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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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Engaging communities and counting classrooms

If the “community engagement” hearings recently held by CPS were intended to rebuild broken trust, as Barbara Byrd-Bennett has said, they might be counted as the first failure of a long season.

“Up until a couple weeks ago, I  believed what CPS said about utilization and a budget shortfall, and that they had to close schools,” said parent Beth Herring at a recent meeting of Hyde Park parents and teachers.

Then she went to a community hearing.

“It is not community engagement to invite people to come and beg to keep their schools open,” she said.   “Maybe some schools need to be closed, but there has to be a much more serious process, not just giving people two minutes to literally beg to keep their schools open.”

At a West Side hearing last week, an alderman put it more directly:

“This process is insane,” said Ald. Jason Ervin (29th).  “It pit schools against one another, it pits communities against one another.  This is no way to run a school system.”

***

This weekend, the Grassroots Education Movement and the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force are offering two alternative forums for school issues.  Perhaps CPS and the school board could learn something about open and respectful communications from them.

Point one might be holding meetings at times when working parents and teachers can attend them — apparently not the goal of school board, which postponed its March 27 meeting because it was during spring break.

On Friday, March 8, 6 p.m., GEM is holding a People’s Board Meeting at the First Unitarian Church, 5650 S. Woodlawn.  Parents and teachers from across the city will be speaking on school closings and other issues that CPS doesn’t address, like smaller class sizes, charter expansions, and an elected school board.

GEM is a community-labor coalition; the meeting is envisioned as the first of an ongoing series.  Elected officials have been invited.

On Saturday, March 9, 10 a.m., CEFTF holds its monthly Second Saturday session at the Humboldt Park Library, 1605 N. Troy, focused on the ten-year facilities master plan, another subject CPS isn’t discussing.  The district is required to produce a draft by May 1.

CEFTF, a task force of the state legislature, is asking schools to report on whether CPS has engaged them in the planning process, and the task force is soliciting the kind of fine-grained information about school use that CPS’s utilization standard completely ignores.

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That’s one of the problems at the dozens of community hearings on school closings in recent weeks, where thousands of parents and teachers have turned out and make eloquent and emotional pleas for their schools.

CPS and the people in its schools are using different utilization standards.

Read the rest of this entry »

Closing schools without a plan

With the school utilization commission issuing an interim report – and schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett responding to a parents group’s inquiry about school closings – the task force created last year by the legislature to monitor school facilities policy in Chicago is holding the first of four community hearings on Saturday.

The Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force hearing takes place at 10 a.m. on Saturday, January 12 at the New Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church, 4301 W. Washington.

While it’s likely to provide a forum for wide-ranging community concerns about CPS school closing plans, the hearing is focused on gathering public input for the draft ten-year facilities master plan that’s due May 1.

As mandated by the legislature, that process is supposed to include input from every school in the district on its long-term educational vision and facility needs.  But CPS has yet to unveil any plans to engage school communities in the process, said Cecile Carroll of Blocks Together, chair of CEFTF’s master planning committee.

That could be because CPS is focused on announcing a huge wave of school closings – before a long-term plan is done.

Community members “have told the task force that doing more school closings and drastic interventions before there’s a long-range plan in place is ‘putting the cart before the horse’ and just doesn’t make sense,” Carroll said.

***

In its interim report, the school utilization commission appointed by Byrd-Bennett in December calls on CPS to spare high-scoring and improving schools with low enrollments.  And in order to reduce the risk of violent incidents, it calls for no closings of high schools.

Read the rest of this entry »

The charter contradiction

Barbara Byrd-Bennett talks about reestablishing trust between CPS and parents and communities – then she turns around and says that closing neighborhood schools has nothing to do with expanding charters.

Since nobody believes that, continuing to repeat it doesn’t seem like a very good way for the new CPS chief to build trust.

Recent revelations by the Chicago Tribune show that the rhetorical disconnect between school closings and charter openings is part of a conscious political strategy.

A CPS document — which “lays out multiple scenarios for closing neighborhood schools and opening privately-run charters,” according to the Tribune — notes the main contradiction in the administration’s claim that closings are necessary due to underutilization and budget constraints: big plans to open scores of new charter schools.

This “core prong of CPS’s academic improvement strategy” – charter expansion – creates a “perceived inconsistency,” according to the document. Therefore large-scale charter expansion must be held off until after large-scale neighborhood school closings are accomplished.

Indeed, the problem is that charter expansion reveals that closing schools isn’t at all about “right-sizing” or saving money – it’s all about privatization.

Politicized

Byrd-Bennett has emphasized that the September 10 document – and specifically its “pre-decisional discussion” of closing 95 schools, mainly on the South and West Sides – predates her administration.  Byrd-Bennett was chief education officer at the time; she was named CEO a month later.

But Byrd-Bennett’s first proposal, a five-year moratorium on school closings, comes straight out of the September 10 document, according to the Tribune.

Besides helping to sell the legislature on an extension of the deadline for announcing school closings, the document shows, the moratorium has the political utility of creating a sense of separation between school closings and charter openings.

The document reveals a highly politicized approach to implementing school policy – a hallmark of the Emanuel administration, which has seen paid protestors and huge media campaigns attacking teachers.  The document proposes establishing a ‘war room” to monitor community opposition to closings, and outlines possible steps to push back against that opposition.

Read the rest of this entry »

More questions: charters, partners, and planning

(This is the second of two posts – part one looks at questions for the Commission on School Utilization including enrollment numbers and savings from closing schools.)

 

Mayor Emanuel, CPS chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett and utilization commission chair Frank Clark have taken the position that “right-sizing” the district has nothing to do with the district’s expansion of charter schools.

