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.