Police issue tickets at protest over Chicago closings

Chicago police issued 127 tickets to protesters but arrested nobody Wednesday at a downtown rally and sit-in, led by the Chicago Teachers Union, over the 54 schools the school district says it wants to close this year, the Chicago Tribune reports.

The union, led by president Karen Lewis, demanded that Chicago Public Schools stop all closures. They want, in other words, zero schools to close. Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Wednesday he wants to move forward with the 54 closures, which will affect more than 30,000 students in the closing schools and “receiving” schools.

Editorial

We have written extensively about the Chicago school closings and will not add to the noise at this point. Our analysis has shown that some school closures are unavoidable, given the district’s stated budget crisis, and good for Chicago’s students, given the quality of the curriculum at many schools on the closure list. However, the number of buildings to be shuttered is high and escapes reason in some cases.

Before the final vote in May, the district will conduct hearings for each of the proposed closures. We believe a thoughtful analysis will reveal issues that need rational discussion, not sign-carrying unions and people who risk arrest. This is an important education and community issue, and it cannot degrade to half-truths on either side. Although the CTU accuses the district of “half-truths,” they peddle a few of their own by using charged language.

For example, the union said that closures save no money. That’s a half-truth. Often, studies have shown, they don’t save as much money as the district initially projected, but they do result in some savings. Perhaps the half-truth here will draw attention to a more detailed look at the finances of a broken school district, but the debate isn’t moving forward at this point, when all we have are half-truths and spins from both sides.

The question before Chicagoans is, How can the students best be served by the public schools? If students are in high-performing schools, that’s the best alternative. Options for any given student for achieving that high-performance environment include positive investment in his or her current school and transfer of that student to another school. Many people equate schools with communities, as schools have been fixtures and anchors of stability in many Chicago neighborhoods. But ultimately, schools are about providing an education for students and investing the public’s money to provide the best possible education.

That message gets lost when the debate level rises and unchecked statements start flying through the downtown air. And a strongly biased and partially inaccurate editorial in the Chicago Tribune didn’t help. We need to get the message back.

Charges of racism have further inflamed the conversation. We agree that there is de facto discrimination here and that CPS has targeted predominantly minority neighborhoods for school closures. That’s where enrollment at neighborhood schools has declined most precipitously, though. Closing schools based on under-utilization will inevitably put schools in minority neighborhoods on the closure list.

As we have noted, the discrimination happened a long, long time ago, shortly after the No Child Left Behind law began imposing high-stakes tests on third-graders. Where were the protesters then? Something might have been done to nip this year’s closing action off in the bud.

And when a high school’s test scores start going down, the school moves to narrow the curriculum and focus on tested subjects. In other words, the district divests failing schools of everything that allows them to be or become great schools, putting them on a path toward certain closure down the road.

The unintended consequence of eliminating challenging classes, those that promote 21st-century skills and critical thinking, classes that must be sacrificed in the name of raising the scores a few points for kids who are right at the margin between “partially proficient” and “proficient,” is that students suffer: Forget about the “advanced” kids, since encouraging them or instilling a love of learning won’t help the school’s test scores. Forget about the kids with severe special needs, since in most cases, they will never be able to score “proficient” on a standardized test.

So, when that happens, parents move their families, including students from elementary to high school, out of the neighborhood or find other educational options for their kids, such as private or parochial schools. Eventually, enough students abandon these schools that they look under-utilized on a school district spreadsheet.

If schools reduce the academic opportunities or challenge—and many charter schools, while focusing on discipline, neglect academic challenge as well—under-utilization is inevitable. And here is where the violation of civil rights occurs. The district distributes money inequitably to the schools, concentrating the higher-level classes in schools that are not getting low test scores, making the problem worse. At some point, this cycle can’t be stopped or reversed, and the school needs to close.

Wednesday, instead of focusing on how CPS can improve the quality of education for its students, we’re throwing threats around about Rahm Emanuel being a one-term mayor. That type of discussion reduces school closings to the level of snow removal. The discussions and analysis that follow will be too important to diminish it with half-truths. And remember, the only thing that matters is the quality of education.

That means getting students to and from school safely, providing them with good classes that challenge learners on all levels, developing programs in the humanities, fine arts, science, and other areas of interest to a diverse student population, and giving teachers and principals the resources they need to deliver a high-quality education.

We believe any rational analysis will show that school closings are necessary. How many is another question. However, CPS must answer for the way it has narrowed the curriculum in the schools in its poorest neighborhoods, where the majority of the population is African-American and the majority of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

Schools come and go, but in the long post-mortem analysis people will surely conduct about this biggest proposed closing in history, CPS must answer for how it has reduced the quality of education it provides for some students while improving it for others. That’s the definition of discrimination, and the history of course offerings at Chicago schools is not a half-truth.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more biographical information, see the About page.