One has to do with declining enrollment and snowballing deficits, the other with choice and quality, according to this view.

The argument would work better if CPS’s enrollment and utilization numbers held up; if school closings actually saved significant amounts of money; and if charters consistently offered quality rather than undermining most parents’ first choice – a quality neighborhood school.

Even then, though, it’s hard to separate the proliferation of charters from enrollment declines at neighborhood schools.

[Based on revelations in Tuesday’s Tribune, the separation of school closings and charter expansions is purely strategic; when officials say they are unrelated, they are lying.]

 

A hundred new schools

In the past decade, as CPS lost 30,000 students, it’s opened more than 100 new schools with space for nearly 50,000 additional students, according to a new report from CTU.

While CPS closed scores of schools during that period, the number of schools in the district went from 580 to over 680.

“To the extent excess capacity exists, the main driver is the district’s aggressive charter proliferation campaign,” according to the report.  “The current ‘utilization crisis’ has been manufactured largely to justify the replacement of neighborhood schools by privatized charters.”

Throughout Renaissance 2010, “there was no facilities plan” and facilities decisions were “ad hoc and haphazard,” according to CTU’s report.  Adding to the confusion was the practice of approving charter schools without specifying their location, and some charters’ practice of repeatedly relocating their schools.

“CPS has opened charters haphazardly, without considering how they affect nearby schools,” according to a Sun Times editorial.

As Catalyst points out, new charter schools have been concentrated in the community areas with the largest number of schools listed as “underutilized” by CPS.  North Lawndale, with the most schools now rated as underutilized, has gotten more charter schools than any other community.

In general, those schools aren’t outperforming neighborhood schools, according to Valerie Leonard of the Lawndale Alliance.

 

A new round of failure

While school closings and new charter schools have been concentrated in low-income African American communities, these students are actually better served by neighborhood schools, according to CTU, citing reading score gains 10 percent higher in traditional schools than in charters in such areas.

Meanwhile students in closing schools have suffered mobility-related academic setbacks, faced transportation and security issues, and landed in worse-performing schools – while achievement rates in receiving schools have been adversely impacted.

It looks like the very students whom CPS has failed for a generation – whose schools have been systematically neglected and underresourced – are once again being failed.

Read the rest of this entry »

Questions for the commission: enrollment, finances

There’s an awful lot of confusion around the CPS’s new commission on school utilization.

There’s confusion over administration claims of an enrollment crisis, as WBEZ has detailed – and, as at least one CPS official has acknowledged, there are strikingly different ways of estimating the number of “empty seats.”  There’s confusion on the part of parents and educators testifying before the commission with no idea whether their schools are threatened, as the Tribune notes.

There’s confusion on whether CPS’s five-year moratorium on school closings only covers school closings due to underutilization; whether a shelved-for-now plan to have charters take over neighborhood schools will be revived; how much money closing schools really saves; and, especially, just why CPS continues to roll out new charters while citing enrollment declines and budget deficits to insist on closing neighborhood schools.

There’s also widespread confusion over just how independent this “independent commission” is.

Even among the people naming and chairing the commission, there’s confusion.  CPS chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett says the purpose is to come up with a list of schools to close; commission chair Frank Clark has repeatedly promised only a “broad set of recommendations” for how to address the issue.

In one recent Tribune article, Byrd-Bennett said she’s expecting a list of schools to close from the commission, and CPS spokesperson Becky Carroll said it’s “up to them [the commissioners] – we don’t know at this point” what they’ll recommend.

Behind the commission’s charge is a lot of talk, especially from Byrd-Bennett, about restoring trust.  But merely delivering a list of school closings —  without taking seriously widespread concerns about the assumptions behind CPS’s policy of closing schools — will just engender more cynicism.

Is the commission going to acknowledge and address serious questions about CPS’s facilities policies, or is it just providing political cover for a foregone conclusion?

 

A rapidly shrinking crisis

“The accuracy of how CPS calculates school utilization” is one of the “key issues the commission must consider,” according to a Sun Times editorial last month.

Indeed.  In  mid-October, Mayor Emanuel was saying there are 200,000 “empty seats” in CPS – 600,000 seats for 400,000 students; by the end of October, the crisis had eased by half, with only 100,000 empty seats out of 500,000 total.

Maybe there was a rush sale of classroom chairs?

Then new census numbers were rolled out, with CPS touting Chicago’s loss of 145,000 school-age children over the past decade.  But CTU pointed out that CPS’s actual enrollment had declined by just 31,500 in that period – during which CPS added 50,000 new seats, mainly in charter schools.

Read the rest of this entry »

On school closings, a political ploy

The promise of a five-year “moratorium” on school closings – “announced” by new CPS chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett and “endorsed” by Mayor Emanuel – has all the fingerprints of a master at political gamesmanship.

The Tribune is certainly right that the offer is intended “to help sell drastic school closings this year.”  And CTU financial secretary Kristine Mayle is certainly right that it’s intended to push the closings as far as possible from the 2015 mayoral election, as she tells the Sun Times.

It would also seem to take away a major issue that drives the grassroots school reform movement here, which is the biggest challenge to Emanuel’s domination.  It even co-opts their call for a moratorium.

But for all its political oomph, it’s lacking in other areas – including basic logic, as Julie Woestehoff of PURE points out.

***

If “chaotic, disorganized closings are such a bad idea,” as Emanuel said in backing the idea, why demand yet one more round of them before you agree to stop, she asks at PURE’s blog.  “It sounds as if the mayor is saying, ‘I promise to stop beating you after I get in this last round of punches.'”

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