Crowds descend on downtown Chicago to protest school closings, 127 ticketed

March 27, 2013

More than 100 people were cleared away by police at a Wednesday rally protesting Chicago Public Schools' proposal to close 54 schools.

A group including teacher union officials, parents, janitors, lunch ladies and ministers sat down in front of City Hall. Police asked each individual to leave. When they refused, police led them away.

The Chicago Police Department says it ticketed 127 people. At the rally, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis called the closings a "land grab and a power grab," and said they were part of an attempt to privatize the school system. For more on the rally, see WBEZ coverage here.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel Wednesday stood by the district's decision to close schools, saying the status quo is not working.

Prior to the protest, the CTU had been training parents, teachers and community organizations in civil disobedience and had said it planned for 150 people to be arrested .  A Facebook announcement for the rally warned, “They want to shut down our schools, we’ll shut down the city.”

Chicago’s pubic schools are out for spring break this week, leaving students and teachers free to join in the rush-hour rally, organized by the teachers union and a coalition of other unions and community groups.  Chicago Public Schools erected barricades Monday outside its headquarters in preparation.  A spokeswoman said that’s common practice in situations where the district gets advance word of a protest.

Chicago Public Schools is also preparing principals for acts of civil disobedience at their schools, though not necessarily today. A memo sent to principals at closing schools lists lockdowns, walk-outs, sit-ins and “Occupy” actions as possibilities. It outlines “overall guidelines for the prevention of civil disobedience” and suggests principals “be approachable and supportive to feelings of unrest, anxiety, or dissatisfaction.” It also instructs principals to “observe and report all information regarding possible protestors, locations, dates and times,” and to note which community organizations or news organizations are present.

In addition to closing 53 elementary schools and one small high school, the district wants to completely re-staff six additional elementary schools. It is also proposing 23 schools share 11 buildings beginning next fall; some of those are new schools that will just be opening.

The district says closing the 54 schools will offer students a better education because it will allow scarce resources to be spread across fewer schools. Many of the schools slated for closure have fewer than 300 students. For the first time in more than a decade of school closings, CPS is saying it will put significant money into receiving schools, promising students air conditioning, libraries with new books, “learning gardens” and iPads, along with social workers and counselors to help students adjust.

The teachers union has said it wants no schools closed, and parents at the individual schools slated for consolidation have brought up their own concerns, from longer walks to school in winter weather to fear for their children crossing into rival gang territory.

Earlier this month in Philadelphia, 19 activists were arrested at a meeting where the Philadelphia School Reform Commission voted to close 23 schools; the head of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, was among those arrested. The Chicago Teachers Union says Weingarten, who appeared at rallies here during the teachers strike in September, is not expected to be in Chicago today.

Linda Lutton is an education reporter for WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation.