On March 27, Chicago Teachers Union members protest a plan to close fifty-four public schools. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast.)
One thousand Chicago Public School teachers and their supporters, including this correspondent, packed Daley Plaza in forty-degree temperatures on Wednesday for a rally protesting the city’s announced plans to close 54 kindergarten-through-eighth-grade schools next year. One-tenth of the protesters were detained and ticketed (though police originally said they had been “arrested”) at a sit-in in front of school board headquarters a few blocks to the south. What they are protesting is genuine shock-doctrine stuff—an announcement utterly rewiring a major urban institution via public rationales swaddled in utter bad faith, handed down in a blinding flash, absent any reasonable due process. Though Mayor Emanuel is learning that the forces of grassroots democracy can shock back too. And boy, does he have it coming.
The story went down like this. Immediately following Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s defeat in the historic Chicago Teachers Union strike this past fall, the district, claiming massive underutilization of school facilities in light of an announced $1 billion budget deficit, began talking about closing perhaps 129 schools. The district CEO Jean-Claude Brizard—sacked soon after as a “distraction” to “school reform”—had once said he could only imagine closing perhaps three schools, given the paucity of schools performing better than the ones they would have shut down. Knowledgeable observers thought perhaps a dozen or two would end up getting the axe. (You can hear those details in this panel discussion from February of this year).
It took a petition signed by an overwhelming majority of the city’s fifty alderman to even win hearings on the issue. But those hearings were a disaster—“cannibalism,” as one alderman described them, “Good people pitted against each other because each one was trying to save their individual school.” A war of all against all: just the kind of atomization any self-respecting shock doctrineer wants to see among his constituency. Karen Lewis, the Chicago Teachers Union president, called them a “sham” for all the effect she thinks they actually had on decision-making.
Then came Thursday, March 21, and the bombshell: the all-at-once announcement of the fifty-four schools to be shuttered. Even the aldermen who’d be responsible for managing the fallout in their wards weren’t informed in advance. And the announcement was made not by the mayor but current school CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett; Rahm, that brave, brave man, had scheduled the most important announcements of his term on a day when he was off on a Utah ski vacation with his family. “It’s a slap in the face of the citizens,” Alderman Bob Fioretti said. “He’s not here to answer any questions or stand by his head of the school system. He knows the publicity realm. He’s nowhere to be found when he needs to respond to the people.” One sign at the rally had a cartoon of Rahm in ski togs, and a mayoral quote: “I did not run for office to shirk my responsibility.” Another addressed Byrd-Bennett: “Your Conscience Is Underutilized.”