Students, teachers, and parents in Chicago are resisting a plan to revamp Chicago’s schools — a restructuring that is harming unions, communities, and eliminating democratic control.
Last summer, Chicago’s Mayor Daley announced Renaissance 2010, a dramatic new plan he said would revitalize Chicago Public Schools (CPS). The plan calls for closing 60 public schools and opening 100 new small schools, two-thirds of which will be charter or contract schools run by private organizations and staffed by teachers and school employees who will not be members of CPS unions. The schools also will not have Local School Councils (LSCs). LSCs, established with Chicago’s 1988 School Reform law, are elected school governance bodies composed primarily of parents and community members. They have power over a school’s discretionary budget, approve the School Improvement Plan, and hire the principal.
The first phase of Renaissance 2010, closing 60 schools and opening 100 new schools, is expected to affect about one-sixth of the system. (There are about 431,000 students in CPS.) However, CPS leaders have suggested this is just the first step in overhauling the third largest school system in the United States. In its 2005 first quarter “executive agenda,” A.T. Kearney, a corporate consulting firm that is developing the plan, notes, “Once field-tested in Chicago’s mid-south region, this model will become the basis for new approaches throughout the district.”
This plan was passed by the Chicago Board of Education, which is appointed by the mayor, in September 2004 without genuine community involvement and against widespread opposition in a move that profoundly disrespects the communities and teachers who will be affected. It will create great hardship for students and for their communities.
As schools are closed, students are transferred to other neighboring schools. Some students in the Bronzeville area on the city’s south side have attended four schools in three years due to closings and transfers in a precursor to Renaissance 2010 that began in 2002. At community meetings, parents and students have denounced school closings that would force high school students to cross gang lines to attend transfer schools and require children as young as five to walk more than a mile to a new school. One parent at a community meeting in Bronzeville in March 2005 said, “They’re treating our children like livestock.”
Many teachers committed to the communities where they teach will have to find new jobs as their schools are closed under Renaissance 2010. Seventeen teachers at Englewood High School were informed in mid-April 2005 that they will not be rehired as the school is phased out. There is also a burden on the schools that receive the students displaced by Renaissance 2010. Many of these receiving schools are already overcrowded and are unprepared for an influx of new students. And, because CPS has stated that enrollment in some “Renaissance Schools” can be selective or lottery-based, there is no real guarantee that when a “Renaissance school” opens up in their neighborhood the children who live there will be able to attend it.
A Corporate Agenda
Renaissance 2010 is an example of the national trend to reshape public education in the image of the market by creating school choice, privatizing schools, weakening unions, and eliminating democratic participation in school decision making. It may also signal what is likely to happen across the country as schools fail to meet NCLB goals for “adequate yearly progress.”
Corporate and financial interests have taken a direct role in setting public school policy and school oversight under the Renaissance plan. The Commercial Club of Chicago (CCC), an organization of the city’s top corporate, financial, and political elites, in its July 2003 report, Left Behind, called for a complete overhaul of CPS along a choice and market model. As a first step, it essentially outlined the Renaissance 2010 plan to close schools and create 100 charter or contract schools. A year later, Mayor Daley announced Renaissance 2010 at a Commercial Club event, and the CCC agreed to raise $50 million for the project. The Civic Committee of the Commercial Club set up a new Renaissance 2010 oversight body, called New Schools for Chicago, comprised of several of the Commercial Club’s corporate CEOs along with CPS leaders. This “shadow cabinet,” as it was dubbed in a Chicago Sun-Times article in November 2004, includes the chairs of McDonald’s Corporation and Northern Trust Bank, a partner in a leading corporate law firm, the retired chair of the Tribune Corporation, and the CEO of Chicago Community Trust — a major corporate foundation. It has the power to recommend new school operators and evaluate the schools.
CPS also created a new top leadership position and gave the job to David Vitale, former vice president of Bank One and CEO of the Chicago Board of Trade. The school board contracted with A.T. Kearney, to develop the initial Renaissance 2010 plan and “message and communications timing.” According to its website newsletter, Kearney is providing “thought leadership” to CPS leaders. Kearney developed a “franchised model” for “less bureaucratically controlled schools,” run by “vendors” with a “regional business services center” in place of the current Area Instructional Officer. The business center will service “clients,” instead of teachers and administrators.
‘Pushing Us Out of the Neighborhood’
The initial target of Renaissance 2010 was Bronzeville, a historic center of black community and intellectual life on the south side of the city. In the initial plan, 20 of the 22 schools in the Bronzeville area, which the city refers to as Midsouth, were targeted for closure. Bronzeville is also where some of the most intense gentrification in the city is underway, as reflected in two indicators: rate of increase in housing prices and rate of house sales. Gentrification involves displacement of low-income and working-class families as housing, retail, and recreation are revamped for new middle- and upper-middle-class residents.
