Chicagoans take to the streets against school cuts

CHICAGO – The fight for public education is heating up here, fueled by another round of cuts to public schools and by news reports that Karen Lewis, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union, is considering a run for the mayor’s office.

Last week, an impassioned gathering of students, parents, educators, and community members expressed their outrage at another round of budget cuts for neighborhood public schools – and their determination to unseat Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose pro-corporate  agenda is driving the attack on public education.

The meeting came on the heels of the announcement that CPS was cutting over $50 million from neighborhood schools and diverting it to politically connected charter school operators-including Concept Charter Schools, which is currently under federal investigation. 

More bitter yet was the news that “welcoming schools” – those that accepted students from the 50 schools closed by CPS last year – would take a 5 percent funding cut, despite promises of increased investment.

Backed by a panel of largely silent CPS officials, Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley presented the 2014-2015 operations budget to an audience steeled in the struggle for public education.

According to Cawley, CPS made cuts in the central office to “avoid pain in the classroom” and protect students and teachers.  CPS, he claimed, had to make hard choices about how to fill projected deficits of over $600 million.

Those claims rang hollow to many in the audience. After years of fighting school closings and teacher layoffs while new charter schools proliferate, Chicagoans have trouble believing that the Board of Education is looking out for the best interests of Chicago’s kids.

Helen Alexander, from Communities United for Quality Education, has her doubts.  She says that CPS has set its neighborhood schools up for failure by cutting their funding and funneling the money to charter schools instead.  “They failed our kids,” she added.

Second ward alderman Bob Fioretti, another potential mayoral candidate, called for a moratorium on charter expansion and took CPS to task for its failure to fight aggressively for funding at the state level.  “The fault for the problems in our system is at the feet of CPS,” he said.  “There’s a lack of political will.” 

Yesterday, those same forces gathered at Simeon Career Academy, a South Side high school where teacher Latisa Kindred has just been laid off. The school, considered by many to be the city’s premier public vocational school, is eliminating its electrical and auto shop programs.

Kindred isn’t worried about herself, she says.  It’s her students who are under attack. Trades programs like hers provide a largely low-income, African-American student body with a pathway to good, stable jobs. 

Trades representatives spoke of the folly of closing vocational programs even as the nation’s infrastructure is crumbling. Community activists reminded the crowd that good jobs, like those in the trades, are the solution to Chicago’s deadliest problem: the plague of gun violence that has led some to label the city “Chiraq.”

“It’s an outrage,” says Roberta Wood, a retired member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, summing up the crowd’s reaction to the short-sighted decision to cut programs with a proven record of placing young people in good, secure jobs.

As was apparent at both the budget hearing and the Simeon demonstration, outrage is a common theme around the question of public education in Chicago.

Foremost is outrage against a system where the cards are stacked against public schools that serve low-income, mostly black and brown neighborhoods. 

People are also outraged that this ferocious attack on public schools is anti-democratic, run from the top down by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his unelected school board.

Finally, they know that, in Fredrick Douglass’ words, “power concedes nothing without a fight.”  They are angry, militant, and united in their push for better schools.

This is, first of all, a good omen for Karen Lewis in the mayoral election.  Progressive forces have already mobilized under her leadership in the fight against school closings and in the historic CTU strike of 2012. They are ready to do so again.

More broadly, however, the situation in Chicago highlights the sharpening of class and democratic struggles nationwide.  It has become clear that the fight to protect public services is of a piece with the fight to expand democracy by getting corporate cash, and corporate shills, out of our political system.

It has likewise become apparent that this fight brings together labor, faith, and community organizations in a drive that doesn’t start, or stop, on Election Day.  From Michigan to Mississippi, progressive forces are taking to the streets to demand radical, democratic changes to how resources, power, and opportunity are distributed in our society.

In Chicago and across the country, people are seeing through the old rhetoric about “hard choices” and “necessary sacrifices.”  As one parent at the CPS budget hearing said, “If you guys were Pinocchio, this room wouldn’t be long enough to hold your noses!”

Tell CPS to save Simeon’s vocational programs!

Dr. Sheldon House (principal, Neil F. Simeon Career Academy): 773-535-3200

Elizabeth Kirby (CPS network chief): 773-535-8207

Barbara Byrd-Bennett (CEO, Chicago Public Schools): 773-535-1500

Photo: Roberta Wood/PW