Chicago School Closings: Racism?

(Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune)

Some marriages seem particularly convenient.  CTU President Karen Lewis joined with Rainbow PUSH Coalition Rev. Jesse Jackson to proclaim that racism is at the heart of the Chicago Public School closings.  Jackson presumably has at least one reason to want to instigate confrontation with the Mayor.  Lewis, as central castings’ Queen of Hearts, has no love lost for the Mayor either and so shouts her racism accusations as often as anyone dares hear her.  Protesters gather at public CPS meetings and mimic Lewis’ high-decibel proclamations.  In reaction, a shocked CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, said “that is an affront to me as a woman of color and it is an affront to every parent in our community who demands a better education for their children.” The Mayor seems similarly aghast that his attention to the horrifying CPS budget deficit is being met with the racism card. He and Byrd-Bennett are mired in the quicksand of having to defend against the charge as characterized.  It is a lose-lose proposition. Of course, the adversarial nature of the debate has been constructed just so. But the “anti-closing” side is not quite so win-win as Lewis might suppose.  Lewis, after all, scored not just a little good cred by smacking the Mayor in the nose during the CTU strike that was supported by a wide swath of Chicagoans.  This school closings debate may be her undoing.  She risks being judged as little more than a barking sophist.

The 54 schools scheduled for closing are in mostly minority communities on Chicago’s south and west sides. That is a fact.  This seems to suggest something untowards. Yet there are other material facts that are not in controversy that might suggest we give this more thought than Lewis is urging.

The first is that the Chicago Public School system is overwhelmingly populated by minority and low-income students.  In other words, CPS delivers its education curriculum (and quite a lot more) to a student demography that is mostly minority and low-income.  CPS data from the 2011-2012 school year shows black and Latino students comprise more than 85 percent of the school district.  Furthermore, the Mayor finds it unacceptable that 56 percent of black male CPS students drop out before completing high school.  These statistics certainly beg questions about what we, as a diverse society of many peoples and incomes, want of our public education system that is supported by everyone’s income and real estate taxes, but it doesn’t exactly suggest that closing schools in mostly minority communities is racist.  Quite to the contrary; CPS is immersed in minority and low-income communities just as minority and low-income students from across all of Chicago are immersed in CPS.

Second, a huge chunk of the CPS budget is met by a focus on student demographics.  According to the 2011-12 CPS budget, fully one-quarter of the $6.6 billion (yes, billion) budget is filled by Federal grants that are provided as a function of the low-income student base, which is typically measured by the number students who qualify for free-and-reduced meals.  The State funding portion also includes a component that targets student demography. CPS is hardly in a position to be racist against against those for whom massive funding is intended and received.

Third, the schools scheduled for closing are, in fact, suffering from utilization and resource allocation issues. We might debate the merits of the limited scope of decision points (as this publication has) but it is not inherently bad to consider merging two underperforming schools into one for the sake of a more efficient and effective result.  (By underperforming, we do not refer only to scholastic achievement but to other performance criteria including how a school building is used for its intended purpose and the nature and extent of resources available for that purpose.)  After all, we are trying to provide a better education for our student community, and if this is the articulated goal then certainly it should be respected as such.  It is not inherently racist to want this for minority and low-income students by trying to provide it through a better allocation of resources.  Of course, if the result were to vary from this goal then we’d want, need and expect an accounting and accountability.  But to presume racism at the get-go seems to cater to the worst in the human condition with apparent purpose but without the slightest evidence to support it.

We would ask Ms. Lewis to stop supposing racism – unless she has specific facts to support it – and instead be part of a solution for a very large, very complicated Chicago Public Schools system that suffers from massive budget shorfalls.  Byrd-Bennett seems rather genuinely un-racist in her attempts to manage too few resources for the benefit of many students.  If there’s harm to contend with in this, then focus on the harm and recommend a solution that works.   It takes very little to raise one’s voice to the rafters.  It takes real leadership to solve problems.

As we have previously implied, let’s find common ground in wisdom.  If the closures are indeed the wise choice, notwithstanding their inherent difficulties, then optimal pragmatism may trump maximum contentment.  In any case, the final decision is currently scheduled for May 22nd.