Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=218071
Story Retrieval Date: 12/29/2014 5:00:18 AM CST
A woman parks her car and sprints toward a church entrance, her adolescent daughter in tow, snow falling on their heads. A crowd of people have formed a semi-circle around the locked door. A Chicago Public Schools official opens it up and pops her head out. The church is full. No more room. Go home.
The CPS official refuses to give her name or specify her position. She tells the parents and children that the 7 p.m. meeting for which they have all arrived in the nick of time is already full and that allowing any more entrants will violate fire codes. She offers to take down their names, contact information and any questions they have for the district. She cannot provide any specific answers.
This was the scene last week at the Mount Vernon Missionary Baptist Church at Jackson and Rockwell, the site of CPS’ final community meeting for the Garfield-Humboldt network. Of the 129 schools facing possible closure, 14 of them are located in this West Side area, which has fewer than 30 elementary schools. By comparison, only seven schools total from the entire North Side are included on the list. The school commission said in its final report, released Wednesday, that the district could withstand up to 80 closures.
Olivia Conner listened with frustration as she stood out in the cold.
She would have been at the door earlier had parking been available – she had to persuade a bus driver to move to create a space for her car. Her daughter, Roshanda, who shivered in the falling snow, is a student at Laura Ward Elementary, one of the schools that could close.
“I came out here in this type of weather to get my voice heard. And now it can’t be heard,” Conner said.
She was one of many parents who thought that CPS should have found a larger facility – the fact that this venue was too small for a previous meeting was raised at the Board of Education earlier in the day. Conner said that perhaps one of the actual school buildings, rather than the church, may have been better able to accommodate the high number of concerned parents. “I just think it’s not fair. It’s like they want the school to close,” she said.
Some parents, like Conner, left. Others refused. CPS eventually opened up the door and allowed them into the church’s basement, where they waited until more space in the meeting opened up.
Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the woman charged with determining which schools to close, did not attend the meeting. Surrogates sat in her place, as one by one parents and teachers approached a microphone to oppose the school closings.
“Barbara Byrd-Bennett is Rahm Emanuel’s hatchet man,” said Danielle Pate-Horton, a mother of a seventh-grader at Marconi Elementary Community Academy, when it was her turn to speak.
“All of this is a sham,” she said after her speech had been ended for exceeding the time limit. “Those people up there aren’t the ones to make the decision. The mayor’s the one to make the decision,” Pate-Horton said. “Why couldn’t Rahm Emanuel have been here?”
Her opinion is not unique. Ald. Scott Waguespack echoed her thoughts the following evening in his ward when he spoke at the Fullerton Community Meeting in Logan Square, encouraging his constituents to call Emanuel, whom he criticized for not attending the community meetings.
“To not have an answer and not be able to look the person in the eye who’s making the decision,” Waguespack said the next week in his ward office, “It’s really beyond disheartening … looking out there at those parents and those kids.”
“I know there are some people out there very, very angry and yelling, and that’s their reaction to it. Inside I feel like yelling, too. Even as an alderman you can’t get through to the mayor. And I don’t think he would really care anyway what we have to say,” Waguespack said.
He said a November hearing the City Council held with the school commission resulted in no specific answers about school closings.
How much power does the mayor have over education in Chicago? You can’t ask CPS.
“Questions related to or referencing the mayor needed to be directed to the mayor’s office,” Robyn Ziegler, CPS’ director of media affairs, wrote in an email response to inquiries about the mayor’s role in shaping district policies.
The mayor holds a great deal of control of educational policy in Chicago. He names the CEO and also appoints the members of the Board of Education, to whom Byrd-Bennett reports. At February’s board meeting, not a single member asked Byrd-Bennett a question when she updated them on the school closing process. Additionally, after the public forum portion of the meeting, in which several parents and teachers discussed topics regarding school closings, none of the board members had any questions or comments about the issue.
Waguespack has repeatedly called for the adoption of an elected school board, a change he said the mayor’s office opposes – and helped prevent from appearing on the November ballot. An elected school board would make education policymakers directly answerable to the voters and increase community voice, according to advocacy groups such as the Chicago Teachers Union and the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization.
The board postponed its March meeting, originally scheduled four days before the final closing list is to be released, until April because it conflicted with the district’s spring break. A Chicago Teachers Union representative said this decision was an attempt to prevent parents from talking to the board.
CPS announced plans this week for a public hearing after the release of the commission’s report.
