While the rest of the city was easing into their weekend, Chicago teachers and parents were laying themselves on the line Friday evening to protest Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s school reform agenda. In a press conference turned sit-in, over a hundred Chicago students, parents and teachers gathered at Chicago’s city hall Friday evening demanding a moratorium on the mayor’s campaign to shut down dozens of Chicago’s neighborhood public schools. Jitu Brown, the education organizer at Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, said eleven people were arrested at around 10pm, but not before protesters took over the hallway just outside Emanuel’s door for hours.
“What they should do is declare a moratorium on school closings because so much damage has been done by these policies,” Brown said. “There’s enough examples of how [school closures] have already been harmful to communities that they should do it just out of acknowledgement of past history.”
The sit-in came just days after the city released its guidelines for shutting down city schools. In February, Mayor Emanuel proposed a plan to phase out or shut down some 100 public schools in Chicago, and also announced a parallel plan to open 64 schools. The public school closures are explained as a measure of efficiency; they’re targeted at so-called “underutilized” schools where enrollment is far below building capacity. Yet, Brown and others say that the underutilization of schools is a manufactured problem by reformers like Emanuel who are intent on destabilizing the public education system and transferring public education into the hands of non-public entities. The increasingly vocal coalition of Chicago public school teachers, students and families rising up against Emanuel’s school closures agenda say the city’s already long history with school closures have had a destabilizing effect on the poorest communities, which are most in need of stable public institutions to anchor communities.
“Every time they close a school that that’s a whole group of students that have to go to another school and for my students, school is the only stable institution in their neighborhoods,” said Lillian Kass, a teacher at Austin Polytechnical Academy on Friday. “My school has been starved the last few years. We don’t have an art teacher, we don’t have a music teacher. We don’t have a librarian. We don’t have a counselor… but for many of my students it’s the only stable place they have to go.”
“When you close down a school, whether it becomes a turnaround or a charter, it just adds to the instability in their lives and is very detrimental to their education.”
What’s more, the proposed school closures are centered in poor communities of color, even though there are underutilized schools in wealthier and whiter neighborhoods. “If school closings were such good policy, why aren’t they closing schools in white communities?” Pauline Lipman, a professor educational policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago asked at Friday’s action.