becomes available.