A source in the mayor’s office confirmed that Emanuel and Byrd-Bennett have a shared vision for education – including on the issue of school closings. Emanuel’s mayoral campaign focused on three pillars: strong schools, safe streets and smart finances.
The argument for school closings is twofold: over time it will help the district close a $1 billion deficit and it will allow the district to concentrate its resources on the schools that remain open.
Caroline Weisser, a press secretary in the mayor’s office, wrote an email Wednesday evening about the mayor’s education policy and the rationale for closing schools:
“Every child in every neighborhood in Chicago deserves to have a high quality education that will prepare them to succeed in life and right now that is not happening. We didn’t get here overnight, and we’re not going to fix everything overnight either.”
Less than an hour after he email was sent, CPS’ Office of Communications sent a news release on school closings, and attributed a quote nearly identical to Weisser’s to Byrd-Bennett: “We did not get here overnight, and we are not going to fix everything overnight.”
Who parroted whom? That is not clear. What is clear is that the mayor’s office and CPS are acting in concert and have a commonly crafted message.
Emanuel plans to remake Chicago education. The phrase his staffers use is “cradle to career,” and they promise that the long-term benefits of his policies will be evident in the coming years and decades by supplying the city with an educated workforce.
The mayor has taken steps to prioritize early childhood education, responding to research that the first five years of a child’s life are the most crucial to cognitive development.
The city has increased funding for pre-kindergarten and made it more accessible, investing $36 million over the next three years and increasing the number of children enrolled in the program by 5,000, according to documents provided by the mayor’s office. Last week CPS and the mayor’s office made a joint announcement that the district will mandate full-day kindergarten for next year. CPS will fund this through $15 million in cuts to the central office.
Even Emanuel’s critics have supported these moves.
Waguespack called full-day kindergarten a fantastic idea. A representative of Chicago Teachers Union praised full-day kindergarten and suggested that early childhood education deserved even more funding.
Emanuel has repeatedly called for more investment for children in speeches. The kindergarten announcement occurred in the same month that he kicked off a $50 million fundraising campaign to increase services for at-risk youth.
This past school year CPS, under the mayor’s control, adopted stricter standards for principal accountability and an increase in the length of a school day. A September news release from the mayor’s office quoted Emanuel about how his policies will benefit students:
“By putting the interests of our children first, teachers will no longer have to choose between reading and recess, algebra and athletics, science and social studies. On the first day of school, our students’ futures have come first.”
However, these words ring hollow for some Chicagoans in the face of school closings. CPS decided to exempt high schools from closures, meaning that the burden was passed almost completely to elementary schools. Parents excited about the prospect of things like full-day kindergarten are still wondering where exactly their children will be receiving their education.
Anita Stevenson, a parent of a current kindergartener at Jenner Elementary Academy who also volunteers at the school, met Emanuel during a roundtable he had for parents during the teacher strike.
While the school, which primarily serves the former Cabrini-Green community and is considered underutilized, Stevenson complained to the mayor that the classrooms were overcrowded. She said he promised to look into the situation. The next week one additional teacher was added to the school's faculty, but Stevenson considered that inadequate.
“We are solely depending on volunteers, solely depending on parents because we don’t have support from Chicago Public Schools,” Stevenson said. “Ironically, I am a taxpayer and I’m not low-income and I feel as if my tax dollars are not going to Jenner Academy at all. No.”
Stevenson, like many Chicagoans, believes CPS’ budget crisis is a result of the way the city operates its TIFs.
Tom Tresser, an activist with the Civic Lab, has researched Tax Increment Financing as part of the TIF Illumination Project. He said that TIFs drained $225 million in funding from Chicago Public Schools in 2011, which would account for nearly a quarter of the district’s deficit.
He explained that in Lincoln Park TIF districts, for example, 36 percent of property tax revenue goes to TIFs. At the same time 53 percent of property tax is supposed to go into the school system citywide. Tresser said that in TIF districts that 53 percent for schools is only collected after the TIF money has already been taken out, meaning the school funding comes from a significant pie. The proliferation of TIF districts in Chicago means that even residents who don’t live in these districts end up footing the bill because of the impact on education and other services, Tresser said.
TIF money is supposed to go toward renewing blighted areas, but some TIF districts are in affluent areas, including the Loop. The Chicago Teachers Union has criticized TIF money going to partner projects with corporations at a time when schools lack resources.
The mayor’s office did not respond to a question about TIF districts' impact on public education.
Last week the Chicago Reader reported that CPS officials went to Springfield to advocate that Chicago be exempt from a bill that would protect education funding from TIF revenue, a fact CPS confirmed.
