A small group of parents and community members in the South Side of Chicago have gone on a hunger strike until the Chicago Board of Education agrees to a proposal to revitalize a local school. It has lasted 10 days. Dyett High School will shut its doors by the time the 2015–16 school year begins, unless officials decide to move forward with a proposal to convert it into the Global Leadership and Green Technology High School.
To understand what is happening in Chicago, and why the story has gained national attention in the news and on social media, you have to look at the long, heated fight between the Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D). In 2012, there was a massive teachers strike over maintaining the schedule for career advancement, putting less emphasis on standardized testing in teacher evaluations and providing compensation for longer school years.
In 2013, Emanuel announced a decision to close 49 schools, which were mostly in black neighborhoods. Lewis commented on the closings, saying, “Let’s not pretend that’s not racist.” Lewis led protests outside of City Hall, where protesters accused the mayor of racism for the proposed closures. Emanuel countered that the closures and other reforms would be better for students over the long haul, saying, “We used to have four out of 10 kids drop out of high school … In two years’ time, we’re going to have eight out of 10 graduate high school. And more kids now are going to high school than ever before in the city of Chicago.” The veracity of the data Emanuel has used on graduation rates has been questioned, however.
In the hunger strikes, advocates have reignited a discussion on school closings in black and Hispanic communities, which has the support of Rev. Jesse Jackson, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers and Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools. The 11 hunger strikers, one of which is in the hospital, continued their protest Wednesday. Hunger strikers and supporters picketed outside of the Chicago School Board and held a press event outside Dyett High School Wednesday morning.
There is urgency on this issue because the Chicago Public School system is having a budget crisis, as it is still in negotiations with the teachers union and cuts may exceed $200 million or the district must borrow more money if more funding is not provided. There will be 1,500 staff layoffs and the city estimates a $1.1 billion budget deficit for next school year. CPS Chief Executive Officer Jesse Ruiz wants the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund to loan back $500 million to help offset the budget deficit. CPS asked the Chicago Teachers Union to take a 7 percent pay cut but Lewis said the proposal would be worth striking over. In an interview with In These Times, hunger striker Jeanette Taylor-Raman argued that CPS has the funds, but “black and brown people are just not the priority,” citing the fact that CPS spent millions on a new building recently.
A Chicago-based fiscal responsibility watchdog group, Civic Federation, has released a warning, saying that if a multi-year plan for Chicago Public Schools is not created soon, the school system could fail. It asked CPS to send out a contingency plan to teachers, parents and taxpayers. More than $6 billion of the school district’s debt falls into the junk bond category, according to Reuters.
Of course, the closure of public schools in black neighborhoods in Chicago has been going on well in advance of Emanuel becoming mayor. In 2002, the trend toward closing low-performing schools and replacing them began, led by CPS CEO Arne Duncan. The idea was that by closing low-performing schools and starting from scratch, students would have a better chance to succeed, but now, even some of Duncan’s turnaround schools have been closed by CPS. According to a report by the Chicago radio station WBEZ on school closures from the 2001–2002 school year to 2011–2012 school year, school closings and school turnarounds have disproportionately affected schools in black neighborhoods. Many of the closings are near former Chicago Housing Authority Developments and only 15 percent of replacement schools were rated high performing by CPS and 32 percent received the lowest rating.
Chicago schools are also highly segregated. Mollinson Elementary School in Bronzeville, the school Taylor-Raman’s children attend, is 90.8 percent how-income and 99.6 percent black, Al Jazeera reports. This is in stark contrast to white students who make up 9.2 percent of the district overall. White students tend to belong to magnet schools and selective enrollment schools in the district.
Chicago is just one example, however. The issue of school closures in black and Hispanic communities has been taken up by activists all over the country. Last year, three federal civil rights complaints were filed by community activists in Newark, New Orleans, and Chicago that cited Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which holds that there can’t be discrimination in use of federal funding and argued that the proliferation of charter schools and an increase in school closures were disproportionately hurting members of the African American community.