‘UNACCEPTABLE CONDITIONS!’ – as Chicago mayor closes 47 Black & Latino neighbourhood schools

Demonstration in Chicago earlier this month against school closures
Demonstration in Chicago earlier this month against school closures

TWELVE thousand Chicago children are walking new, often longer, routes to school this autumn – after Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed 47 state schools, almost all in poor Black and Latino neighbourhoods, say labour activists.

Given its high rate of gun violence, the city dealt with the disruption by expanding its Safe Passage programme: diverting police and firefighters and spending $16m to hire low-wage temps to monitor children to and from school.

The mayor is ‘worried about a political nightmare for him, not for the kids’, said elementary school teacher Al Ramirez. ‘Otherwise he wouldn’t have closed 50 schools.’

Mayor Emanuel claims the system has a $1bn deficit. He blames the teachers’ pension fund in part, though it’s underfunded. (The Chicago Teachers Union has fought off pension cuts, alongside other Illinois public sector unions.)

And though the district authority said the closed schools were underutilised, it issued a call for more charter schools – privately run, but publicly funded – to open in 2014-2015, in addition to the 15 that opened this year.

In Philadelphia, the city with the nation’s second-largest number of newly closed public schools, the district closed 23 schools – one out of ten – and district leaders laid off a fifth of school employees, leaving overcrowded classrooms and few, if any, support staff. That didn’t stop them from opening nine new charters.

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) said in a statement last Friday: ‘Teachers, parents and community members in Philadelphia are continuing their fight to secure adequate funding for the city’s public schools, as the system struggles with problems caused by massive spending cuts, including huge classes, a shortage of key staff and transportation problems.

‘AFT President Randi Weingarten returned to Philadelphia on September 18 to support those efforts. She joined parents, students and teachers on a safety walk from Lea Elementary School.

‘Many students at the school were transferred there after another elementary school building was closed. Now the children have to travel farther and take more dangerous routes that include navigating some busy intersections with no crossing guards.

‘The day before, a large crowd attended a community town hall meeting to discuss the city’s schools. Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan, who is an AFT vice president, told the crowd that “we have to win this fight” to prevent Philadelphia’s approach from spreading to other districts.

‘That approach involves cutting budgets and then blaming educators and stripping them of long-held rights. “We are not affording our children the opportunities they need to be successful,” he said.

‘Parents at the meeting complained about a variety of unacceptable conditions, including a biology class with 60 students.

‘Meanwhile, a new survey from the Pew Charitable Trusts shows that the public blames Governor Tom Corbett, the state Legislature, Mayor Michael Nutter, the School Reform Commission and other self-described education reform groups for the problems in the city schools. They don’t blame teachers and their unions.

‘A new ad. from the PFT and its partners in Philadelphia appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on September 19.

‘The ad. criticises Corbett and the School Reform Commission for mismanaging public money that could have been used to rehire laid-off school employees.’

This summer cafeteria workers and school safety workers waged a public campaign, including hunger strikes, to be brought back into the schools.

Many were rehired, but even with that victory, schools are still short on counsellors and other staff.

Philadelphia parent Helen Gym, co-founder of Parents United for Public Education, called the situation ‘dangerous and unsustainable.’ She said her own children are in classes with as many as 50 students.

In both cities, parents are alarmed about children’s basic health and safety, even before their learning environment.

Gym said Philadelphia school district officials have broken their promises to parents over and over, most recently when they said children from the closed schools would be moved to improved ones.

She said: ‘That went out the window when they cut staff, eliminated counsellors. Students are attending schools that are worse. Every school is worse off.’

School closures have been a national trend for a decade, in line with the corporate vision of moving away from a neighbourhood-school model to make schools compete like businesses.

The state school closures in Chicago and Philadelphia overwhelmingly affect African-American students (more than 80 per cent of those hit) and low-income students (more than 90 per cent).

In both cities, school district leaders promised the record-breaking round of closures would create fully ‘utilised’ schools with improved conditions for students. Instead, staffing is skeletal.

Over the summer, the Chicago district laid off 3,000 workers. A thousand teachers were hired back, but the district enacted harsh budget cuts on the schools left standing.

Some were told to cut upwards of 25 per cent from their already low budgets. Elementary school teacher Al Ramirez said: ‘We are picking up the slack, making up for the cuts. It doesn’t look like it’s going to get any better.’

‘I’ve never seen classes this big,’ said special education needs teacher Sarah Chambers at Saucedo Academy. ‘Everything just seems really, really tight. We are low on supplies.’

Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) organiser Brandon Johnson said it’s a credit to teachers that they are willing to work under these conditions.

Helen Gym of Parents United for Public Education added Philadelphia’s schools, ‘opened out of the sheer hard will and professionalism of teachers and staff’.

Pennsylvania’s Republican Governor Tom Corbett is withholding $50m in state funds from the city until the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) accepts a contract with big economic and vaguely worded ‘academic’ concessions. The union’s contract expired in August.

The $50m is on top of the governor’s previous $1bn budget cuts statewide.

Middle school teacher and coalition activist Sam Reed was outraged when not only political leaders but also business heads including Comcast CEO David Cohen called on teachers to take a pay cut.

Reed said: ‘The narrative is that teachers need to make more sacrifice.’ But there is money to fund Philadelphia schools: ‘It’s just the will isn’t there.’

While the Republican governor is the obvious villain, Philly’s Democratic mayor has lined up with Corbett. Like Chicago’s Mayor Emanuel, he is aggressively pushing concessions on all public workers and promoting privatisation.

The teachers union offered a wage freeze, and to pay more for health care, if laid-off workers would be brought back.

But Mayor Nutter demanded more: $130m in concessions, including up to a 13 per cent pay cut and the right to subcontract, extend the work day, and limit job security and seniority.

The school district even proposed to take away teachers’ right to a desk, drinking fountains, and rooms for counsellors to meet with students, along with copy machines and materials for classrooms.

Drivers, engineers, cleaners, and other staff represented by the SEIU union agreed to what the district said was $100m in concessions in 2012, after the district threatened to lay them off and subcontract their work.

They took a wage freeze and agreed to contribute as much as $45 per week out of their paychecks back to the district – effectively a pay cut.

The school board has already suspended teacher seniority (along with rules about guaranteed step wage increases), so if any workers are recalled the board can use its own criteria to select which ones.

Said Gym: ‘They certainly haven’t explained the long-term consequences of creating a low-wage, high-turnover, de-professionalised teaching force.’

The Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS) – parents, student groups, community organisations, and the school unions – has been fighting closings and budget cuts since spring 2012.

The group protested at schools slated for closure and at the central district office, and held big rallies, town hall meetings, and candlelight vigils.

Student groups have organised several walkouts. PCAPS even disrupted a recent city council meeting. The group is now holding weekly school pickets called Full Funding Fridays.

Teachers’ ability to strike is limited, though. State law threatens striking teachers with loss of their teaching certificates, so it’s not something thrown around lightly.

After their historic strike last autumn, Chicago teachers and parents spent the year resisting school closings. They packed and disrupted highly scripted school closing hearings, demonstrating the lack of parent buy-in.

CTU organised a three-day march across the city and rallied with thousands at city hall, leading to dozens of arrests for civil disobedience.

Despite the setbacks, CTU organiser Johnson said: ‘People have been awakened because of our activism. No one is going to shut up and go away. You are going to see the same things as last year, but larger.’