Who cares for Chicago’s children?

Mass school closures in the US’ third-largest city will disrupt students’ lives and put their safety at risk.

Students Protest School Closings At Chicago Public Schools Headquarters
To cut its budget deficit, the city of Chicago recently decided to close 50 elementary schools [Getty Images]

The announcement on May 24 that the Chicago public school system and Mayor Rahm Emanuel would close 50 schools – out of the 54 they’d wanted to close – shook the streets of the US’ third-largest city, but was largely met with silence outside of the state of Illinois.

Chicago’s students were the subject of much hand-wringing last fall when their teachers went on strike, demanding textbooks, air-conditioning, and smaller classes. Nicholas Kristof spent one of his New York Times columns giving his “expert” opinion on school reform; on Twitter, he declared: “About 85% of children in Chicago public schools are from poor families; they’re the big losers in the strike.”

As the Chicago school board voted to send kids walking through gang territory to unfamiliar schools, Kristof was busily touting the value of “girls’ education” and combating poverty and complaining about American Airlines, but not a tweet was to be found about those children he supposedly cared so much about. Nearly 90 percent of the children who will be forced to attend new schools are black, but nary a pundit clutched their pearls about that.

It was the same in many places: Too much silence as the largest school closings in Chicago’s history were voted on, as parents, teachers and students filled the streets and halls with protest and song, sat in, were arrested, and vowed to keep fighting.

In the case of Time magazine, reporters who should have known better took Mayor Emanuel’s side, declaring that he’s “fighting failing schools” without an understanding of what it means to fight failure by closing up shop and disrupting students’ lives even more. The mayor cares, we are to understand, because he says he does – never mind how many children, parents, and yes, unionised teachers tell him that his policies hurt. But the public school teachers and parents, who not only say that they care but back it up with action, are never taken at their word the way the rich are.

 Protests and outrage amid Chicago school closures


Perhaps they didn’t want to be on the same side as the union on this issue. Karen Lewis and the Chicago Teachers Union have led the charge to save the schools, filing federal lawsuits to try to stop the closings, arguing that the closures violate the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Illinois Civil Rights Act.

MSNBC’s Chris Hayes and Melissa Harris-Perry did feature the story on their programmes – Hayes hosted Lewis herself, along with NYU education professor Pedro Noguera. Harris-Perry hosted nine-year-old Chicago student Asean Johnson and his mother Shoneice Reynolds, a school worker and participant in last fall’s strike, along with reporters Allison Kilkenny and Daniel Denvir, Philadelphia Student Union activist Sharron Snyder and former Virginia governor Douglas Wilder.

“Looks a lot like the students have their priorities straight,” said Harris-Perry, over video of massive student walkouts in Philadelphia and protests in Chicago. “If only we could get the adults to meet them halfway.”

And yet adults have been there, fighting alongside the students. Harris-Perry’s coverage, on the whole, was informative and solid. She even returned to the subject the following week, issuing a message to Rahm Emanuel after the notorious Time cover hit that condemned his closing of the schools. But still, there was little mention of the adults who were struggling against Emanuel. This framing – that the adults are bickering or absent while the children suffer – goes hand-in-hand with the rhetoric used against teachers last fall. There are plenty of adults, teachers, parents, clergy, and community members who have been fighting the school closings.

Lewis pointed out on Chris Hayes’ show that the teachers’ collective bargaining agreement protects their jobs; they’re not fighting purely out of self-interest. Chicago residents trust the teachers: 67 percent of them supported the Chicago Teachers Union during the strike, and three-fourths of public school parents polled in May disapprove of Emanuel’s education policies.

The idea of “care” while the teachers were on the picket lines was framed as something that elites, mostly white, knew more about than teachers or parents, and that narrative continues now. Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the CEO of the Chicago publi school system, quoted Martin Luther King, Jr and preened, “The only consideration for us today is to do exactly what is right for children.”

Each mayor-appointed board member in turn delivered a lecture before their vote, wealthy “leaders” bent not on listening to the arguments and pleas before them but on passing down the wisdom from above. They don’t have to worry about being reelected, after all – even the growing calls to make Emanuel a one-term mayor don’t seem to faze them. It’s not like they need the money.

As I wrote in the current issue of Jacobin, care for children is seen as an inherent part of a teacher’s job. Neoliberal education reformers hype the idea of smart young kids straight out of college incentivised by merit pay, but 100-plus years of public education was actually designed around the idea that women would be natural teachers because of their capacity for care. When teachers strike, they not only strike against the low pay that politicians instituted because teachers were mostly women, they strike against the idea that care is an inherent quality that leads you to suffer in silence. The teachers in Chicago have made their work and their care for the students visible, and that shows up in poll after poll of parents. It shows in the streets, as parents march with their children and their teachers.

Like Shoneice Reynolds, many of the teachers and school workers who struck are parents too, with children in the same schools they’re fighting for. Mothers showed up pleading as the school board voted last week: Sharon Taylor called them out on “transitioning” her child’s school to one that’s been on probation for 17 years, while Erica Clark listed all the schools slated for closure and led the crowd in a chant of “Every school is my school!”

As Lewis said to Josh Eidelson and I for Dissent magazine’s “Belabored” podcast in April, “If you love black and brown children so much, why do you hate their parents?”

We take for granted that certain people “care” and that if they are simply shown the error of their ways they’ll fix them – but the people who make the decisions about Chicago’s schools have heard the message, loud and clear. They’ve chosen to ignore it.

It’s time to stop pretending that politicians and pundits, whose lives are far from the people they lecture, do so because they care.

Sarah Jaffe is an independent journalist, a rabblerouser and contributor to TruthoutAlterNetThe NationJacobin and others.

Follow her on Twitter: @sarahljaffe