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Chicago Public Schools Thu Aug 29 2013
What do we do?
This was the siren pulsing through Chicago's Loop Wednesday morning as hundreds of students, parents, teachers, and community members rallied against Chicago Public School closures and budget cuts in a day-long boycott of CPS to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights March on Washington.
Demonstrators gathered outside the Chicago Board of Education and proceeded to march on City Hall, chanting, carrying signs and banners, and blasting Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the school board for gutting Chicago Public Schools' resources. Under Mayor Emanuel's leadership, the school board has embraced radical austerity measures as an acceptable method for plugging the district's budget deficit. Critics disagree with this strategy, contending the drastic cuts put Chicago schools in untenable situations and undermine students' access to high quality public education, a fundamental human right.
CPS officials maintain these difficult cuts are necessary measures in combatting the district's budget shortfall. CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennet released a statement laying blame for the district's financial woes on Illinois' pension crisis, "driven by a lack of meaningful pension reform in Springfield." A sizable opposition aren't buying that story. They criticize CPS officials for perpetuating this myth of austerity as motivation for drastic school divestments.
Marchers called on the school board to impose a moratorium on massive budget cuts, school closures, turnarounds, phase-outs, and charter expansion. They also urged the board to pass alternate school budget and program proposals including allocating tax increment financing (TIF) funds back to CPS, imposing a financial transaction tax for education, and replacing top-down interventions for struggling schools with sustainable school transformation.
Despite the impassioned public outcries Wednesday, Chicago's Board of Education, true to form, voted unanimously the same day to pass Chicago Public Schools' proposed 2014 FY operating budget, which includes some $68 million in classroom spending cuts and $112 million in reductions to central office expenditures. These massive cuts come on the heels of the board's widely unpopular vote this past May to close 49 'underutilized' elementary schools and one high school program, an unprecedented move that amounted to the single largest mass school closing on record in the United States.
The fact that these closures almost exclusively impact African-American students in low income neighborhoods on the city's south and west sides is a reminder for many that even now, 50 years after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech and the March on Washington, institutionalized racism and classism continue to pervade school policy in Chicago and across the country. Though there has been great progress since the civil rights era of the 1960's, the battle for civil rights rages on in America, as it did at Wednesday's demonstration in Chicago.
Michelle Young, President of Action Now, explained, "We are here today," on the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights March on Washington, "to show our children what it means to stand up for your civil rights in the face of oppressive politicians like Rahm Emanuel."
Young says Action Now tried to confront the mayor at one of his staged school appearances on Monday, but he "ran away", refusing to hear them out. "He expects our children to have the courage to walk through gang lines, but he refused to show a little courage and listen to the community's concerns," she said. "It's just one more example of the mayor ignoring us to push his own greedy agenda; to sell our city to the highest bidder."
The call to boot Mayor Rahm Emanuel come next election was joined by cries for an elected, representative school board. Unlike the majority of Illinois school districts, Chicago school board members are appointed by the mayor, rather than publicly elected. Because of this, critics say the board's loyalty resides with the mayor, not the people or students of Chicago. They see the recent, unrelenting push for school closures and budget cuts as proof positive that the school board is not accountable to the students or communities it is supposed to serve. Education activists insist the district's unelected school board members, hand-picked by Mayor Emanuel, have demonstrated they cannot be trusted to act in the best interests of CPS students; they can only be trusted to act on behalf of the singular interests of the man charged with their appointment.
Wednesday's school boycott was met with strong opposition from Mayor Emanuel and CPS officials. Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennet said the boycott set a bad example. "Removing children from the classroom for even one day is unacceptable," she said in a statement.
This response did not come as a surprise to organizers. "The civil rights movement was not comfortable for the establishment in 1963, and it's not going to be comfortable for them today," said Jitu Brown, organizer for the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization. "Today is already a victory because people have come together," he said. "This is a civics lesson for every young person that participates."