Over the past 25 years, as corporations moved jobs out of the country for cheaper labor and the city disinvested in low-income communities, sections of Bronzeville had concentrations of poverty that were among the highest in the United States. Massive high-rise public housing projects that loomed along the north-south expressway near Lake Michigan were allowed to deteriorate to the point of being uninhabitable, justifying their demolition. The Chicago Housing Authority Plan for Transformation, initiated in 1999, calls for tearing down up to 19,000 units of public housing in the city and creating “mixed-income” housing. Twenty-eight buildings, housing over 28,000 people in a two-mile stretch in Bronzeville have been mostly leveled. The land on which they stood — near Lake Michigan, public transportation, the north-south expressway, and the University of Chicago and Illinois Institute of Technology — is an enormously valuable commodity. According to Crain’s Chicago Business, private developers are investing almost $2 billion to develop the area where five high rises stood in Bronzeville. Although one-third of rebuilt housing is designated for former tenants, this would not begin to resettle all those displaced and few may be able to meet “lease compliant” rules to qualify. Beauty Taylor, a tenant leader told Crain’s, “The CHA should have thought about where these people will end up going before they started all this demolition.”
For thousands of families, the displacement has been devastating. Many did not know when they were being moved or where they were going. Some had to divide children among relatives in the scramble for a place to live. Teachers said anxiety saturated children’s lives and was palpable in their schools. As public housing is torn down and new condos and luxury town houses rise up, the city and the real estate developers are removing any traces of the people who once lived there. Closing the schools and then reopening them as new schools is a signal to future middle-class residents that the area is being “reborn.” This has been a frequent theme in business and school leaders’ statements in the press. When the agenda to “reinvent” Midsouth schools was first made public in the Chicago Tribune, on December 19, 2003, Terry Mazany, CEO of Chicago Community Trust and member of the planning team, described the connection between schools and development of the area this way: “[Bronzeville’s] a great physical location, so close to the lake and downtown,” he said. “It’s a delicate balance to pull something like this off. You can’t do it just with the housing and retail development. You have to get the third leg and that’s the schools.”
Bronzeville has been an epicenter of resistance to Renaissance 2010. A community hearing last July drew hundreds of parents, teachers, students, and community residents who lined up at the microphone for four hours to voice near unanimous opposition to “a plan that we were not consulted about” and that is “designed to drive us out of the neighborhood.” Since then, opposition has mushroomed with community hearings on the south and west sides, forums, angry testimony, and an overnight camp-out and pickets at monthly board meetings, door-to-door organizing, rallies, and press conferences. [See article, page 56.]
A pervasive theme in all the community meetings is that the city is using school closings to drive out low-income African Americans and support gentrification by opening new schools of choice to attract middle-class residents. Bronzeville protesters picketing outside the Board of Education chanted, “We’re not blind. Just follow the dollar sign.” In Englewood, an African-American neighborhood on the south side, two schools are slated for closing. At a February 2005 meeting on Renaissance 2010 held in Englewood, parents, students, and teachers described the history of disinvestment in their schools and community and argued that Renaissance 2010 is driving gentrification and removal of low-income African Americans. “We’re being pushed out of the city under the guise of school reform,” one speaker said.
The closing of schools is linked concretely and symbolically to the destruction of the communities. Englewood High School is the signature school in Englewood. The February community meeting on Renaissance 2010 was filled with its former students. One of them said, “When you destroy a community’s school, you destroy a community.” This refrain has been repeated around the city. On the West Side, a North Lawndale resident called Renaissance 2010 “an act of war on the community.”
Chicago’s school accountability set the stage for Renaissance 2010. Since 1995, Chicago’s system of centralized accountability has sorted and labeled schools according to scores on standardized tests. Failing schools are put on probation (one-third of all CPS schools in 2004), and the “worst” have been reconstituted or reengineered. Schools retain students who do not meet cut-off scores in benchmark grades, some for multiple years. This system of classifying and labeling schools established the basis to close them down.
This system has spawned a revolving door of programs and interventions, with disastrous consequences for some of the schools now threatened with closing. Over the past nine years, the central administration put hundreds of schools on probation. Some of the strongest teachers left, frustrated by the chaos, prescriptive and inappropriate programs, test-driven curriculum, and orders the central office handed down. The difficulties faced by “failing” schools cannot be disconnected from the historical lack of resources and lack of meaningful participation by teachers, families, and students in these “reforms.” For example, one school now threatened with closing had three principals in four years. Another operated without math texts until November of last year. In fall 2004, over the protests of parents and teachers, CPS closed eight out of 23 Child-Parent Centers located in low-income neighborhoods, mostly on the African-American South and West Sides. The centers were nationally recognized as the “gold standard” of early childhood programs. A parent opposing Renaissance 2010 asked the school board, “How do you expect us to trust you after what you’ve done to our children?”
