JAISAL NOOR, PRODUCER: Despite months of protests and civil disobedience, Chicago's board of education voted Wednesday, May 22 to close 50 Chicago public schools, the largest such wave of closings in U.S. history. The schools are almost all exclusively located in black and Latino low-income neighborhoods in Chicago's South and West Side. The months-long efforts of parents, teachers, and students to convince the board to rethink the closures, and even prevent the vote from taking place, ultimately failed.
TAMMIE VINSON, TEACHER ARRESTED FOR CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE: Our message to the mayor is to basically just to listen to the people of Chicago. We're citizens. We've been here longer than he have in most cases. We're taxpayers. We're parents. We're teachers. We're community members. And all we want is a fair and equitable education for our children.
Noor: Some of the most outspoken critics of the school closings have been the members of their local school councils, or LSCs. Unique to Chicago, LSCs provide teachers, parents, and community members direct oversight in how their school is run. Among the schools voted to be closed is Delano Elementary on Chicago's West Side, where Avanette Temple serves as the school councils' elected vice chair.
AVANETTE TEMPLE, VICE CHAIR, DELANO ELEMENTARY LSC: [inaud.] my kids went to Delano. So I've been involved with Delano for 30 years. I call Delano the motherboard of the neighborhood. Delano has pushed out doctors, lawyers, teachers, home owners, business owners.
Noor: Delano was one of the 50 schools voted to be closed, even though the hearing officer tasked with monitoring the closing process, retired judge Clifford Meacham, recommended Delano be taken off the list. He noted the school was improving academically and had strong roots to the community. And while Chicago Public Schools has maintained closed down schools will be replaced with those that are higher performing, Meacham noted that Delano is to be replaced with the worst-performing school Local school council member Temple says they are not closing Delano to help its students. ~~~
Temple: This is a beautiful community. And they want to take our community. Like I say, they have been wanting Delano for years.
Interviewer: Why do they want it?
Temple: Prime property. Look where you're at. You're at the Blue Line, the Green Line. You're five minutes from downtown. You're in the park. You have all these grey stones. It's just a beautiful area, very beautiful. ~~~ Avanette Temple is not alone in linking policies like school closings to the displacement of working class communities of color. In a piece posted to The Washington Post's Answer Sheet blog, Leslie T. Fenwick, dean of the Howard University School of Education writes that such policies are "really about exporting the urban poor, reclaiming inner city land, and using schools to recalculate urban land value. This kind of school reform is not about children, it's about the business elite gaining access to the nearly $600 billion that supports the nation's public schools. It's about money." But critics note that Chicago is simultaneously transferring hundreds of millions in tax dollars meant for public education to the private sector, including $100 million for De Paul University, a private institution, to build a new sports stadium. Longtime community member Avanette Temple says she sees a parallel between current protests against school closings and the decades-old movements waged by Chicago's communities of color for community control of schools and the creation of local school councils. She says closing schools will deny students access to a quality education because it will force them to walk through dangerous gang-infested areas.
Temple: I think that blacks have been marching for the longest. We're still marching. Hispanics have been marching for the longest. They are still marching. And like I asked Rahm Emanuel to walk the walk, you need to. You're sending us back into the '60s. He couldn't do it. So I feel that you don't care for us. You don't care for us as parents, as a community, our children. You don't care.
Noor: While 50 schools were voted to be closed in Chicago, Seattle teachers were celebrating a victory in their months-long boycott of mandated standardized tests. Lois Weiner, a professor of education and longtime advocate of grassroots education reform, says it's important to compare the two.
PROF. LOIS WEINER, NEW JERSEY CITY UNIV.: Juxtaposition of these two events should really give us pause. One of the reasons it should give us pause is that the boycott and the anti-testing movement are primarily white middle-class parents and teachers, and they have more political clout than poor working-class people of color. And so one of the challenges that we face is how to unite these two movements, because i don't think either movement can succeed at the expense of the other.
Noor: And while Weiner says Chicago activists failed in keeping their 50 schools open, they did achieve at least one important victory.
Weiner: It succeeded in showing the world that the puppets on the board of education were not representing the people of Chicago. It exposed that to the world. But, you know, these powerful elites are willing to do that. That's what we've seen all over the world, from Greece to Spain, to England. They're willing to sit tight against these mass demonstrations and even civil disobedience. And so the question is: what's next?
Noor: Weiner argues activists need to change tactics, including pressuring union leadership to mobilize their members to demand the Democratic Party stop supporting school closures nationally as President Obama has done through Race to the Top and in cities like Chicago with a Democrat, Rahm Emanuel, serving as mayor. She also supports teachers and community members taking over their schools in order to save them.
Weiner: One of the things that I think we need to prepare to do is to occupy the schools, just as the CIO did in organizing industry in the '30s. They occupied the factories. And I think the difference is we need to occupy the schools and make them sites of educational liberation, so that we show that it is we who control education, not these elites who have hack politicians who do their work. But to do that requires a phenomenal amount of mobilization and consciousness and radicalism on the part of parents and students and teachers and community activists.
Noor: Reporting for The Real News, this is Jaisal Noor.