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‘Disaster capitalism’ at CPS

The tenth anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War fell about ten days before CPS was set to announce what could be the largest single school closing operation ever.

The parallels are striking: ambitious programs dictated top-down by politicians over widespread public disapproval, administered willy-nilly by overburdened bureacracies — both driven by ideology that wilfully disregards the perspectives of people on the ground.

In Iraq — a war which Mayor Emanuel enthusiastically supported, and which has cost at least 200,000 lives and over $2 trillion to the U.S. treasury — there was a political and media consensus on the threat of weapons of mass destruction that depended on ignoring the facts being reported by international monitors at the time.

There was a political, ideological hubris that ignored warnings of chaos likely to ensue.  And there was a huge push to sell off publicly-owned enterprises, resulting in massive corruption.

At CPS there’s a $1 billion “budget deficit” and a claim of 100,000 “empty seats,” and an elite consensus that this situation requires closing schools.  The consensus depends on ignoring CPS’s record of wildly inflating projected deficits, as well as many unanswered questions about the costs and savings of closing schools — including the cost to struggling communities.

It requires ignoring the fact that CPS doesn’t have an accurate measure of its utilization.  Raise Your Hand and the Chicago Tribune have documented how the district inflates underutilization rates by using inflated class sizes in its building capacity measurement.

And in community hearings, school after school, principals, teachers and parents, one after another, have argued that CPS’s building capacity measure fails to account for program capacity, the standard that is used by cities across the country — and a standard that would result in higher utilization rates.


So CPS can’t really say what its budget deficit will be, and can’t really say how well its schools are being used.  But these are details.

The central contradiction in the establishment consensus over school closings is Emanuel’s plan to spend millions of dollars to open a new wave of charter schools.  This puts the lie to every claim about budget constraints and empty seats.

Pilsen/LV Closings Commission Hearing

The consensus depends on ignoring the district’s stated goal of opening 60 new charter schools.  It requires ignoring the expedited application process promised to charter operators — and the promise to identify underserved areas available for new charter operations — in the Gates Compact signed last year.

It requires ignoring Emanuel’s statement that he hopes charter operators view the compact as “an opportunity to set up shop” in Chicago.

It requires overlooking the strategy document for closing neighborhood schools and opening charters, revealed by the Tribune in December, that notes the “perceived inconsistency” and suggests staging the closings and openings in two phases.

Throw in charter expansion, and budget and capacity issues go out the window.  It becomes clear that the agenda is purely about privatization.

It’s a textbook case of what Naomi Klein calls “disaster capitalism” — a theory first inspired by the “reconstruction” of Iraq — using (or creating) a crisis as cover for turning over public services to private interests.

It’s all about the ideology.

Sure, some neighborhoods are gaining population and some are losing.  But that’s a different discussion — unrelated to the number of “empty seats” in the district as a whole — and one that requires a facilities master plan.   It requires planning based on demographic projections, not a rush job based on this year’s numbers.  It requires considering the impact of school closings on these communities, too.

It’s clear Emanuel has a plan of his own for CPS — he just doesn’t want to let the people of Chicago know what it is.  That’s not transparent, of course, and it evades accountability.  Beyond that it’s dishonest, framing the discussion in false terms, and it seems a little cowardly.


CPS chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett promised to hold a respectful, meaningful community engagement process and to listen to what parents and community members say.

But judging from the audio of a call with reporters released by WBEZ, Byrd-Bennett is engaging in selective listening.  She’s hearing what she wants to hear.

Saying the “overriding themes” of the testimony were concerns over student safety and the quality of receiving schools, Byrd-Bennett claimed, “Everybody got it that we really needed to close schools, that we really needed to consolidate.”

This was based on reports on the hearings prepared by staff or perhaps consultants, according to Byrd-Bennett.  She ought to take five minutes and dip into any one of the videos of community hearings posted by CPS.  She’ll see rather quickly that her staff reports are incomplete.

Speakers representing school after school tell why they should not be shut down.  Many community residents speak out against the entire school closing plan, challenging its basic premises and calling for no more charters.

At every hearing I attended, every alderman who spoke demanded no school closings in his or her ward.

“Everybody” doesn’t “get it.”

Pilsen/LV Closings Commission Hearing

Perhaps Byrd-Bennett hasn’t heard of the legislation to block school closings this year (SB 1571 and HB 3283) that’s been introduced in Springfield?  It’s sponsored by Senator Willie Delgado, chair of the Senate Education Committee, and cosponsored by dozens of Democrats including the chairs of the black and Latino caucuses, Representatives Ken Dunkin and Cynthia Soto. Delgado is holding a hearing on the bill Tuesday.

