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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.

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Subliminal message: Rahm lost

Mayor Emanuel “knows he lost” in the recent showdown with the teachers union “and finds it necessary to rehabilitate himself,” political analyst Don Rose told Newstips last week.

That’s his take on the TV ad blitz by an arm of Democrats for Education Reform – which has cost “an astronomical amount of money,” according to a campaign finance analyst.

With only 19 percent thinking he handled the situation well – “the first time the mayor has been upside down in any polling” – Emanuel “believes he needs damage control,” Rose writes in a letter to the Sun-Times on Tuesday.

“What is most distressing,” Rose writes, is that Emanuel accepts financing “from anti-union advocacy groups whose acknowledged goal is the destruction of teachers unions and the eventual breakup of public education itself.”

Rose, who advised the firefighters union around the time of their 1980 strike against Mayor Jane Byrne, concludes: “We have not seen the end of union-busting tactics emanating from the fifth floor of City Hall.”

As noted here last week, DFER was founded by billionaire hedge-fund traders who like charter schools and hate teachers unions.  “National donors” funded the group’s recent expansion into Illinois, according to Catalyst; funding is now said to be a combination of local and national money, though DFER wouldn’t discuss who its donors are.

Previously the group ran radio ads criticizing the union’s decision to hold a strike vote, then calling on CTU to “get back to the table” – while negotiations were underway continuously.  “If you listened to a DFER radio ad, you would have thought CTU pulled out of negotiations,” Raise Your Hand points out.  The group ran TV ads throughout the strike.

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Featuring Emanuel himself, the newest ad campaign works less to boost the corporate school reform agenda than to buff the mayor’s tarnished image.

It’s a symptom of the post-Citizens United political landscape and of the vastly expensive “24/7, 365-day campaign cycle” that’s resulted, said David Morrison of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

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School closings: what ‘everyone knows’

“Everyone knows schools must be closed in large numbers,” according to a Chicago Sun-Times editorial published Thursday.

The editorial questions the savings involved in school closings and calls on CPS to be “more open and inclusive,” and to release a new facilities master plan required by state law before more closings are announced.

But does “everyone” really know schools must be closed?  At hearings on proposed closings in recent years, there’s been consistent opposition – until paid protestors, later connected to Mayor Emanuel’s political operatives, began showing up.

We asked around, and here are some responses:

 

Laurene Heybach, Director, The Law Project of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless:

The notion that “everyone knows [Chicago public] schools must be closed in large numbers” is a remarkably un-researched assertion. As a member of the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force, I can say unequivocally that such is not the case. And CPS has never been able to make such a case.

Parents want quality neighborhood schools, not experiments (charters) which drain resources from their neighborhood school and don’t deliver. We hear this again and again, and parents are getting increasingly frustrated with a city that can help decorate the Willis Tower but tells neighborhood schools “no” for every request, from a math teacher to a working heating system to an air conditioner. Indeed, one parent spoke directly to the CPS representative on our task force to say precisely that: the Board of Education’s answer to just about anything our parents want is “no.”

It’s top-down and political people who push closures.  This is why we need to return facility planning to our communities and stakeholders — parents, teachers, students and principals — and take it out of the hands of politicians.

 

J. Brian Malone, Executive Director, Kenwood Oakland Community Organization:

Everyone knows there has been population loss on the South and West Sides of the city. The issue with underutilization, at this stage, is largely the result of CPS cramming charter and contract schools down the throats of communities of color, while also:

(1) raiding the coffers to fund these schools that do very little (if anything) to improve educational outcomes, but do a great deal to create wealth for the private operators and investors; and

(2) siphoning the human capital, material, and financial resources from neighborhood schools, which make them look unattractive when compared to the “new” school with the great marketing budget.

Disinvesting in neighborhood schools has done more to reduce the appeal, and by default the enrollment, of neighborhood schools, creating this manufactured need to close schools, which was orchestrated by the Renaissance 2010 plan and continued forward.

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Teachers demand respect

Entirely aside from what the school strike has revealed about Mayor Emanuel’s executive incompetence – or how he intends to spin the eventual outcome – and far more important, there are several layers of historic significance to the teachers’ fight.

Here are three:  it’s marshalled broad popular support in a period when public-sector unions are under assault on many fronts; it’s dramatized and exposed the costs and compromises of the corporate school reform agenda; and – particularly going forward, as the outcome unfolds – it represents a signal battle in the fight against the austerity agenda of the world’s elites.

They’re also teaching us about an old-fashioned value that we may hope is not yet out of date: respect.

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