Two class action lawsuits looking to put a stop to the Chicago Public Schools' plan to shutter 53 elementary schools at the end of the academic year were filed in federal court today.
Two class action lawsuits looking to put a stop to the Chicago Public Schools' (CPS) plan to shutter 53 elementary schools at the end of the academic year were filed in federal court Wednesday.
The lawsuits against the Chicago Board of Education on behalf of CPS parents allege the district's school closure plan discriminates against African-American students and puts children with special needs in harms way.
The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) is in support of the litigation and provided some financial assistance to cover legal costs, said Thomas Geoghegan, one of the lawyers representing the seven parents who filed the suits. The lawsuits are not on behalf of CTU, he stressed, but on behalf of Chicago's children.
Geoghegan said the plaintiffs will seek a preliminary injunction sometime after the board votes.
"We don’t know for certain what the board’s actions are going to be," he said.
The Chicago Board of Education will vote on school closings and other related actions May 22.
Geoghegan said the plantiffs see the 53 closings as a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act due to the "significant" and "irreparable" harm that will be done to children in special education programs.
The plaintiffs say the proposed closings are also in violation of the Illinois Civil Rights Act, because they continue a pattern of singling out African-American children when it comes to bearing the brunt of school closings, Geoghegan said.
“If the board and Barbara Byrd-Bennett and the mayor of the city of Chicago want to save costs, they ought to find another way of doing so than singling out African-American children over and over and over and over, over the years to bear the costs of these school closings," he said.
Since 2001, 72 schools have closed in the city, Geoghegan said, and more than 90 percent of the displaced children have been black.
Under the current proposed school closing plan, 88 percent of the children in the closing schools are African-American, he said. African-American students, however, make up about 42 percent of all children in the city's public schools, he noted.
The first suit, called Swan and named after one of the plaintiffs, says if the closings were to occur, they need to be slowed down.
About 5,200 special education children will be involved in the closings, Geoghegan said.
A little more than two months to transition after the proposed closings is not enough time to ensure each student will be safe and have their specific needs met, according to the suit.
Kristine Mayle, CTU financial secretary and a former special education teacher, said students with autism and other severe disabilities in particular need more time to transition.
“For students with autism especially, change and transition is one of the primary problems that they are suffering from," she said.
Teachers typically introduce a child with autism to a new school slowly, Mayle explained. Sometimes it is a six-month process, she added.
The Swan suit calls on the board to have the “decency and conscious” to put off school closings at least until next year, Geoghegan said.
“Slow down the process, so we don’t have a tragedy,” he said.
The second suit called McDaniel, also named after one of the plaintiffs, looks to stop the closings completely.
“If you have to save money, find some other way to save money,” Geoghegan said. "You can begin with some of these charter school operators like UNO who don’t take any cuts. It's time to lay off the kids.”
Despres, Schwartz and Geoghegan, Ltd., Robin Potter & Associates, P.C. and the Edwin F. Mandel Legal Aid Clinic at the University of Chicago are handling the litigation.
"Pray-In" For Public Schools
Meanwhile, CTU and clergy members of Chicago Parents, Educators, and Clergy for Education (P.E.A.C.E.) held a day-long “pray-in” for public schools starting just before 9 a.m. today at the Chicago Board of Education’s headquarters.
“We’re asking God to intercede and to change the hearts of some of these people who have the power over these children’s lives,” said Audrey May, faith outreach coordinator for CTU. “They think that they’re making a difference in doing what it is that they’re doing, and they will make a difference, but it wont be a positive difference.”
May, who is also with Chicago P.E.A.C.E., said the faith members held the "pray-in" to urge the Chicago Board of Education not to OK CPS' plan.
Around 9 a.m., a group of about five clergy members gathered for prayer inside the building’s lobby, 125 S. Clark St.
The Rev. C. J. Hawking, executive director of ARISE Chicago, said CPS personnel asked the group to move out of the lobby and into an adjacent hallway. The group later grew to about 25 people, and their prayers were so “enthusiastic,” Hawking said, that they were ordered to leave the building completely.
About five clergy members went back into the lobby to say a prayer just before noon. After the prayer was finished, CPS personnel asked that the group leave the lobby again.
May said more than 30 clergy members were expected to come and go throughout the day to pray until about 6 p.m.
"It doesn’t take a huge crowd to pray a prayer that reaches the ears of our savior," May said. "It means that he hears our prayers, no matter how large the group is."
The pray-in comes just a few days before the "Our City, Our Schools, Our Voice" three-day march on the West and South sides against the school closings. May said Chicago P.E.A.C.E. and other faith leaders will be participating.
"Our clergy are people who have baptized these babies, watched them grow from infants," May said. "Unfortunately, many of them have preached funerals for some of these kids that went to Chicago’s public schools. We just want to make sure that they have every opportunity that they deserve to attend a school in their own community [and] not to continue to tell them that they're not worthy of being where they belong."
Hawking added that "everyone in the city" knows that closing so many public schools at one time is not a good idea. And people are not going to give up the fight, she said.
“While we were praying just now, one of the moms said, ‘This is about our children. This is about our children,’ and it was just so powerful," Hawking said before the noon prayer. "People are literally, literally fighting for the lives of their children.”
Here's more from Hawking about the "pray-in":
Protest Against the Illinois State Charter School Commission
Also today, community members and parents took charter schools and a state charter board to task.
A handful of parents and community groups protested outside the Illinois State Charter School Commission's meeting this evening.
The Illinois legislature set up the special charter governing body. Activists say the commission's sole function is to override local school boards denials of proposals from charter companies looking to set up shop in their communities.
The few Chicago parents, teachers and activists said they want SB 79, the legislation that created the charter commission, to be repealed. The law took effect on July 20, 2011.
Prior to SB 79, charter schools were authorized by the Illinois State Board of Education, said John Laesch of Northern Illinois Jobs with Justice, adding "there's no problem with [that] system."
But the creation of an independent charter system essentially gives an unelected board the authority to grant charters and override local school districts, he said.
"If a local school district says, 'No we don’t think this charter school is right for our community and it doesn’t meet the criteria,' then this new super power committee can basically override that and allow for the charter school to be granted," Laesch explained.
Bill Bianchi with the Chicago chapter of the Progressive Democrats of America talked with Progress Illinois to explain the commission and why some community members and parents are unhappy:
Sandra Stone with the Rogers Park Neighbors for Public Schools called on lawmakers to repeal SB 79.
"If they don’t, they’ve got some explaining to do," she said. "Because it looks like ... a case of crony capitalism. This isn’t for the common good."
The commission already overruled decisions against new charters in Richton Park, Grays Lake, and two in Chicago, organizers said. The organizers said they fear the commission will override the decision of 18 local school districts in the Chicago suburbs that did not grant online charters to the Illinois Virtual Charter School @ Fox River Valley, a partnership between Virtual Learning Solutions and K12 Inc. (Read Progress Illinois' report about that proposal here.)
"We don’t know what’s going to happen with K12 Inc.," Laesch said. "The 18 districts that are impacted by K12 Inc.'s application are here today to appeal and ask the Illinois state commission to hold more than one hearing [on that proposal]."
By law, the commission has to hold just one hearing on a multidistrict application, he said. Representatives from the school districts plan to ask for multiple hearings.
"We don’t know the outcome, but we're looking forward to hearing what the commission rules," Laesch said.