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The Nation's future under No Child Left Behind: Chicago has closed more than 40 public schools since 2001... The school closing scam

When Arne Duncan, CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, announced in 2005 that he was going to close Morse Elementary School for “underperformance”, teachers and other staff at the school mobilized and pointed out how unfair the characterization was. Laboring under some of the worst burdens of poverty and crime, the area around Morse, which sits at 620 N. Sawyer in Chicago, would once have been viewed as an example of how racial segregation and economic exploitation and oppression create ghettos, poverty, and other problems.

But by 2005, the “dominant narrative” about public schools had changed. Instead of blaming Chicago, which has some of the most brutal ghettos and tragic poverty in the USA, the dominant narrative now consists of blaming the victims and excusing the city, the system, and the country. On October 9, 2007, Chicago Schools Chief Executive Officer Arne Duncan told a crowd of reporters and others that he would continue to push the opening of “new schools” as part of Mayor Richard M. Daley’s “Renaissance 2010” program despite the fact that more and more of the new school already opened by CPS have either failed or are only succeeding by manipulating their numbers. The schools also cost much more than average schools.

“The whole thing is driven by privatization, not what’s good for the public,” said one critic. “This is what happens in any dictatorship.”

Wal-Mart Schools in Chicago, 2007

“And we owe a special thank you to the Walton Family Foundation,” Michelle Navarre, chief of the Polaris Charter School, told the cheering crowd of charter school operators, entrepreneurs, and political supports at a widely publicized event on October 9, 2007. Everyone present cheered at the mention of the billionaires who gave the world Wal-Mart. Navarre's new charter school had replaced a struggling public school, and Wal-Mart had helped, as Navarre acknowledged.

The ceremony for the opening of the Polaris Charter School was filled with luminaries from the world of Chicago's privatization of public education. Standing behind Navarre in the newly refurbished Morse school gymnasium were Arne Duncan, who had led the work since 2002, and other entrepreneurs from worlds as diverse as corporate Chicago and Chicago's religious communities. One of those looking on and smiling was the Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ, who was about to become an "educational entrepreneur" when CPS gave him the power to open the "Nkrumah Charter School" on Chicago's South Side in 2008.

One of the most important Chicago Public Schools officials present at the “Polaris” ceremony was a young man who had little inner city teaching experience, no Chicago teaching experience, and no teaching or administrative credentials in Illinois. But for those who appreciated ironies, the presence of Josh Edelman, Chicago’s fourth “Chief Officer” of “New Schools” in four years, was filled with it. Edelman’s mother, Marion Wright Edelman, had given “No Child Left Behind” its name. Like many who had once fought for civil rights and against segregation, Edelman was giving her name to the evils against which her colleagues and mentors had fought back when she worked with Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s.

What had happened in the inner cities of the USA was a complete transformation of the story line that is fed daily to Americans by their mass media, a story line not just produced by the right wing media, but also packaged and sold by the mainstream. How Chicago became the leader in closing schools as a prelude to the worst excesses that will soon befall the rest of the USA under “No Child Left Behind” has long been the subject of Substance stories, but with this issue we are beginning a seven-part series on how and by whom the closing of dozens of public schools and the destruction of black communities in what was once dubbed the “Black Metropolis” was accomplished. And although the federal government was under the control of neo-conservatives and George W. Bush during the years Chicago attacked its public schools, in Chicago the job was being done by liberals, all Democrats.

One more peg in the Board...

Although Michelle Navarre was the main speaker at the October 9 event, the most important speaker present was Chicago Schools Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Arne Duncan. When he was appointed to head the nation’s third largest school system in 2001, Duncan had even less teaching experience than Edelman. But within a year after he began his career as a newly minted CEO, Duncan revealed what would become the main work of his administration: the closing of inner city public schools, the displacement of their faculties, and the privatization (usually, but not always, through charterization) of as many Chicago public schools as possible. Duncan’s first attack on the integrity of the teachers and principals at Chicago’s inner city, usually all-black, public schools came less than a year after his appointment by Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. In April 2002, Duncan proposed that the Chicago Board of Education close three all-black inner city schools (all of which were staffed with mostly black teachers) and convert them into other entities. Duncan’s proposal to close Dodge, Terrell, and Williams elementary schools prompted a firestorm of protest. Organized mainly by the Chicago Teachers Union, but supported also by leaders of other unions including the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 73, a thousand people showed up at the April 2002 meeting of the Chicago Board of Education to protest the attacks on Dodge, Terrell and Williams. Speaker after speaker at the meeting pointed out that each of the schools had faced specific challenges that led to a drop in standardized test scores. Dodge had seen some of the worst “mobility” in Chicago as a result of the gentrification of the West Side in the area west of the United Center. Terrell had seen both mobility and a decline in membership as the result of the destruction of the public housing projects it used to serve. And Williams had seen the children’s test scores decline — for one year only — because there was a gang war going on in the housing project (Dearborn Homes) that began less than 100 feet from the front entrance of the school.

The facts didn’t matter. Arne Duncan was mandated to close black schools, and between April 2002 and the end of 2006, he had closed more than 30 of them. That story, a prelude to NCLB’s next phase, begins this month here. 

This report first appeared in the print edition of Substance for November 2007. It has been edited slightly for this Web edition.



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