Dozens of protesters braved single digit temperatures Tuesday night to hold an overnight vigil in opposition of charter school expansion in Chicago. The protesters pledged to remain in place until Wednesday afternoon, when the Chicago Board of Education is expected to vote on proposals by nine charter school operators to open 21 new schools on the Northwest and Southwest sides of the city.
“We are upset at the ridiculousness of opening 20 plus new charters after they just closed 50 of our neighborhood schools and slashed the budgets of those neighborhood schools that remain,” said Kristine Mayle, a former teacher and financial secretary with the Chicago Teachers Union. “It doesn’t make sense to us.”
Last May, the board voted to shutter 50 “underutilized” Chicago Public Schools as a cost cutting measure to shore up a reported $1 billion budget deficit. Schools that were not shut down saw their budgets cut by a collective $168 million. The board has already approved 10 new charter schools that could open as soon as this fall.
Critics say the move for more charters is a slap in the face to Chicago Public Schools’ students, teachers and families.
“We are here to say we’re tired that our neighborhood schools are being starved,” said Rousemary Vega at a picket held in front of CPS headquarters as activists began their vigil. Three generations of Vega’s family attended Lafayette Elementary in Humboldt Park before it was closed in May. “We’re tired that they’re saying there’s no money for neighborhood schools yet maliciously close 50 of them with no attempt in helping them, but turn around to open 21 charter schools within months of closing our neighborhood schools.”
Prior to the picket and subsequent vigil, demonstrators gathered at the Chicago Temple at 77 East Washington to layer up for the cold weather, gather signs and listen to a short set of speakers.
“We understand the move to create charters is just another code word for privatization of public education,” Reverend Jeanette Wilson of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition told the group inside the Temple. “We need to improve the quality of these failing schools, we need to pump more resources into them and not reallocate resources to these private companies who are profiting on the backs of our children.”
Kassandra A. Tsitsopoulos, a teacher at Prosser Career Academy, called out the Noble Network of Charter Schools at the rally. Noble is looking to build a high school across the street from Prosser, which critics say would also negatively affect several other secondary schools in the area, including Douglass High School and the Austin High School Campus.
“You wouldn’t put two hospitals across the street from each other. Two police stations. Two libraries. Why would you put two high schools across from one another,” Tsitsopoulos questioned, adding that the consensus from community members she spoke with is that "it is a bad idea.”
Prosser had $1.2 million slashed from its budget during the most recent round of cuts. Tsitsopoulos said it is “demoralizing” to cut the budget from a neighborhood school and then fund the costs of a charter school across the street.
"That’s not giving parents a choice, it’s giving them and their children a slap in the face," she said. "The public schools in the community like Prosser, Roosevelt, Steinbeck and Calvin Park should get that money. These schools are not overcrowded and need to be heard instead of being ignored by the board because they’re distracted by a shiny new charter school."
At a brief press conference after a brisk march from the Temple to CPS headquarters on Clark Street, Jamie Lee Adams, a sophomore at Roosevelt High School and member of the group Chicago Students Organizing to Save Our Schools inquired, “If they didn’t have enough money to give my school updated books, to give Douglas a music teacher or give Prosser the mobile units they’ve been asking for for five years, then how does CPS have enough money to keep these unnecessary charters open?” (Hear more from Adams here.)
Huddled under a stack of sleeping bags and blankets next to other sleeping demonstrators in the early morning hours, Mayle said she hoped the board of education would “listen to reason.”
“Knowing the past practice of CPS, I would assume they’ll take some of these off the list to act like they’re listening to the parents," she predicted. They should’ve listened to the parents earlier and taken them off the list when they proposed them.”
Mayle added that while buried under her sleeping bags, the cold “wasn’t so bad.” She said because the protesters felt ignored by the board, they had to do something “a little outrageous.”
“The more we do ridiculous actions like this, the more people are catching onto what’s really going on," she noted. "We’ve seen a lot of progress in the past couple months.”
Aricka Flowers contributed to this story.
UPDATE 1 (4:07 p.m.): The Chicago Board of Education approved seven charter schools. Click through for more details on which schools were approved and check back with Progress Illinois for a full report on the board of ed meeting.