“CPS officials requested that Chicago be exempt from any changes to TIFs. TIF dollars are a valuable economic engine for the city and have contributed to rebuilding our school infrastructure,” wrote Robyn Ziegler, the director of media affairs, in an email.
TIF money has been given to CPS in the past for construction projects, but critics say that pales in comparison to the amount of funding going to corporate projects.
So why is the man who calls strong schools a social pillar and wants more investment in at-risk youth supporting the closure of 80 schools? Why does he oppose TIF reform that could increase school funding? How can one rectify the mayor’s public statements with his policies?
Many critics have argued that school closings have nothing to do with the budget deficit, but are instead the first step toward privatizing the school system by creating a vacuum that will be filled by charter schools.
Emanuel has expanded privately-run but publicly-funded charters. The district’s decision to add 12 new charter schools has met with criticism from neighborhood school advocates.
These new charters include a new campus for the Aspira network, despite CPS’ recommendation to close one of their campuses for poor academic performance and four new campuses for the UNO network, for which Emanuel’s campaign co-chairman, Juan Rangel, serves as CEO.
Other measures Emanuel has supported such as Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics high schools involve corporate partnerships with companies like Microsoft.
“The mayor supports choice and accountability in our schools. Whether STEM, IB, charter, military, or neighborhood school, parents should have high-quality school options when it comes to their child’s education,”Weisser, from the mayor’s office, wrote in an email.
Annette Gurley oversees the Office of Teaching and Learning, which sets instructional policies for the district. At a February event about education issues facing African-Americans, hosted by the United Negro College Fund, she made it clear that CPS’ leadership does not prefer neighborhood public schools over other models.
A question about challenges facing the district, which did not mention charter schools, resulted in a revealing answer.
“I’m agnostic. It can be charter, it can be traditional, it can be parochial. I’ve worked in the parochial system. I think good teaching is good teaching. I think high expectations – you don’t have a label to set high expectations,” Gurley said.
Waguespack has argued that the crisis facing public education is indicative of a citywide surrender of the public sector, in which Chicago’s leaders only have faith in private sector solutions.
“We had parents who succeeded going to public schools. We’ve had everyone from astronauts to you name it go to public school systems,” Waguespack said after acknowledging that many neighborhood schools need to improve. “So what’s so wrong with the public school system that we have to destroy it?”
“If you work for Chicago Public Schools you can’t be agnostic. You cannot. You have to be an advocate,” he said.
Jitu Brown, an education organizer with the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, testified before the U.S. Department of Education at a January hearing regarding school closings disproportionately affecting African-American and Latino communities. The Department of Education is investigating the issue. Brown said he will be updated on its progress in four weeks.
“I think this is privatization 2.0,” Brown said this week. “[Emanuel] operates as a water boy for the corporate community,” Brown said.
Brown’s critiques of Emanuel and CPS are numerous, but they echo thoughts shared by many frustrated parents. In addition to the fear that school closings are sacrificing neighborhood public schools in the name of charters, Brown argued that closures are a step toward gentrification. He pointed to Bronzeville condominiums on the sites of schools closed in the 1990s as evidence.
He said that school closings will affect local economies by cutting jobs of neighborhood workers employed as security guards, teacher’s aides, cafeteria workers and custodial staff. He argued this will force out the African-American population of those neighborhoods so that they can be gentrified. Many parents at the Garfield-Humboldt meeting had the same theory.
None of the schools on the closing list have majority Caucasian student populations, said Brown.
“A mayor that operates as an emperor is not one I can give a passing grade,” he said a day prior to his departure for the DC hearing.
What’s Brown’s response to Emanuel’s public statements about investing in youth? “I laugh. I think it’s shameful.”
Even some of those that have praise for Emanuel also have criticisms. Maria Whelan serves as the President and CEO of Illinois Action For Children, a group that that has worked with Emanuel’s office on expanding early childhood education. Prior to Emanuel’s investment of city dollars, early childhood programs were completely reliant on state and federal dollars.
Whelan praised Emanuel for taking steps in the right direction on early childhood education, but still had reservations about some of his other policies.
“When I think about strong families and communities it’s really hard for me to think about a community without a school,” Whelan said. “The elephant in the room is deep poverty in our city.” Whelan searched the mayor’s office’s report on transitioning from early childhood programs to kindergarten and found only one use of the word “poverty.”
“I don’t think it’s anybody’s priority. When you talk about evaluating the impact, if you don’t talk about root problems you’re not going to fix them.”