Closing 50 schools: Both sides claim moral high ground in Chicago school closings debate

Demonstrators and school officials pleaded with Chicago’s school board to do what’s morally right. For some, that means closing schools. For others, it means keeping them open.

May 23, 2013

(WBEZ/Bill Healy)
Board members listen as Alderman Walter Burnett Jr. lists reasons for opposing the school closings in his ward.

Fifty Chicago public schools will be closing their doors for good. The school board heard final appeals Wednesday to spare the schools, and arguments to close them.

Both sides claimed their stand was morally right.

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There were last minute pleas from aldermen and from moms:

Ald. JOE MORENO: I know you don’t want your legacy to be that you closed public schools in a neighborhood and have zero schools left remaining. I know you don’t want that, board members.

WOODS ACADEMY MOM SHARON TAYLOR: You’re transitioning our school to go into Bass, who’s been on probation for 17 years.

COURTENAY MOM KATIE REED : This proposal breaks Illinois state law, it breaks the rules by CPS and it breaks my heart!

And there were disruptions. Erica Clark told board members she opposes every school closing.

CLARK: Because as a parent, as a mother, every Chicago Public School is my school. Altgeld is my school, Armstrong is my school, Attucks is my school, Banneker is my school…

By the time Clark got to the Ps, her time at the microphone was up. CPS officials cut the sound. Clark sat down on the floor. And security guards picked her up and moved her out as she continued with her litany.

CLARK: Von Humboldt is my school! West Pullman is my school!
CROWD: Every school is my school! Every school is my school! Every school is my school!

More than at any other moment in this months-long debate, those opposing the closings appealed directly to board members on moral grounds. A pastor urged them not to put themselves in the company of those who turned water hoses on civil rights protesters or shot students at Kent State.

But both sides saw their position as the morally right thing to do.

Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett quoted Martin Luther King when urging board members to close the 50 schools.

BYRD-BENNETT: “Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’  Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it political?’ Vanity asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’ But conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’ There comes a time when one must take a position that’s neither safe, nor political, nor popular, but it is one that one takes because it is right….” The only consideration for us today, is to do exactly what is right for children.

School officials say population declines have left them with enough room for 100,000 extra students, and their resources are stretched too thin.

Board members made statements before their vote. Jesse Ruiz, who sat on Illinois’ board of education for six and a half years, described this as the most difficult vote of his life. Carlos Azcoitia said he would be against every closing if it weren’t for the significant resources the district is putting into receiving schools. Board president David Vitale said board members take seriously the concerns and anxieties of parents, but also see the status quo is unacceptable.

Board member Andrea Zopp said she wants protesters to hold the board to its promise—that this will improve schools.

ZOPP: I’ve heard many people tell me we have a horrible track record on doing these turnovers and changes and closing schools and yes, we do. But we’ve done an unprecedented effort here. We’ve all been to schools. We’ve talked, we’ve questioned, we’ve listened. We’ve dialogued. And the implementation process is different—it’s already underway. So I believe we will have a different result, because we’re doing it a different way.

In the end, board members voted to close 50 schools,  49 of them unanimously, 48 of them in one fell swoop, without naming the schools or voicing a vote. It sounded like this:

BOARD SECRETARY: …86, 87, 88. And EX89. And Mr. President, these items do require a vote.
VITALE: Madame Secretary, if there are no objections from my fellow board members, please apply the last favorable roll-call vote. 
BOARD SECRETARY: Thank you, Mr. President, and now I will continue with …

KAREN LEWIS: What is amazing to me is that these people couldn’t even call the names of the schools out loud that they were destroying. And that they couldn’t even say yes or no to each individual school.

That’s Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis.

Some 40,000 children are affected by the closings and other shake-ups approved yesterday. About 2,000 people lose their jobs. 

Mayor Rahm Emanuel issued a statement saying, “I know this is incredibly difficult, but I firmly believe the most important thing we can do as a city is provide the next generation with a brighter future.”