As the academic year winds down, a record number of Chicago schools are preparing to close their doors for good in the largest mass school closing ever in one U.S. city. Last week, the Chicago Board of Education voted to close 50 of the city’s public schools in a move that will impact some 30,000 students, around 90 percent of them African American. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has pushed for the closures in order to save the city more than $500 billion, half of its deficit. “Rahm Emanuel actually does not have an educational plan, he has an economic development plan,” says our guest Diane Ravitch, who served as the assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush. Proponents say the closures will hit schools that are both underperforming and underutilized. But a vocal coalition of parents, teachers and students has fought back, warning that the closures will lead to overcrowded classrooms and endanger those students forced to walk longer distances to their new schools. We go to Chicago to speak with Jesse Sharkey, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, which helped lead the campaign against the school closures. “They are making a very massive, radical and, frankly, irreversible experiment here on other people’s children,” Sharkey says.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
Aaron Maté: It’s almost June, and students across the country are counting down to the summer break. But today we look at Chicago, where a record number of schools are preparing to close their doors for good. In a controversial move last week, the Chicago Board of Education voted to close 50 of the city’s public schools. It’s the largest mass school closing ever in one U.S. city. Some 30,000 students will be affected, around 90 percent of them African American.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has pushed for the closures. He says the city will save more than $500 billion, half of its deficit. Proponents also say the closures will hit schools that are both underperforming and underutilized. But a vocal coalition of parents, teachers and students has fought back.
Amy Goodman: At protests and public hearings, closure opponents have denounced the plan as discriminatory for overwhelmingly targeting African-American and Latino neighborhoods. They warn the closures will lead to overcrowded classrooms and endanger those students forced to walk longer distances to their new schools. After last week’s vote, Alex Lyons of the group Save Our West Side Schools said the school district is putting children in harm’s way.
Alex Lyons: I am very, very disappointed and upset in the rubber-stamp vote that was taken by the CPS Board of Elections to take our kids from the classroom and put them on the front row of killings, murders, war zones, seeing things that a kid should not see to go to school.
Aaron Maté: The vote to close so many Chicago schools may be historic, but it already follows around 100 other school closures in Chicago since 2001. Ahead of last week’s vote, a group of Chicago parents filed two lawsuits saying these new closures violate the Americans with Disabilities Act and Illinois civil rights law.
Amy Goodman: To discuss the Chicago closures, we’re joined by two guests. In Chicago, Jesse Sharkey is with us, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, which helped lead the campaign against the school closures. And here in New York, Diane Ravitch is with us. She served as the assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush, now a historian of education and the best-selling author of over 20 books, including The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s start in Chicago with Jesse Sharkey. Explain the latest and why these schools are being closed and what you’re doing about it.
Jesse Sharkey: Well, Amy, thanks for having me on, first of all.
There’s been a real shifting rationale about why the district is closing the schools. What they keep—what they’ve said is that it will save money and they have a budget deficit to worry about, and then now they’re saying that this will allow them to better serve the students whose schools are being closed. Both rationales are outrageous. As far as saving money, the district is planning—or the city is going to spend $300 million to renovate a new stadium for the DePaul basketball team and renovate the tourist areas of the city, that we don’t believe the school closings will save that much money. And we definitely don’t think that this will actually help the students that are being affected. In all the previous rounds, we found that the University of Chicago research shows that over 90 percent of the students actually wind up with worse educational outcomes as a result of their schools being closed. So, this will be very harmful to the students. It’ll be harmful to the public school system as a whole, and to the people who work in the schools, as well.
Aaron Maté: When the closures were announced in March, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was across the country on a ski vacation with his family in Utah. When he got back, Emanuel defended the plan to close so many of his city’s schools.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel: To deal with the 54 schools was not taken lightly, but it was taken with the notion of how do we make sure that every child can get to a quality school with a quality education.
Aaron Maté: I want to bring in Diane Ravitch. So the argument here is that there’s around 100,000 empty seats that are wasting taxpayer money. What’s your response to that?
