Emanuel addresses race in Chicago school closure plan

March 27, 2013

By Alex Keefe and Becky Vevea

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is addressing the racial disparities in his administration’s plan to close an unprecedented 54 public schools next year.

The proposal, which represents the largest single round of school closures in U.S. history, will disproportionately hit black students, according to a WBEZ analysis.

African-Americans account for 80 percent of the kids who will be affected by school closures, consolidations and other shakeups unveiled by Chicago Public Schools last week, according to the analysis. And 87 percent of schools that are being eliminated or having their buildings shuttered are majority-black.

Nearly 42 percent of CPS students are black, according to the district.

When asked about the disparity at an unrelated press conference Wednesday, Emanuel came armed with his own statistics.

“If 61 percent of the city’s youth are graduating from high school, but among African-American adolescent males, it’s 44 percent, but you do nothing, what does that say?” Emanuel said. “Is that enlightened? Is that progressive?”

Emanuel acknowledged the closing of scores of neighborhood schools will be “tough” on parents and students. But he said kids will ultimately end up attending better schools, even if they have to travel farther to get to them.

Gov. Pat Quinn voiced support for making changes to Chicago's Board of Education on Wednesday.

"I really feel that when it comes to education, having served myself on a local school council that was elected by folks from our neighborhood, I think the school board of Chicago should be elected," Quinn said at a press conference.

Chicago is the only city in Illinois that allows the Mayor to appoint the school board. The Chicago Teachers Union has strongly opposed giving the Mayor that kind of power. Any changes to the school board structure would have to come through state law and get the governor’s approval.

Also on Wednesday, several African-American ministers delivered a letter to City Hall, saying the school closure proposal is “just plain wrong.”

“If we were looking for the contemporary version of the separate and unequal public education policy, we have found it in Chicago,” reads the letter, which goes on to urge the district to slow down its schedule for the closings.

Bishop Larry Trotter of Sweet Holy Spirit Church on 87th Street and South Chicago said he’s worried the closings will lead to an increase in crime and violence. He also said he worries about people who work in the schools losing their jobs.

“I think they should go back to the drawing board to find another way to cut costs,” Trotter said.

Trotter said about 20 pastors signed the letter, but a copy provided to the media did not include signatures.

Meanwhile, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis has called the closure plan “racist” and “classist,” but Emanuel has dismissed that criticism as mere “schoolyard taunts.”

But the mayor is giving no indication he’ll scale back his administration’s proposal to close, consolidate or otherwise reorganize 132 Chicago Public Schools.

The district will soon begin holding more than 150 public meetings on the closings ahead of a possible final school board vote in late May.

Clarification: A previous version of this article stated that 128 schools were affected by the district’s planned changes. That number should be 132. The initial count of affected schools did not include four charter schools that will re-locate and/or share buildings with other existing schools. WBEZ is counting both schools, charter or otherwise, in every co-location situation, unless one of the schools does not currently exist and will be opening in Fall 2013. 

Adriana Cardona-Maguigad contributed to this report.