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As the academic year winds down, a record number of Chicago schools are preparing to close their doors for good in the largest mass school closing ever in one U.S. city. Last week, the Chicago Board of Education voted to close 50 of the city's public schools in a move that will impact some 30,000 students, around 90 percent of them African American. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has pushed for the closures in order to save the city more than $500 billion, half of its deficit. "Rahm Emanuel actually does not have an educational plan, he has an economic development plan," says our guest Diane Ravitch, who served as the assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush.
Proponents say the closures will hit schools that are both under-performing and under-utilized. But a vocal coalition of parents, teachers and students has fought back, warning that the closures will lead to overcrowded classrooms and endanger those students forced to walk longer distances to their new schools. We go to Chicago to speak with Jesse Sharkey, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, which helped lead the campaign against the school closures. "They are making a very massive, radical and, frankly, irreversible experiment here on other people's children," Sharkey says.
AARON MATÉ: It's almost June, and students across the country are counting down to the summer break. But today we look at Chicago, where a record number of schools are preparing to close their doors for good. In a controversial move last week, the Chicago Board of Education voted to close 50 of the city's public schools. It's the largest mass school closing ever in one U.S. city. Some 30,000 students will be affected, around 90 percent of them African American.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has pushed for the closures. He says the city will save more than $500 billion, half of its deficit. Proponents also say the closures will hit schools that are both underperforming and underutilized. But a vocal coalition of parents, teachers and students has fought back.
AMY GOODMAN: At protests and public hearings, closure opponents have denounced the plan as discriminatory for overwhelmingly targeting African-American and Latino neighborhoods. They warn the closures will lead to overcrowded classrooms and endanger those students forced to walk longer distances to their new schools. After last week's vote, Alex Lyons of the group Save Our West Side Schools said the school district is putting children in harm's way.
ALEX LYONS: I am very, very disappointed and upset in the rubber-stamp vote that was taken by the CPS Board of Elections to take our kids from the classroom and put them on the front row of killings, murders, war zones, seeing things that a kid should not see to go to school.
AARON MATÉ: The vote to close so many Chicago schools may be historic, but it already follows around 100 other school closures in Chicago since 2001. Ahead of last week's vote, a group of Chicago parents filed two lawsuits saying these new closures violate the Americans with Disabilities Act and Illinois civil rights law.
AMY GOODMAN: To discuss the Chicago closures, we're joined by two guests. In Chicago, Jesse Sharkey is with us, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, which helped lead the campaign against the school closures. And here in New York, Diane Ravitch is with us. She served as the assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush, now a historian of education and the best-selling author of over 20 books, including The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let's start in Chicago with Jesse Sharkey. Explain the latest and why these schools are being closed and what you're doing about it.
JESSE SHARKEY: Well, Amy, thanks for having me on, first of all.
There's been a real shifting rationale about why the district is closing the schools. What they keep--what they've said is that it will save money and they have a budget deficit to worry about, and then now they're saying that this will allow them to better serve the students whose schools are being closed. Both rationales are outrageous. As far as saving money, the district is planning--or the city is going to spend $300 million to renovate a new stadium for the DePaul basketball team and renovate the tourist areas of the city, that we don't believe the school closings will save that much money. And we definitely don't think that this will actually help the students that are being affected. In all the previous rounds, we found that the University of Chicago research shows that over 90 percent of the students actually wind up with worse educational outcomes as a result of their schools being closed. So, this will be very harmful to the students. It'll be harmful to the public school system as a whole, and to the people who work in the schools, as well.
AARON MATÉ: When the closures were announced in March, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was across the country on a ski vacation with his family in Utah. When he got back, Emanuel defended the plan to close so many of his city's schools.
MAYOR RAHM EMANUEL: To deal with the 54 schools was not taken lightly, but it was taken with the notion of how do we make sure that every child can get to a quality school with a quality education.
AARON MATÉ: I want to bring in Diane Ravitch. So the argument here is that there's around 100,000 empty seats that are wasting taxpayer money. What's your response to that?
DIANE RAVITCH: Well, you know, it's funny, because over the past several years we've seen the federal government and a lot of local governments saying that kids need smaller schools. And, actually, in New York City, for example, many schools have been broken up; big schools have been broken up into five or six schools, and many new small schools have been created. All of these schools could have served as the ideal small schools. There really was no reason to close them. And many people think it may have been payback to the teachers' union for having struck last September. Other cities that have closed schools have found no cost savings, because the children still need services, the children still need teachers, so that there are really no cost savings.
This is, I think, on Rahm Emanuel's part, he's following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Arne Duncan. Arne Duncan started this idea that the way to improve schools was to close them, which is obviously a ridiculous idea. But he closed three schools in 2002, and then, two years later, he announced his reform plan, which he called Renaissance 2010. And the heart of Renaissance 2010 was to close schools and open new schools, and that would somehow miraculously improve education. Not only did it not improve education in Chicago, and he did close lots of schools and open many more -- it did not improve education, but in this latest wave of school closings by Rahm Emanuel, the three schools that -- the first three schools that Arne Duncan closed and reopened have now been closed again.
AMY GOODMAN: How significant is this school closure -- schools closure, I should say, 50 schools in Chicago, in the context of education in America, in the United States?