If Chicago’s accountability has laid the groundwork for privatization, Renaissance 2010 may signal what we can expect nationally as school districts fail to meet NCLB benchmarks. In fact, failure to make “adequate yearly progress” on these benchmarks, and the threat of a state takeover, is a major theme running through the Commercial Club’s argument for school choice and charter schools. Business and political leaders seem to believe turning schools over to the market is a common sense solution to the problems in the schools. The CCC’s report calls for a marketplace of choice schools to “create a competitive spur to improvement much like Federal Express has caused the postal service to improve.” And Daley said, “This model will generate competition and allow for innovation. It will bring in outside partners who want to get into the business of education.”
Closing schools and reopening them as new schools also restarts their NCLB clock, buying the district time.
Using Small Schools
All Renaissance 2010 schools will be designated as small schools, with fewer than 500 students. CPS leaders claim Renaissance 2010 will offer the advantages of small schools: Teachers can know students well, students will feel less anonymous, and there will be more flexibility for teachers to innovate. But CPS is using the strengths of small schools and the progressive educational movement they grew out of to promote a plan that may lead to increased educational inequality, privatization, gentrification, and displacement of low-income communities of color. And no matter what the size, schools set up by corporate law firms or for-profit education management organizations (EMOs) are not likely to reproduce the qualities of schools created by educators committed to equitable and enriching education.
The small schools being created in Chicago under Renaissance 2010 are not required to have LSCs. This lack of democratic local governance structure will disenfranchise school communities. Of course, LSCs vary in their effectiveness and participation. But LSCs are democratically chosen public decision-making bodies where teachers and community members can discuss, debate, and make decisions. They are one of the few institutionalized forms of grassroots democracy in the city. Without them, parents and communities have no guarantee they will have a meaningful voice.
Although small schools may be better contexts for teaching and learning, they are not inherently progressive. Under Renaissance 2010, there is little reason to assume that many of these schools will do anything other than reproduce the same test-driven curriculum that undermines critical thought and democratic practice in CPS. In fact, Renaissance 2010 charter and contract schools approved so far are a mixed bag. Some will be run by for-profit EMOs, another by a corporate law firm. On the other hand, progressive teachers and activists are developing Uplift High School, one of the new CPS “Performance schools.” (“Renaissance schools” that remain CPS-run are called “Performance schools.”) But in all cases there is no requirement for bottom-up accountability to the community. Without community oversight and collaboration, many of the schools may simply replicate the philosophy of their corporate sponsors.
Under Renaissance 2010, the promise of greater flexibility is attached to greater accountability, with each school tied to a five-year performance contract that is linked to test scores. Teachers will have to negotiate “innovations” within the constraints of a system that puts test preparation at the center of curriculum. And without LSCs, the evaluation of new schools will have no public accountability. Instead, evaluation will be in the hands of the corporate “shadow cabinet,” New Schools for Chicago, and Transitional Advisory Councils, whose members are neither elected nor necessarily representative of the community.
Since two-thirds of the 100 new schools will be staffed with non-union teachers and other school employees, many hard-fought rights and benefits could be undermined. Class size limits, equitable salaries and benefits, job security, and clearly defined job descriptions could all go by the wayside in the name of flexibility.
Although small schools have advantages, the decision to make Renaissance 2010 schools “small schools” is not the result of community will. Parents and teachers were not consulted, and some parents have voiced concerns that their children will lose advantages of larger schools such as more diverse student bodies, more course offerings and extracurricular activities, and opportunities to compete on top-notch sports teams.
These are especially concerns for families that do not have the money to pay for dance lessons, private soccer leagues, or youth theater classes, for example, and who may rely more heavily on athletic scholarships as avenues to college. Small size may also be used to limit school boundaries and create schools in gentrifying areas that serve only middle-class enclaves.
Renaissance 2010 demonstrates that progressive educational innovations can be used for unprogressive aims. What is happening in Chicago may help us to think more deeply about the ways educational projects that are considered progressive depend on who initiates them and for what purposes. It also suggests that if projects such as small schools do not have democratic school-community oversight built in, and if they are not the product of a democratic process, they can be turned against the interests of the community. Reforms that are not explicitly about equity and justice can be turned against those very goals.
On the other hand, Renaissance 2010 has galvanized a broad-based movement of Chicago residents concerned with the future of their schools, neighborhoods, and the city. Renaissance 2010 is about who will be able to live in Chicago, what kinds of jobs people will have, and what kind of city it will be. This movement has the potential to build new solidarities across neighborhoods and between teachers, students, parents, communities, school reformers, homeless advocates, and community-based organizations.