Chicago saw another tumultuous episode in the city’s battle over public education on Wednesday, with a sadly familiar script. As many expected, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s handpicked, un-elected school board voted unanimously to close four predominantly Black high schools, despite the impassioned pleas and organizing of students and local residents. Four of the schools — Hope, Harper, Team Englewood and Robeson — are the last remaining neighborhood schools in the community of Englewood, a neighborhood Chicago officials have long failed on a number of levels. National Teachers Academy elementary school (NTA) also faces closure, despite significant community protest.
In a move that the Chicago Teachers Union describes as adding “insult to injury,” the controversial vote was held on the last day of Black History Month.
Emanuel’s tenure as mayor has been marked by a pattern of disinvestment in Black neighborhoods, in addition to much-publicized scandals about the murder and abuse of Black people at the hands of Chicago police. In a move that inspired mass protest, Emanuel’s school board closed 50 schools in 2013. Teachers, students and area residents argued that the 2013 closures would be deeply injurious to their communities, but the city proceeded with its plans, and as of January 2017, 40 of those school buildings remained vacant. In a move that further emphasized the prioritization of Chicago’s infamously violent, racist police force, empty schools have also been used for training purposes by Cook County police officers.There is perhaps no clearer representation of Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago than teams of police, practicing assault tactics in neighborhood schools that have been forcibly emptied of their students.
By consistently thwarting efforts to establish an elected school board — with the help of elected officials like Alderman Joe Moore of the 49th Ward — Emanuel has provided his un-elected school board with the political insulation they’ve needed to close schools and silence dissent. The Illinois House of Representatives has twice voted to end Emanuel’s stranglehold on the school district and provide for an elected, representative school board in Chicago. But Emanuel, a champion of privatization and longtime enemy of the Chicago Teachers Union, has been unwavering in his opposition to any such democratic process.
On Wednesday, students representing the four Englewood high schools and NTA presented a united front as they protested and spoke out in the lobby of CPS headquarters and at City Hall. The students sat in at Chicago Public School (CPS) headquarters, danced, led chants, and shared personal narratives before marching to city hall. In the words of local organizer Benji Hart, “They did not play any of CPS or the city council’s games, but focused on their own message that all schools in all communities need to be well-staffed and supported.”
Hart attended Wednesday’s events as a representative of the #NoCopAcademy campaign — a community effort that aims to stop the construction of a new police academy in the West Garfield Park neighborhood. The police academy would cost the city $95 million. Given the austerity measures that Emanuel has imposed during his tenure, including the closure of half of Chicago’s publicly-funded mental health clinics, many residents are incensed by the proposed price tag of the facility. Hart was able to lead a brief teach-in during the morning sit-in at CPS headquarters.
“Young people were already well-aware of the city’s plan to build a $95 million cop academy in Garfield Park,” Hart told me in an interview,” saying students “understood the direct implications of a major investment in policing, coupled with a massive divestment from schools.” Community members who spoke at the sit-in noted that 40 percent of the city’s budget is already usurped by policing, and also highlighted how much settlements for police brutality have cost the city annually. “’Don’t pay us after you kill us,’ they demanded,” said Hart. According to Hart, the crowd’s overall demand was clear: “Take the money from the police budget and put it into our schools and communities now.”
Some of the expenditures students suggested in lieu of a new police academy were community centers, after school programs, jobs, health care, and fresh food.
Organizer Rachel Williams, who graduated from John Hope College Prep in 2009, believes that the system intentionally starves Black communities. Williams says officials know that to fully fund Black communities “[m]eans that the prison industrial complex becomes obsolete. It means community autonomy.”
For their part, the Chicago Teachers Union is asking supporters to push Illinois state senators to take action, arguing that the state Senate “[m]ust finally see reason and join the House in granting the largest school district in the state the same democratic rights enjoyed by virtually every other district.” They are asking residents to write their state senators to express their support for an elected school board in Chicago.