The bill calls for a moratorium on closings until CPS rolls out its facilities master plan.  That point was made also repeatedly in the community hearings, though Byrd-Bennett may not have heard it. (CPS spokesperson Becky Carroll told the Sun-Times that the facilities plan “has nothing to do” with the utilization issue.  It’s a “visioning” thing.)

“We’re not gonna sit back and say, ‘OK, Mayor Rahm Emanuel — do what you want to do, how you want to do it, when you want to do it — at our expense. It’s OK with us, buddy.’” Dunkin said. “Not on this issue.”

These legislators, and the aldermen speaking out against closings, are a good barometer of sentiment in the communities impacted by the proposed closings.  They’re the ones getting the calls from voters.  And they understand that school closings are just one more huge cutback of public services, and another big step in the painful process of disinvestment from these communities.

“Whether Byrd-Bennett agrees with [parents] or not, she should not mischaracterize what happened at the hearings,” commented Raise Your Hand.  “So much for rebuilding trust.”


Meanwhile, our roving mayor was on a panel in New York City on Friday, holding forth on what’s wrong with Chicago schools.  (He was also on a panel of “education mayors” in Los Angeles a couple weeks ago.)

“The real problem,” he said, “is not just the education of our children.  We have parents that can’t be parents.”

Sure, all parents have issues, and some have lots of issues.

On the other hand, Emanuel seems somehow to have missed the tremendous outpouring, in the recent community hearings, of thousands and thousands of parents who care deeply about their children’s education — in the very communities he has targeted and now describes so dismissively.

And how does his analysis work as a guide to policy?  Chicago is in the top rank of the nation’s cities for black unemployment; over 20 percent are unemployed — 2.5 times the unemployment rate for whites here — and according to the Chicago Reporter, 56 percent of the city’s African Americans are out of the labor force.

Many thousands are locked in permanent unemployment due to run-ins with a criminal justice system that targets blacks with far higher rates of arrest and conviction and much harsher sentences than whites committing the same infractions.

The mayor’s economic development policies are focused on building a “global city,” while his response to the epidemic of violence focuses on locking up more young people, a strategy that will only perpetuate the cycle.

He’s laid off hundreds of city workers, most of them black, and farmed out city services to private agencies that will cut wages. His schools policy, meanwhile, threatens the middle-class jobs of thousands of African Americans in these communities.

“It’s easy for him to go to another city and shift the blame away from himself, rather than investing in programs to improve parenting and provide economic opportunities,” commented West Side education activist Dwayne Truss “I guess the mayor is too busy touting corporate jobs transferred from other cities, while he’s firing janitors, lunchroom staff and teachers.”

Emanuel’s New York comments reflect the “family values” rhetoric of the “New Democrats” of his formative years in the 1990s (and their pro-business, anti-worker ideology) — not to mention the “blame the victims” approach of the conservative backlash to the civil rights movement: they’re in the same vein, though not as extreme, as Newt Gingrich’s call for placing children of welfare families in orphanages. The policies Emanuel championed in those years — free trade pacts, elimination of poverty programs, the incarceration boom — have ravished the communities that are now threatened with losing their schools.

In New York, Emanuel touted twelve parent-child centers CPS is opening.  But he’s threatening dozens of schools that have used available space for create parent resource rooms, where adults without computers at home can look for jobs, study for GEDs, and connect with their children’s education.

How are communities struggling with epic foreclosure, unemployment and crime rates ever going to get traction for a comeback if their last remaining institutions are shuttered? Or does the “global cities” strategy actually, secretly, involve further depopulating them?

Photos by Sarah-Ji

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Category: CPS, school closings

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4 Responses

  1. Luis says:

    For a comprehensive on what the corporate-state education reform agenda is all about, please take a read of this essay:

  2. Jane Averill says:

    Thanks for this. The school closings make no sense at all if you look beyond the rhetoric. They only make sense in the context of overall privatization plans. I hadn’t thought about the ideology of the new Dems as a major factor – I only thought of greed. But yes it makes sense. Their self-righteousness is effective in winning liberals to their cause and thereby out-Republicanizing the Republicans who have been trying unsuccessfully for decades to privatize schools.

  3. DIane Durante says:

    How bizzare it is that the relevance of class size is factored into ‘underutilization’ but not into ‘student achievement’?!

    Thank you for your work, Curtis!


  4. Curtis says:

    Jane, it strikes me that Emanuel is taking the New Democrats’ indifference toward labor and their tilt toward business quite a bit further – to outright hostility to labor, to an offensive on labor, closer to Tea Party Republicans like Scott Walker than to the mainstream Republicans of the postwar period.

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