Students at North Lawndale College Preparatory High School in Chicago walk through the school's hallways. The surrounding neighborhood has an unemployment rate almost triple the city average, and school officials estimate 5 percent to 8 percent of its 525 students are homeless at any one time during the school year. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)
Today was the first day of school in Chicago—and a profound setback for Chicago’s forces of decency. Fifty fewer schools will be in operation this term, with 2,113 fewer staffers, a colossal injustice I’ve written about here and here and here and here. The school closings are going forward because ten days ago Federal District Judge John Z. Lee denied the attempt to get a preliminary injunction to prevent it. A week before that ruling, I spoke with one of the lawyers who brought the suit, Thomas Geoghegan, for my monthly interview series at Chicago’s Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Hyde Park—where I and my audience deepened our sense of just how mad and malign Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s schools agenda truly is.
You might know Geoghegan for his classic public-policy memoirs like Which Side Are You On? and his most recent, Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?: How the European Model Can Help You Get a Life; or his quixotic run to win the congressional seat vacated when Rahm Emanuel became Barack Obama’s chief of staff, which The Nation endorsed. Our conversation at the Co-op—a public version of dialogues we’ve been having regularly over dinner and drinks for over a decade now—was, like so much of Tom’s discourse, heartbreaking and inspiring in equal measure.
We spoke on August 10, the day after Judge Lee declined to certify Geoghegan’s plaintiffs as a class, a harbinger of the preliminary-injunction denial to come—heartbreaking, because his arguments sounded damned well open-and-shut to my audience and me. The Americans with Disability Act specifies quite clearly that school systems, when moving disabled children, have to proactively provide opportunities for the kids and their parents to meet with “Individual Education Plan” teams to devise specific measures to ease the transition. The Chicago school board didn’t even try—it just called up befuddled parents to ask, as Geoghegan put it, “Anything you want?” And when these parents—overwhelmingly poor and harried, understandably inexpert in the intricacies of special-education best-practices—didn’t have anything specific to offer, the board considered its work done. One of Geoghegan’s expert witnesses, the woman in charge of special education of the Indianapolis school system, said the whole thing was pretty much totally nuts.
The suit also tried another angle. In 2003 Governor Rod Blagojavich (who actually did some good things) signed a state civil rights statute that allowed private plaintiffs to bring claims of disparate racial impact against entities like boards of education without having to prove discriminatory intent—a provision that used to be in federal law until the Supreme Court struck it down in the 1990s. Explained Geoghegan, 88 percent of the affected kids in the receiving schools are African-American, but African-American kids make up only 40.5 percent of students in the system. Pretty damned disparate.
Of course, the Chicago Public Schools had an explanation for that, of a sort: they argued that black kids were being helped by being moved. Actually, they made several arguments—changing them around each time the last was debunked. First it was that they needed to close schools to help with the system’s budget deficit, freeing up resources for instruction. But most of the money they claim to be saving (savings disputed in themselves) is being spent on moving kids, not instruction. And, Geoghegan points out, “After a year, that money goes into the general pot to aid kids in the system.” Look at the system’s plans, and it turns out “the board is going to use some of this money to build schools on the North Side”—the white North Side, in other words. It basically amounts to stealing from poor black kids to give to more affluent white ones.
The system’s second argument is that the schools that kids are being moved into are academically superior to the ones they’re leaving. Well, there is a word in legal jargon for what that claim represents in this case. That word is: bullshit. In their pleadings, Geoghegan’s team pointed out that only seven of the schools are arguably better academically than the ones kids are coming from; some are worse. In fact, the very act of moving kids under such circumstance basically cannot improve their educations. “What’s extraordinary about this is that the study of the Consortium of School Research at the University of Chicago stated that these school closings don’t do students any good but in the long term don’t do any harm,” Geoghegan told my bookstore audience. “The RAND study, which came out in 2012…says that they do do long-term harm, unless the children go to academically superior schools.”
You see the problem, even if a federal judge did not.
CPS’s third argument is yet more dubious. Between 2001 and 2012, leading up to this year’s closing, they closed some seventy-four schools. Back then, they said they were closing “failing schools.” But “now they’ve backed off from that notion of failing schools, which was always a little bit bogus to begin with because, Why are those failing more than any others? It was [empirically] indefensible.” (For instance, at one of the closed schools, Guggenheim, which I wrote about here, one-third of the students were homeless. Geoghegan relayed his suspicion to Chicago homelessness experts: maybe some kids counted as “homeless” were, say, doubling up at the home of an aunt. He heard back, “No! No! Those kids who are doubling up with the aunt aren’t counted as homeless. They’re, like, homeless homeless. Like, they don’t know where they’re going to be every night.” What does it mean to say a school serving a population like that, because of its poor test scores, is “failing”?)
So it was they settled upon the argument that the closing schools were “underutilized.”
Which argument one of Tom’s heroic plaintiffs, a woman named Sharise McDaniel, had already demolished on its face. McDaniel is the parent of a child at a school called George Manierre Elementary, which is by the former Carbini-Green housing projects. The advantages of Manierre for its black, impoverished population—it’s across the street from the Marshall Field Homes, where hundreds of the school’s kids live, making the commute rather safe indeed; also, the building is grand and gorgeous—and the disadvantages of moving them—the receiving school is a mile away, across a treacherous gang boundary—were brilliantly reported by the education reporter Linda Lutton for Chicago’s public radio station WBEZ. Manierre, however, with its gorgeous building, happens to be quite close to a bevy of luxurious condominiums where affluent white families live, and whose children go to overcrowded Lincoln Elementary.
McDaniel and her cadre of parents presented a solution at a community meeting. They learned that the supposedly strapped school board was paying hefty money to rent space for the Lincoln kids at DePaul University. The mothers proposed that, if Manierre was indeed underutilized, Lincoln kids could move into their second floor; Manierre kids could stay on the first floor, and—Geoghegan got a mixture of laughs and groans when he reported this one—“they would have separate entrances so they wouldn’t have to see each other!”
A win-win solution—if the point really was filling underutilized schools, and not, say, emptying out a desirable building of undesirable Chicagoans, the better for Rahm Emanuel to serve his affluent constituency.
So at the trial, Geoghegan asked the system’s number-two administrator, a mountebank named Tim Cawley, “‘Why not move the children from Lincoln Elementary into Manierre?’ I’m not going to quote his answer…but the effect of it was, ‘You don’t know how disruptive that is!’ ”
He earned a roar of laughter from our audience at that. Laughing to keep from crying.
The system denies that it’s placing such kids under physical risk. And yet it plans to spend $7 million a year on a “safe passage” system to protect them. Geoghegan now turns indignant: “The children are going under guard, though gang territory, another one or two or more miles to their new schools. For a worse education experience on all counts…there’s this trauma, not only of all this displacement, [but of] losing all your teachers because they’re all being laid off…. What’s the payoff for this? There is no payoff for it. And the board has no basis to believe these closings are doing any good for the children.”
And yet the judge ruled there was no proof kids “would suffer substantial harm as a result of the school closures.”
So what’s the inspiring part? The solidarity. Noted Geoghegan in our Q&A, “It’s interesting how many middle class white parents have been radicalized by this. They didn’t start that way. But the more they deal with the board, the more they realize that, with the minority children on the South and West Sides, they’re fighting the same battle against a really dysfunctional bureaucracy which just does not work.”
Watch this space. I’ll be writing more about what happens next. It could get ugly—and interesting.
Rick Perlstein writes about the resurgent protest movement in Chicago that is fighting back against Rahm Emanuel’s austerity agenda.