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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 5/28/13

Chicago to Shutter 50 Public Schools: Is Historic Mass Closure an Experiment in Privatization?

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DIANE RAVITCH: Well, I think that what -- what's so terrible is that people have come to accept the idea that closing schools is a reform strategy. And as I mentioned, the one who started this was Arne Duncan. We now see it happening...

AMY GOODMAN: The secretary of education.

DIANE RAVITCH: Secretary of education. So, we now see it happening in New York City, where the mayor has closed something like 150 schools over several years -- not so many at one time -- massive school closings underway in Philadelphia and Detroit. In city after city, the civic and business elite and the -- whoever's put in charge of superintendent has taken the position that they'll close schools. And what they're mostly doing is privatizing them. I mean, you have to understand that the closing schools argument is not simply about public schools getting better, which obviously they don't, are not -- and the kids are not sent to better schools, they get sent to equally low-performing schools. And not all the schools that are being closed are low-performing schools, by the way. But it is part of a larger scheme to advance privatization, to create privately managed charter schools that are non-union schools. And Chicago now has about 75,000 children in non-union charter schools.

AMY GOODMAN: But the mayor, Jesse Sharkey, says it's to close this massive debt.

JESSE SHARKEY: That's their claim. You know, the mayor has also said that there's not enough money, but he will refuse to consider raising taxes. The mayor also sets aside about a quarter billion dollars a year, which goes into essentially a sort of real estate kitty, a sludge fund called the tax increment finance funds. But really, we do see this as an attempt to close public schools and replace them with non-union charter schools. Chicago has signed onto the Gates compact, which promises to add 60 new charter schools in the next four years. So even as they close traditional public schools, neighborhood schools -- look, some of these schools have been around for over a hundred years and, you know, survived two world wars and a Great Depression, but haven't survived this mayor. And so, even as he's talking about closing schools because there's too many "seats," quote-unquote, they're opening many other schools. The rationales begin to fall apart. And frankly, the rationales keep shifting. You know, these are sort of the third sets of justifications they've made for this policy.

AMY GOODMAN: Diane Ravitch, the choices that the city of Chicago is making, where they put their money and where they take it out?

DIANE RAVITCH: Well, you know, it's -- I think Jesse is quite right. This is not about saving money. It's not about giving kids a better education, because there's solid research that shows that most of the kids who moved in from a closed school to another school, there was no change at all for them. This is really about a privatization movement that's underway across the country, and I think that Rahm Emanuel wanted to be the biggest, the baddest and the boldest by closing the most schools.

AMY GOODMAN: And then, what is happening instead in Chicago, where the money is going?

DIANE RAVITCH: Well, it's going to tax breaks for billionaires like Penny Pritzker and other people who are developing and building, and it's -- and gentrifying the city. And this is not about children. It's not about education. Rahm Emanuel actually does not have an educational plan; he has an economic development plan. And this is where the schools fit in, which is to close public schools and to open more and more privately managed charters.

AARON MATÉ: Jesse Sharkey --

JESSE SHARKEY: Amy, if I could add one thing --

AARON MATÉ: --the impact on students, some parents -- like we heard one parent say in the beginning, that this will force students into longer walks to school, and this happened across gang lines.

JESSE SHARKEY: Yeah, we're concerned about safety.

I'd just add one other thing about saving money, which is that one part of the plan, which will save money and be very detrimental to students, is they intend to massively increase class size, both in the schools which are closing -- well, both in the schools which are receiving closed students, the students of closed schools, and also across the district. We know that small class size is educationally effective, especially for elementary school students in the lower grades, especially for disadvantaged students -- i.e., exactly the students that have been targeted by these closures. And we think that class sizes are going to spike as a result of this.

The safety is a real concern, as well. I mean, we're talking about 50 schools that are in some of the toughest neighborhoods in Chicago. They have not had adequate sort of planning time to make real safety plans. When the list was announced in late March, the people who are actually responsible for helping the kids get to school safely didn't even know their schools would be on the list. You know, the district is scrambling to play catch up. And they're making a very massive, radical and, frankly, irreversible experiment here on other people's children.

AMY GOODMAN: This is happening under a Democratic administration, Diane Ravitch, in Chicago. You served as secretary of education under George H.W. Bush. How does this philosophy, this approach, compare?

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