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Gary Younge

Chicago public schools began the year with a teacher strike, and officials are bracing for another major disruption on Wednesday. Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images
Chicago Teachers Union plans mass demonstration against school closings

Chicago is bracing itself for a large, potentially disruptive demonstration on Wednesday involving acts of mass civil disobedience against the largest proposed round of school closures in recent memory.

The city last week announced plans to close 54 schools affecting more than 30,000 students, primarily in low-income black and Latino areas. The proposals, which had already sparked huge, rowdy protests at hearings throughout the city before the announcement, mark mayor Rahm Emanuel's second major confrontation over education in less than six months, following the teacher strike in late August.

The Chicago Teachers Union, which emerged with considerable public support last year after it blunted Emanuel's attempts to tie teachers' pay to test scores, has pledged to engage in a campaign of non-violent disobedience to oppose the closures.

"People who work in the schools and rely on public schools will oppose the mass closings by any and all peaceful means," CTU vice-president Jesse Sharkey told union members recently. "[School closings] are not something we are prepared to accept without a fight … We're going to take this fight as far as we have to to defend our community schools."

Union insiders say that depending on the response to the demonstrations, occupations of schools and walkouts could follow. CPS has provided principals with a guide on how to handle civil disobedience and to report the names of any teachers and students involved in protests.

"Why are they asking principals to work as agents of this administration when they are the ones who have created a climate of chaos?" asked CTU president Karen Lewis. "Civil disobedience is a direct response to unjust policies and practices. We intend to use whatever nonviolence protest actions we have in this fight for education justice."

Chicago public schools officials claim the closures are necessary to plug a $1bn deficit, and that consolidating under-used and under-performing schools will save $560m over 10 years by reducing investment in shuttered buildings. The district insists the savings will go to improve classroom resources including air conditioning, libraries and iPads for all students in grades three through eight.

Roughly 100 Chicago schools, the third-largest school district in the country where 87% of the students are from low-income families, have already been closed since 2001. Almost 90% of the students affected in those closings were black, even though black students comprise just over 40% of the city's student body as a whole.

 Almost 90% of the students affected in the closings are black, though black students comprise just over 40% of the student body. Photograph: John Gress/Reuters
Almost 90% of the students affected in the closings are black, though black students comprise just over 40% of the student body. Photograph: John Gress/Reuters

Community groups, unions and many parents argue that the closures will devastate already struggling areas, raise student-teacher ratios, put children in danger by forcing them to cross gang lines to go to new schools and are based on flawed calculations and savings.

"For too long, children in certain parts of Chicago have been cheated out of the resources they need to succeed, because they are in underutilized, under-resourced schools," said Barbara Byrd-Bennett, CPS' chief executive, explaining the announcement. "The district must consolidate … to get students into higher performing schools."

But opponents point out that there is little evidence that the closures will achieve that aim, and claim they mark an acceleration of the city's bid to "privatise" education by forcing students into charter schools.

"In the same time these school closings have been taking place over the past decade, the city has opened about 100 charter schools in the very neighbourhoods where they're now closing schools through under utilisation," explained Sharkey. "Meanwhile supports of charter schools have been very open ideologically about making school competition part of the larger picture."

A study by the University of Chicago's Consortium on Chicago School Research revealed that from the 38 schools closed between 2001 and 2006 only 6% of students who were moved went to high-performing schools.

"Our research found that school districts tended to save under $1m per school" closed, said Emily Dowdall, a senior associate at the Pew Charitable Trusts, told the New York Times. "So in some ways that's not a game-changing amount."

Sharkey further argues that the city rarely follows through on its promises on savings. "In the past there's been investment for the first one or two years. But the money dries up once the attention is gone."

Emanuel was on a skiing vacation the day the closures were announced, and this was interpreted as a bid to dissociate himself from the move. But he has since joined the fray.

"If we don't make these changes, we haven't lived up to our responsibility as adults to the children of the city of Chicago," he said. "And I did not run for office to shirk my responsibility."

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