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Chicago School Closings: Protests and Explanations

ChicagoProtest_Blog.jpgTeachers, activists, and community members gathered in Chicago this week to protest the district's plan to close dozens of schools.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has said that the closings list is final, and the board that will vote to approve the closings this spring is entirely appointed by the mayor. But more than 100 Chicago Teachers Union members joined hundreds of other community activists in protesting the closings, saying they are racially motivated and could have been prevented, the Chicago Tribune reports.

Chicago Public Schools—which is facing a $1 billion budget deficit it says will be reduced by closing underutilized schools—is doing damage control: A fact sheet put out by the district addresses many of the protesters' concerns head-on. The district will hold community meetings for each of the affected schools—though some advocates question the purpose of meetings if the decisions are, as Emanuel says, final.

Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the school system's chief executive officer, released a statement Wednesday, saying, "I fully support the rights of individuals to express their opinion and as a former teacher and principal who has lived through school closings, I know this is not easy for our communities. But as CEO of this district, I need to make decisions that put our children first."

Byrd-Bennett and the district say that they will ensure that students attend higher-performing schools than the ones they leave (research on previous rounds of closings in the city have shown that students often wound up at equally low-performing schools, according to University of Illinois at Chicago professor Pauline Lipman, who studied the closings). The district has also announced that it plans to put resources saved from closing the schools into improving the schools that will receive new students. It's also planned a safe passage program to assuage the concerns of parents who worry that their children will have to cross gang lines.

In response to concerns that the closed buildings will be leased to charter operators—which concerns some who fear the rise of charter schools is an intentional threat to traditional public schools—Chicago has also said that no K-12 schools will move into the shuttered buildings in the near future unless the board makes a special exception.

Despite the district's response, opponents of the closings, including CTU President Karen Lewis, are not reassured and say the closings will harm many African-American students' academic performance and their neighborhoods.

Planned closings in cities around the country, including Washington, Philadelphia, and New York, have also caused advocates to raise concerns about safety, racial equity, and school quality. The closings in each city are motivated by unique combinations of budget woes and chronic academic under-performance. Both the list of schools to close and the protests in the Windy City, however, are grander in scale than I've seen anywhere else.

Photo: Protesters sit on LaSalle Street in Chicago's downtown on Wednesday during an act of civil disobedience called to protest a plan to close 54 Chicago Public Schools. Mayor Rahm Emanuel and schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett say the closings are necessary because too many CPS facilities are half-empty and academically failing. They say shuttering buildings will allow the district to move students to higher quality schools and help trim a $1 billion budget shortfall. Opponents say the plan disproportionately affects minority students and won't save money. ---Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

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