A group of Chicago education activists are hoping thousands of students take part in an August 28 boycott of a school system, they say, is acting as a destabilizing force in low-income communities of color.
Next Wednesday, the Chicago Board of Education is scheduled to vote on a proposed budget for the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) district, which has proposed some $68 million in school budget cuts. Next Wednesday is also the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous speech calling for equality for African Americans. The March on Washington was one of the largest political rallies for human rights in U.S. history.
“Part of our democracy is speaking up when you are being dealt an injustice, part of our history in this country is being able to peacefully express your frustration when policies do not treat you right,” said Jitu Brown, an education organizer for the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO). “Young people will definitely get a lesson in representative democracy on this day.”
At a press conference on Thursday outside of the mayor’s office, Brown and approximately 50 education activists announced plans for the city-wide, one-day school boycott. The group also plans to stay away from the Chicago Board of Education meeting.
“What’s the point of speaking at a board meeting where you voice isn’t being heard,” asked Brown. “We can’t get anything we need from them.”
The group plans to host a rally and “people’s board meeting” outside of CPS headquarters as the Chicago Board of Education meets to vote on the district’s budget proposal.
“We are definitely boycotting that school board meeting and we are hoping and we are working toward enough young people showing up that we can boycott the entire system,” Brown said.
He referred to the action as an “education is a human right” protest.
Thousands of students across Chicago will be attending new schools on Monday, the first day of class for the 2013-2014 academic year, following the shuttering of nearly 50 schools this summer. Citing a $1 billion deficit and an impending $400 million increase in pension payments, CPS officials slashed budgets and fired more than 3,000 school employees, including 1,700 teachers, as cost-cutting initiatives.
But Brown and other education activists allege the school closings, which are concentrated on the city’s South and West Sides, disproportionately impact minority communities.
While approximately 42 percent of CPS’ student body is African American, roughly 80 percent of the students affected by the schools closures are black.
“Chicago has a long history of racism and segregation," said Sarah Simmons, a member of Parents 4 Teachers and parent of one student headed into her freshman year at Northside College Prep High School. "But the mayor and his henchmen have brought it out of the shadows and made it so concrete and so overt that we can't ignore it anymore."
Simmons was one of several speakers on Thursday to criticize CPS for accepting new charter school proposals, which are slated for Chicago’s Northwest and Southwest sides, as district-wide budget cuts threaten to strip much-needed resources from public schools across the city.
"A large percentage of youth in this city are not being given the resources or encouragement to develop to their full potential," she said, adding that Northside College Prep saw $700,000 in budget cuts for next year.
Theodore Roosevelt High School, at 3435 W. Wilson Ave. in Chicago’s Northwest Side neighborhood of Albany Park, had $1.6 million slashed from its budget for the upcoming school year, meaning the principal was forced to cut the school’s teaching staff by six positions and hand pink slips to six additional school employees.
Victor Alquicira, 17, who is going into his senior year at Roosevelt, said his counselor was one of the school’s fired workers.
“Now that she’s gone I’ll have to build a new relationship with a new counselor, during the time I need her the most, just for college applications and also preparing for graduation,” he said.
Alquicira said he and at least five of his friends from Roosevelt High would be participating in the August 28 CPS boycott.
He was one of several speakers on Thursday to call for an elected school board, saying a more representative panel of board members could “put a stop to this.”
Here's more from Alquicira and Simmons:
The Chicago education activists are part of a nationwide coalition, Journey for Justice, which is organizing similar boycotts across the country to call for equality in education on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Other participating groups are planning protests in Detroit, Philadelphia, Oakland and Boston.
In a statement issued to Progress Illinois, CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett made no mention of CPS' alleged inequality, but attributed the cost-cutting initiatives to the district’s pension obligations:
CPS is faced with a historic billion-dollar deficit driven by a lack of meaningful pension reform in Springfield, which has brought this financial crisis to the doorsteps of our schools. The district has reduced central office, administrative and operations spending by nearly $700 million since 2011 to keep cuts as far away from the classroom as possible. However, we can't cut our way out of this crisis and need meaningful pension reform that can generate significant savings and prevent devastating future cuts to our schools. On Wednesday, August 28, the third day of school in this new academic year, we hope all CPS students will be in their classrooms preparing to become the new generation of leaders.
Irene Robinson, a grandparent of six children who had their school, Anthony Overton Elementary School in Bronzeville on Chicago's South Side, close at the end of last year, said she will not be sending her grandchildren to their CPS-designated welcoming school, Irvin C. Mollison Elementary.
“Mr. Mayor, we will not allow you, and an appointed, rubber-stamped school board to push our children out of their school without a fight,” Robinson said, adding that she doubts the efficiency of the district’s Safe Passage Program.
Under the program, local community groups are charged with providing a safe route to and from school in some of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods.
Although most of the incidents have occurred outside of school hours, Robinson and other parents have regarded the incidents as signs of the dangers their children could face when they travel to and from their new schools.
“There is no safe passage through danger zones,” Robinson said. “Mr. Mayor, you don’t have to walk your children through harm's way, so you don’t worry about it ... When my grandchildren ask me why their school is closing, I have no answer.”