Yes, we can close schools: Rahm Emanuel’s cash crisis in Chicago

More than 10 per cent of city’s elementary facilities shut down by Obama’s former right-hand man

More than 10 per cent of Chicago’s elementary schools are facing closure under plans to tackle the city’s $1bn education budget deficit – the largest mass shutdown of public schools in the United States in recent memory.

School officials have announced plans to close 53 elementary schools and a high school. In all, 61 school buildings will be shut down by the beginning of the next academic year in August, the country’s third-largest public school district has said.

The announcement sparked national horror yesterday as the sorry state of the city’s finances, which are well known locally, was highlighted to the country. Chicago isn’t alone. Other cities, including Detroit, which is now facing the possibility of what could be the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history, and Philadelphia, have resorted to shutting undersubscribed schools to save money. Chicago has closed scores of school buildings over the past decade.

The city’s problems – though less severe than elsewhere in the US – have similar root causes to those in places such as Detroit: burdensome pension liabilities accumulated in the boom times and falling birth rates have become too much to bear in the post-financial crisis world. With the national and regional economy still struggling, the money coming in to city coffers cannot keep up with Chicago’s commitments.

But the size of the closures announced have sparked concern, particularly as the institutions in question are primarily attended by African-American and Hispanic students, and are situated in low-income neighbourhoods. Officials led by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, however, say there are too many vacant seats in the city’s public school system.

The Chicago Teachers Union thinks otherwise, with its President Karen Lewis labelling the closures an “abomination.”

“This is cowardly and it is the ultimate bullying job. Our mayor should be ashamed of himself,” she told the Associated Press.

The closures will mean that many children will have to venture into neighbourhoods other than their own to attend classes, which is causing concern among parents given the high frequency of violent crime in certain parts of the city. Irene Robinson, 48, said six of her grandchildren attend the soon-to-be-closed Anthony Overton Elementary in the Bronzeville area. She said news of shutdown was “like a death in the family.”

“It’s that sad,” she told the Chicago Tribune. “What’s gonna happen to these kids? Kids are being killed right now. They [sic] innocent. Why put them in harm’s way? It’s sad. It’s scary. It’s outrageous.”

The head of the school district, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, defended the move, saying the system as its currently organised is not in the best interests of students.

“Every child in every neighbourhood in Chicago deserves access to a high quality education that prepares them to succeed in life, but for too long children in certain parts of Chicago have been cheated out of the resources they need to succeed because they are in under utilised, under-resourced schools,” she said. “As a former teacher and a principal, I’ve lived through school closings and I know that this will not be easy, but I also know that in the end this will benefit our children.”

On the slide: Mayor goes skiing

Much of the public anger at the school closures was today directed at Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a former chief of staff for President Barack Obama, who was on a skiing holiday with his family when the announcement was made.

“I find it extremely cowardly for the mayor’s administration to announce these actions while he is vacationing out of town,” Karen Lewis, the President of the Chicago Teachers Union, said. “They are also making this announcement days before… spring break.”

Mr Emanuel came to power in 2011 on a wave of support from black communities, but recent opinion polls have indicated that the issue of school closures – which affects mainly black and Hispanic pupils – has contributed to his sliding approval ratings – and because his children attend private school.   

Chicago lawyer and education activist Matter Farmer joked on Twitter: “Asked, while skiing in Utah, about closing 50 CPS schools, Mayor Emanuel said he is offering thousands of kids the chance to head downhill.”