Diane Ravitch: Well, you know, it’s funny, because over the past several years we’ve seen the federal government and a lot of local governments saying that kids need smaller schools. And, actually, in New York City, for example, many schools have been broken up; big schools have been broken up into five or six schools, and many new small schools have been created. All of these schools could have served as the ideal small schools. There really was no reason to close them. And many people think it may have been payback to the teachers’ union for having struck last September. Other cities that have closed schools have found no cost savings, because the children still need services, the children still need teachers, so that there are really no cost savings.
This is, I think, on Rahm Emanuel’s part, he’s following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Arne Duncan. Arne Duncan started this idea that the way to improve schools was to close them, which is obviously a ridiculous idea. But he closed three schools in 2002, and then, two years later, he announced his reform plan, which he called Renaissance 2010. And the heart of Renaissance 2010 was to close schools and open new schools, and that would somehow miraculously improve education. Not only did it not improve education in Chicago, and he did close lots of schools and open many more—it did not improve education, but in this latest wave of school closings by Rahm Emanuel, the three schools that—the first three schools that Arne Duncan closed and reopened have now been closed again.
Amy Goodman: How significant is this school closure—schools closure, I should say, 50 schools in Chicago, in the context of education in America, in the United States?
Diane Ravitch: Well, I think that what—what’s so terrible is that people have come to accept the idea that closing schools is a reform strategy. And as I mentioned, the one who started this was Arne Duncan. We now see it happening—
Amy Goodman: The secretary of education.
Diane Ravitch: Secretary of education. So, we now see it happening in New York City, where the mayor has closed something like 150 schools over several years—not so many at one time—massive school closings underway in Philadelphia and Detroit. In city after city, the civic and business elite and the—whoever’s put in charge of superintendent has taken the position that they’ll close schools. And what they’re mostly doing is privatizing them. I mean, you have to understand that the closing schools argument is not simply about public schools getting better, which obviously they don’t, are not—and the kids are not sent to better schools, they get sent to equally low-performing schools. And not all the schools that are being closed are low-performing schools, by the way. But it is part of a larger scheme to advance privatization, to create privately managed charter schools that are non-union schools. And Chicago now has about 75,000 children in non-union charter schools.
Amy Goodman: But the mayor, Jesse Sharkey, says it’s to close this massive debt.
Jesse Sharkey: That’s their claim. You know, the mayor has also said that there’s not enough money, but he will refuse to consider raising taxes. The mayor also sets aside about a quarter billion dollars a year, which goes into essentially a sort of real estate kitty, a sludge fund called the tax increment finance funds. But really, we do see this as an attempt to close public schools and replace them with non-union charter schools. Chicago has signed onto the Gates compact, which promises to add 60 new charter schools in the next four years. So even as they close traditional public schools, neighborhood schools—look, some of these schools have been around for over a hundred years and, you know, survived two world wars and a Great Depression, but haven’t survived this mayor. And so, even as he’s talking about closing schools because there’s too many “seats,” quote-unquote, they’re opening many other schools. The rationales begin to fall apart. And frankly, the rationales keep shifting. You know, these are sort of the third sets of justifications they’ve made for this policy.
Amy Goodman: Diane Ravitch, the choices that the city of Chicago is making, where they put their money and where they take it out?
Diane Ravitch: Well, you know, it’s—I think Jesse is quite right. This is not about saving money. It’s not about giving kids a better education, because there’s solid research that shows that most of the kids who moved in from a closed school to another school, there was no change at all for them. This is really about a privatization movement that’s underway across the country, and I think that Rahm Emanuel wanted to be the biggest, the baddest and the boldest by closing the most schools.
Amy Goodman: And then, what is happening instead in Chicago, where the money is going?
Diane Ravitch: Well, it’s going to tax breaks for billionaires like Penny Pritzker and other people who are developing and building, and it’s—and gentrifying the city. And this is not about children. It’s not about education. Rahm Emanuel actually does not have an educational plan; he has an economic development plan. And this is where the schools fit in, which is to close public schools and to open more and more privately managed charters.
