Chicago simmers over school closings. Is that bad for Mayor Emanuel? (+video)

The Chicago Teachers Union said it was filing a lawsuit protesting the school closings, adding to two filed by parents last week. Critics say they suspect Mayor Emanuel is paving the way for charter schools.

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    Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis speaks at a packed meeting of the Chicago Board of Education May 22, 2013. The union is filing a lawsuit against the school system. The turmoil over Chicago school closures could help define Mayor Rahm Emanuel's term in office.
    AP Photo/M. Spencer Green
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Chicago’s controversial decision to close 50 public schools was challenged by a third lawsuit Wednesday, inflaming a public relations war between City Hall and the teachers union that polls say is being waged at a time that Mayor Rahm Emanuel is more vulnerable politically.

Two federal lawsuits were filed last week by parents saying that the closings violate the civil rights of special needs children and those living in poorer, marginalized neighborhoods.

On Wednesday the Chicago Teachers Union announced it is filing a lawsuit in Circuit Court against the Chicago Public School System, saying the school board violated its own code guidelines in closing 10 elementary schools.

In each case, the union and the parent groups say they want the closures delayed for at least a year, giving time for the matter to be given due consideration in court.

Both the Chicago Public School System (CPS) and its challengers say they are pressing forward for the sake of Chicago’s schoolchildren. The CPS is making the case that the closings – it is the largest mass school closure in US history – are justified to achieve meaningful reform in the lagging school district, while its critics say the sheer magnitude of the closings will create irreparable harm to those neighborhoods, which are suffering the most from neglect, and will heighten gang violence.

Becky Carroll, chief communications officer for CPS, says union leadership “remains committed to a status quo that is failing too many children trapped in underutilized, under-resourced schools.”

CPS, which came under fire from teachers and parents groups when it proposed the closings months ago, announced last week it would close 50 schools, the majority on the South and West sides of the city.

A prime reason cited for the closures is financial. The city’s public school system, which is the third largest in the nation and operates under the control of City Hall, faces a $1 billion budget deficit in the new fiscal year. It maintains that each closed school will save the district $500,000 and $800,000.

CPS also says that transitioning children from low-performing schools to higher-performing ones will inevitably make them better students.

Critics are disputing those assertions, and many say that while they expected some consolidation, the high volume of schools closed suggests that Mayor Emanuel is paving the way for more charter schools, and is intent on crippling the teachers union.

“He is creating a vacuum to bring in the charters. [Emmanuel] always had this Republican attitude for school reform, there’s no other way to describe it,” says Chicago Alderman John Arena of the city’s 41st Ward. “This is probably one of the worst approaches to [school reform] I can imagine.”

One of the biggest issues to emerge is violence. Critics say that the closings will force children to travel a longer distance to school, which will inevitably expose them to competing gang turf.

According to the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago, students travel an average of 3.5 miles to higher-performing schools in the city, while those in lower-performing schools travel about half a mile.

Marisa de la Torre, a director at the Consortium, says her research shows consolidation only improves student achievement when students are reassigned to schools that are in the top quartile of all CPS schools.

However, out of all the elementary schools where displaced children will be reassigned this fall, only three are in the top quartile.

“If the goal is to improve the academic outcome of the student, clearly the only thing to keep in mind is that the receiving school plays a big role into that,” says Ms. de la Torre. “We see a changed education outcome of students when they go to the highest performing receiving school.”

Steve Tozer, director of the Center for Urban Education Leadership at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says the CPS budget dilemma is very real because it is funded at a much lower level than other districts in the state.

“The Illinois school funding disparity is such that if Chicago were funded at a level as some neighboring districts were funded, we would not have this budget crisis,” Professor Tozer says.

Compounding the difficulties is the district’s failure to create a long-term plan, and the push for more charter schools. Combined with the budget shortfalls, they create a “perfect storm that is causing disruption that nobody, including [CPS], wants to see.”

Emanuel has remained largely mute on the subject since last week, when he released a statement saying, “More hard work lies ahead, but I am confident that together with teachers and principals, engaged parents and community support, our children will succeed.”

The closings come at a time when polling shows a growing vulnerability for the mayor. According to a Chicago Tribune and WGN-TV poll released in early May, 50 percent approve of his job performance while 40 percent disapprove; a year ago, those numbers were at 52 and 29 percent respectively.

His lowest approval numbers are from black voters: 44 percent approve of his performance and 33 percent disapprove; last year, 48 percent approved while 40 percent disapproved.

The poll was conducted by phone in late April among 800 Chicago voters with a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.

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