This post was inspired by Asean Johnson.
This week, we’ve seen some interesting developments in the fight to save the 49 schools that the CPS announced it will close for the upcoming school year. There has been tremendous outrage over the past few months, and I’m glad to see that the fight to save the schools does not stop just because the school year ended. In fact, the fight seems stronger than ever, with new players becoming involved every day. I’d like to take a minute to look at all of the different players in the CPS closure protest and how their involvement has affected the fight.
Teachers: The teachers of Chicago schools–including those that are not being affected by the planned closures–have had the loudest voice in the protest since the very beginning. Particularly those active within the Chicago Teachers’ Unions have been out on the streets rallying, tweeting non-stop about their engagement with the fight, and posting articles on the CTU website frequently to keep up with the heap of events and developments concerning the fight to save the schools. CTU President Karen Lewis has been in the public eye since the CPS announced the school closures back in March, making sure to voice her support for the union’s teachers in rallies, city hall meetings, interviews, and social media.
The CPS announced this week that they were laying off an additional 2,000+ school staff, including 1,036 teachers. News of particularly outrageous layoffs have been circulating the internet; most noticeably, stories about Xian Barrett. Firstly, Barrett found out that he was being laid off only because the CPS called his mother to give her the news. Talk about adding insult to injury! Secondly, Xian Barrett is an outstanding case because he was chosen as a Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow by the U.S. Department of Education in 2009. Barrett is an outstanding teacher who has actively worked with students outside the classroom to help them learn about issues of social justice while serving the community. Laying off Barrett comes to many a sign that the CPS is taking teachers’ jobs and destroying their lives without so much as a glance at who it is that they’re laying off. After all, they need only look on the U.S. Department of Education website to see a profile of Xian Barrett, a talented teacher that the country claims to be proud of having.
Barrett believes that the CPS laying him off sends another message as well. He said in an interview:
“[The administrators] are certainly not happy about union activity, but when I look at who has been laid off again and again in these types of situations, it seems like they target the allies for students even more aggressively than they target the union […]We live in a time where being cruel to public workers is acceptable in some ways, especially [those who are] people of color. But with students you’re not allowed to be quite as overt about it. So when young people go to board meetings and oppose them again and again, [the administrators] feel like they have to do something, they can’t just ignore it.”
This brings us to the next category…
Students: Students have long been involved in the fight to save their own school communities, but only this week does it seem that they are starting to gain some real power in the movement. At a Board of Ed meeting held in Chicago on July 24th, students were allowed 2 minutes to voice their opinions about the school closings. This is, of course, time that the Board of Ed will never actually spend listening to the children, and allowing them to speak is simply an action taken in the name of placation. However, this is something that the students know, and they are not willing to just let it go. “One thing I don’t get about this board is that you only give us two minutes to speak and you give these corporate businesses, what, an hour to speak?” These were words spoken at the BOE meeting by 9 year-old Asean Johnson, a 3rd grader in Chicago who is quickly becoming the face of students in the Chicago school closings struggle. Asean started gaining recognition a few months ago, when he brought the crowd to its feet at a CTU rally. He is passionate, articulate, and–although the CPS doesn’t want to admit it–he knows what he’s talking about. I cannot emphasize enough how much I recommend watching these videos of him speaking his mind.
Some people are saying that the students are being used unfairly as political props. It’s a valid argument, and one that I have mixed feelings about. The truth is that children have always been used as pawns in politics. Rarely do they have any real power except as a symbol of cuteness and vulnerability that people can twist and manipulate to fit their arguments. It is true that some of the words that Johnson spoke at the BOE meeting were clearly not his own; words such as “nepotism” were very likely fed to him by the CTU. Having said all this, I still believe that students should continue to force their voices into the conversation. This is, after all, about their education, and they understand more than the CPS wants to admit. Furthermore, fighting for their schools is a sure way to spark a passion in public service and social justice, and I have no doubt that some of these kids may be inspired to continue the fight as adults.
Even though the CPS can dismiss children such as Asean as ignorant, there have been teenagers joining the fight who are clearly more informed, organized, and harder to ignore. The group Chicago Students Organized to Save Our Schools (CSOSOS) has really grown a lot in the past few months. They organized a protest outside the BOE meeting on July 24th that had a lot of participants. In addition, they organized a protest inside the meeting, ultimately linking arms and chanting before being physically escorted from the meeting by security shouting: “Whose schools?” to the response, “OUR SCHOOLS!”
Parents: There have been some strong parent voices that have become popular and well-known, particularly on Twitter and other social media. Some great charts and tweets were released this week by @foolforcps, including a list of the top 5 and bottom 5 schools receiving money from the CPS, of which the top 5 are charter schools. Chicago Public Fools also released a list of the top 9 expenses that CPS finds worthy, a piece called ‘Top 9 things CPS is spending money on like it’s not broke,’ written by a contributor called South Side CPS Mom. Overall, I’ve been impressed by the speed at which parents are spreading information online.
In addition, parents joined forces with lawyers last week to bring the school closures fight to federal court. Parents filed two lawsuits against the CPS: one claimed that school closures disproportionately affect African-American and minority students, while the second claimed that “welcoming schools” could not have time to properly prepare for incoming students with disabilities, and thus that the district is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. The hearing went on for 4 days, with parents contributing testimony along with teachers and CPS officials. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of parents and supported by the CTU. The judge will announce a decision on the potential injunction in August.
Human Rights Activists: This is a new player in the fight, and one that I am particularly intrigued by. Human rights activists have sent the issue of school closures to the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland. The letter of allegation is entitled “Letter of Allegation Regarding the Closing of 49 Public Elementary Schools in Chicago, Illinois, United States of America” and was sent on behalf of the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights. The issues covered in the allegation include the dangers posed to minority and disabled students that have been covered by the lawsuit. In addition, the letter of allegation also claims that the closures violate international human rights law concerning:
- The right to equality and non-discrimination in education
- The right to be free from violence and the right to life
- The right to quality of education
- The right and opportunity to take part in the conduct of public affairs
- Justification of lack of financial resources
Whether the claim that CPS closures violate international human rights law has enough merit to make the CPS the center of a UN investigation–or even any merit at all–has yet to be seen. Regardless, I am very excited by the interest that human rights advocates have shown in the fight to save the Chicago public schools. All of the players listed above have made a tremendous effort to show that democratic and active citizenship is a spirit that is still alive in America, but the human rights advocates have made a point to highlight a deeper truth: we must remember that we are accountable to something greater than our own nation, greater than even our own democracy. CPS must be held accountable to the fundamental value that exists in educating and protecting children.