Aaron Maté: Jesse Sharkey—
Jesse Sharkey: Amy, if I could add one thing—
Aaron Maté: —the impact on students, some parents—like we heard one parent say in the beginning, that this will force students into longer walks to school, and this happened across gang lines.
Jesse Sharkey: Yeah, we’re concerned about safety.
I’d just add one other thing about saving money, which is that one part of the plan, which will save money and be very detrimental to students, is they intend to massively increase class size, both in the schools which are closing—well, both in the schools which are receiving closed students, the students of closed schools, and also across the district. We know that small class size is educationally effective, especially for elementary school students in the lower grades, especially for disadvantaged students—i.e. exactly the students that have been targeted by these closures. And we think that class sizes are going to spike as a result of this.
The safety is a real concern, as well. I mean, we’re talking about 50 schools that are in some of the toughest neighborhoods in Chicago. They have not had adequate sort of planning time to make real safety plans. When the list was announced in late March, the people who are actually responsible for helping the kids get to school safely didn’t even know their schools would be on the list. You know, the district is scrambling to play catch up. And they’re making a very massive, radical and, frankly, irreversible experiment here on other people’s children.
Amy Goodman: This is happening under a Democratic administration, Diane Ravitch, in Chicago. You served as secretary of education under George H.W. Bush. How does this philosophy, this approach, compare?
Diane Ravitch: Well, just I was assistant secretary of education.
Amy Goodman: Assistant secretary.
Diane Ravitch: Well, actually, what has been most disheartening, I think, to people across the country who care about public education is that President Obama and Arne Duncan launched the same—basically the same program as No Child Left Behind, only more punitive. No Child Left Behind was—one of the remedies in No Child Left Behind was that if a school didn’t have scores that went up and up and up every year, the schools might be closed. Arne Duncan launched something called Race to the Top, which said, here’s billions of dollars, and if you accept any of this money, one of the things you agree to is to close schools. He calls it a turnaround. He calls it a transformation.
Here is a Democratic administration that has bought the Republican line fully. I was asked by a reporter the other day, “How come Republicans are so willing to collaborate?” It’s the one issue where the Republicans are happy to collaborate with President Obama, and that’s education. And I said, “That’s because President Obama has adopted the Republican position on education, which has always been testing, choice and accountability.” And the accountability is people get fired, schools get closed. The Democratic agenda has always been one based on equity. The kids with the greatest needs should have the smallest class sizes and the most resources. And that’s the reason for federal aid to education, was to try to level the playing field. But President Obama, unfortunately, has abandoned the traditional Democratic approach and has embraced the Republican approach. And that’s why gets so little push-back in Congress.
Amy Goodman: We’re going to end with one of the most vocal campaigners against the Chicago school closures, a nine-year-old boy, third grade student at Marcus Garvey Elementary School in Chicago, named Asean Johnson. In a video of a recent protest that’s gone viral, he brought the crowd to its feet as he spoke out against Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Asean Johnson: Rahm Emanuel thinks that we all are toys. He thinks he can just come into our schools and move all our kids all over gang lines and just say, “Oh, we can build a building right here. Let’s just take this school out. We don’t care about these kids.” But it’s kids in there. They need—they need safety. Rahm Emanuel is not caring about our schools. He’s not caring about our safety. He only cares about his kids. He only care about what he needs. He do not care about nobody else but himself. You should be investing in these schools, not closing them. You should be supporting these schools, not closing them. We shall not be moved today! We are going to City Hall. We’re deporting Rahm Emanuel. We are not toys. We are not going, not without a fight! Education is a right! That is why we have to fight! Education is a right! That is why we have to fight! Education is a right! That is why we have to fight!
Amy Goodman: That’s nine-year-old Asean Johnson. His school, Marcus Garvey Elementary, was initially on the chopping block, but it’s one of four schools that were spared in last week’s vote. This is Democracy Now! I want to thank Jesse Sharkey, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, and Diane Ravitch, assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush, historian of education, best-selling author of almost—of over 20 books, including The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we stay in Chicago to talk about Penny Pritzker, the person chosen by President Obama to be the secretary of commerce. Stay with us.