Education Opportunity Network

Education Opportunity Network -

The Democratic Party’s Anti-Democratic Education Policy

Chicago, the city famous for “big shoulders,” has a big mouth, too.

Spurred by an alarming level of school building closures – 61 in all – mandated by Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration, Chicagoans are speaking out loudly and forcefully against a plan to “downsize the facility footprint of the district.”

A point being made most vociferously, according to Huffington Post, is the blatant discriminatory context of the closures due to the fact that “the schools slated for closure are all elementary schools and are overwhelmingly black and in low-income neighborhoods.”

While the rationale for closing the schools, or not, gets quickly into the weeds – are the schools really “underutilized” and “under performing,” does the city really have a budget “emergency” – what has gone completely unaddressed is the incoherence that an edict of this nature has been promulgated by a mayoral administration claiming the mantle of the Democratic party.

Once upon a time, the Democratic Party had this reputation for promoting policies that were supportive of educating African American children. It was left-leaning factions of the Democratic Party that led efforts to desegregate schools, use Title I funds to ensure some equity of funding for schools that poor kids attend, and push for the rights of teachers working in those schools to have some say in ensuring school children were well served.

The idea that the way to improve the education of African American children is to close their schools seems bizarre from the point of view of anyone purporting to be a Democrat.

For sure, lots of schools serving low-income kids in Chicago are problematic. And that appears to be true of many schools serving low-income kids across the country. But insisting those schools close their doors is akin to proclaiming during a crime wave that we must close the police precincts.

Even stranger, the actions of mayor Emanuel’s administration appear to align with an entrenched Democratic Party elite in Washington, DC who want to enforce a school governance policy that restricts the input of students, parents, teachers, and citizens who are most affected by education policies.

For a party that once bristled at being called “The Democrat Party” vs. “The Democratic Party” for reasons of ideological purity, this is indeed a weird turn of events.

But when it comes to education policy, the Democratic Party has become unmoored from its fundamental values and become aligned with a movement that is fundamentally anti-Democratic.

Chicagoans are calling out Democrats for this betrayal – for good reason – and so should everyone else.

Chicago School Closings Are A Big Deal

The official number of students affected in the Chicago school closing is 30,000 – certainly a big deal even for the nation’s third largest school system.

The disruption doesn’t stop there. According to Education Week, there will also be 11 more schools targeted to have a charter school co-located in their buildings, and six schools are designated for “turned around,” which can involve mass firings of school staff.

The response from Chicago Teachers Union leader Karen Lewis was to dub Emanuel “murder mayor” for “murdering public services.” She vowed, “some of us are going to put our bodies on the line” to defend the schools.

Parents joined in the outcry as well, with a school walkout, protests at City Hall, and one activist group organizing a bus tour to picket the homes of members of the Chicago Board of Education.

About 30 protestors descended on branch offices of Bank of America to link outrage over school closings to the lack of accountability in the nation’s financial sector. The protestors point of outrage was Bank of America’s interest-rate swaps that “reportedly take $35 million from CPS annually.” The deal locked in interest rates of “3 percent to 6 percent for loans negotiated during the Great Recession” even though the Federal Reserve has now lowered interest rates to less than half percent.

A massive rally to protest the closings is set to take place in downtown Chicago at 4:00 p.m. on March 27.

The Weak Case For School Closings

In defense of his administration’s edicts, mayor Emanuel – refreshed from a ski trip “out West” – stated that closing schools was “investing in quality education.”

One wonders if the mayor would rationalize shutting down the city’s fire stations on the same basis – as “investing” in property protection.

But wonkier arguments for the closures pull from the Very Serious Land of fiscal conservatism – that never-never place where bureaucrats armed with Excel claim the ability to know the “performance” of institutions they have never set foot in and the power to pull wondrous “savings to the public” out of a magic hat.

A report produced by a network of education researchers looked at this notion that school closings would lead to better “performance” and immense “savings” and found otherwise.

The report by CReATE, “a network of over 100 professors from numerous Chicago-area universities,” looked at the justifications the Emanuel administration has given for the closings and found them to be mostly baseless.

First, the review concluded that closing schools does little to raise the academic achievement of children in under-performing schools. The researchers cite from studies of school closings previously conducted in Chicago and elsewhere which found that the vast majority of students from shuttered elementary schools moved from one underperforming school to another underperforming school.

The students from the closed schools did no better in their new schools. In fact, they were more apt to do worse – scoring lower on tests in the year following closure and experiencing increased risk of school violence and eventually dropping out.

Closing schools also tended to have negative effects on the students who were in the schools that remained open. Transferring students from the closed schools into the open ones led to increased class sizes and overcrowding.

The disruption to students’ peer relationships, relationships with adults, and “social and emotional supports” caused schools with highly mobile student populations to lag behind stable schools by “one grade level on average.”

And those wondrous savings that closing schools would produce? According to the report, the savings promised are supposed to come from leasing, selling, or repurposing the closed schools. But Chicago is “having difficulty disposing of the schools they have already closed.” In fact, “school closings in six cities showed that school closures did not save the school districts as much money as was hoped.”

In fact, a different study showed that closing schools in Washington, DC actually cost the city $40 million.

Unfortunately, Chicago is not alone in experiencing a rash of school closings. According to reports, “Several major U.S. cities, including Philadelphia, Washington and Detroit,” are experiencing the same thing.

Behold The New Authoritarianism

What’s driving school closure mania is a belief, coming principally down from Washington, DC, that education governance should be increasingly intolerant of listening to and following the voices of parents and citizens on the ground.

This new authoritarianism for education governance was on display on a computer screen near you – just as events in Chicago were unfolding – when a panel of “education policy experts” assembled in the Capital City to pronounce their views on how schools everywhere should be run.

Not too surprisingly, operatives from conservative belief tanks were quick to denounce any school governance approach that is most apt to ensure our public schools remain democratic institutions – things like local control, elected school boards, and public ownership.

“Too many cooks,” the conservatives railed, comparing public institutions that We The People built with our tax dollars, willingly and gladly sent our children to, and supported for the benefit of other people’s children to a “monopoly.”

Representing left-leaning people in the discussion, supposedly, was Cynthia Brown from the Center for American Progress who astonishingly chimed in with a “bipartisan” stamp of approval for less democracy in school governance.

“We’re in agreement,” Brown proclaimed as if she alone embodied the opinions of Democrats everywhere.

What the panel preferred to the “too many cooks” approach was a range of sparkling new policy ideas like private operation of schools, business models (where real monopolies exist) driven by an all powerful CEO, and, most notably, “mayor control.”

Mayor control means that instead of an elected school board, the mayor gets his or her pick of who runs the schools. Funny – this happens to be the method of school governance in Chicago and other cities experiencing mass school closings that parents and citizens object to.

No matter to the Center for American Progress who happened to release a new report extolling the wonders of mayoral control just as the whole notion is being strongly contested by Democratic Party activists in big urban districts across the country.

This love for all things authoritarian is certainly nothing new for Republicans who have tended to be fans of things like military interventions and stronger police states.

But how strange that people calling themselves Democrats – who battle Republicans over restrictive voter ID laws and push for the enfranchisement of immigrants – feel that when it comes to education governance less public voice in the matter is a good thing.

Once upon a time, minority populations actually looked to Democratic Party leaders in the halls of the Federal Government to push for the empowerment of grassroots community and parent groups. Now, there are clear signs that type of leadership no longer exists – at least when it comes to school governance.

People in Chicago know that and are speaking out. Everyone else needs to listen.