The Mathematics of Civic Injustice
Everything the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) does should be done with an eye toward its mission, delivering a world class education to Chicago children. The most notable thing about its plan to eliminate 54 “underutilized” schools and leave 61 abandoned buildings in their wake is that no one at CPS even pretends that this policy is going to improve the quality of education delivered to the students. As taxpayers, parents, and/or citizens, we should find this reality extremely disturbing. We are witnessing a civic injustice that is going to cost children their futures and society dearly in the immediate and long-term future.
A civic injustice is when organized money perverts public policy from its understood purpose to carry out some other purpose. Ideally, public education, for example, is a commitment to make an adequate investment in the future by putting enough resources into the system to create an educated citizenry. At the Tutorial our search for context in the school closings comes down to two questions. One, how does closing schools in order to partially and temporarily close a massive deficit improve the delivery of quality education to students? Two, how does taking resources out of poor neighborhoods support the public education that is supposed to act as a path out of poverty for talented, industrious, and curious students?
The mathematics of civic injustice begins with the implicit belief that some children are worth less than the already dubious fiscal savings closing the schools will reap. CPS’ own estimates are, at present off by $122 million dollars in projected savings and their estimates to repair and maintain their physical plant are off by double the initial projections. Raise Your Hand, a parent group, has demonstrated that their formula for utilization appears to be somewhere between flawed and fanciful. This is not the stuff of confidence here given the real educational issues our schools face.
One of those schools about to become an abandoned building is the Guglielmo Marconi Community Academy in West Garfield Park. Marconi is meant to be a Fine Arts Magnet elementary school, and its students are among the most in need of a quality education because of the context in which they live. That context demands that they must overcome the structural racism, economic inequality, childhood hunger, rampant unemployment, and unpredictable violence that they are born into, and we, society, need them to succeed just as much.
“Indiscriminately close to our schools, you are ignoring the problems of drugs, gangs, violence that have been the most ubiquitously pervasive things in our community for over the past 30 years. At Marconi Community Academy, there are teachers developing the children to prepare them for their future. We have programs that are enriching the lives of our students. We have debates. We have Chicago Children’s choir. We have student council. As part of the our delegation here today, we have teachers that have taught me personally. We also have teachers that have moved on to implement board policies. If you guys truly want to educate, if you want to inspire, if you want to transform, you need to invest — you need to continue to invest in the progress we’re making at Marconi Community Academy.”–Darien Thomas, Marconi LSC member
Violence and poverty are like watermarks in West Garfield Park. A third of Marconi students, 31% or so, will be raised in homes by a single mother. Numerous studies, even those adjusting for race and class, say those kids are twice as likely to drop out of school, and they will have lower grade point averages and poorer attendance. It goes without saying, but I am going to say it, that the above are averages. These impacts are much more pronounced in neighborhoods experiencing violence and poverty.
The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports say that West Garfield Park’s crime index runs at 35% higher than the Chicago average and that goes for both property crime and violent crime. Any given year a West Garfield Park resident has a 1 in 14 chance of being victim of any crime and a 1 in 71 chance of being a victim of a violent crime.
“You can not be surprised by the voices of the people in the room. [S]ince I’ve been here, we’ve been asking for transparency. We’ve been asking to really to be able to see what is going on and what your plan is; and year [after] year after year, you give us the same thing. And then you look in this room, and you want people to show respect and be happy and joyful about the fact that you want to close our schools.
You’re asking our children to walk through crime-infested, drug-infested, gang-infested neighborhoods and act like everything is going to be okay. When you, yourselves, will not put your children or your grandchildren,[…]your neighbor’s children, and get up at 8:00 or 7:00 o’clock in the morning and walk your children through these neighborhoods.
You want to talk about facts. That’s just it. The facts is this, the fact of the matter is we know what these neighborhoods are. We know what is goes on in this neighborhood. You know what goes on in the neighborhood. Turning a blind eye doesn’t make things changes, it just means you turn your back. That is all it means.”–Andrea Baldwin, Marconi parent
Being a child in West Garfield Park is not an easy task, but violence is not the most hazardous barrier to getting a quality education—poverty is. Marconi students live in families where 25% of their parents are likely to be unemployed and 40% of these children are likely to live under the federal poverty line. To get a sense of what that means and what these children face, the per capita income for the families they are likely to come from weighs in at $10,951 which is 60% less than the median income of most other people in the city. National studies done by the Department of Education tell us that at least 40% of the kids who show up at Marconi for school come in with fewer vocabulary words, a limited knowledge of numbers, real problems with maintaining concentration, weaker communication skills, and difficulties with social skills ranging from cooperative play to inappropriate aggression.
Marconi students start life with two strikes against them. Any school system trying to help these children facing those odds has to have enough money to hire the adequate minimum number of teachers and support staff for every school in the school system, and CPS is not that system. If CPS were serious about addressing the needs these children have, they would have enough money to provide textbooks, materials, and equipment for every kid in every class in CPS, but CPS is not that system. At a minimum, to cope with what the children of West Garfield Park face, CPS would have enough resources to heat, cool, clean, or keep ceilings from falling on the heads of every child in every building that CPS owns but such is not the case.
Closing 54 schools and abandoning 61 buildings in no way addresses any of the issues Marconi students face no matter which building/school they are in. Certainly stuffing them into larger classes and creating an escort service to guide them into another underfunded and under-resourced building is also not going to help. If CPS was actually interested in helping Marconi and Tilden students deal with the difficult contexts that they are born into, it would be pouring resources into both of these buildings, and its utilization measures would begin and end with class sizes of twenty.
If they were really interested in creating better schools, they would advocate for full funding of our school system—perhaps a series of Tobin taxes on financial products could work. CPS would invest in both volunteer and paid tutoring programs, in-school health clinics and social services, mental health counselors on hand to help kids dealing with issues of violence and abandonment, and afterschool and summer programs. If CPS was serious about dealing with the issues their students face, they would work to ensure that the most qualified, experienced, and talented teachers with the best skills were flooded into Tilden and Marconi.
CPS would also define quality schools as those that provide a safe and supportive school environment; track the individual developmental of their students; and move away from standardized testing and towards the implementation of learning strategies that make students and parents partners in the learning process. Our problem, however, is that CPS is not interested in any of that. And, as a result, the students at both Tilden and Marconi are going to suffer, and we are going suffer right along with them. It is the mathematics of civic injustice, and it adds up to the loss of futures that Mayor Rahm Emanuel could not care less about. It is not enough to keep our schools open, but that is the place to start, and the mathematics of civic injustice says, instead, to close the schools for reasons both devious and sinister.
When I decided to take the position at Marconi, it was by my choice. It wasn’t because I just happened to get the job. I knew when I went to school to become an educator that I wanted to give back to the community which had educated me to be prepared for the world, which was at Marconi Community Academy. Therefore, I came back to educate other students as a way to give back to my community; but I really want to talk about these key facts about the school utilization at CPS.
You say over the last decade, Chicago lost about 145,000 school-age children; but you forgot to say over the last decade, Chicago lost about 145 schools because of charter schools. You said that most of the population occurred on the south or west side of the city, which is true, it did, but it was as a result of the charter schools. CPS you said that about 50 percent of CPS schools are underutilized, and nearly 140 are more than half empty. Again, this is your fault, your fault.
You also say there is — that CPS is facing a million dollars deficit next fiscal year. I would agree with you; but I also say that, again, this is your fault, not the community’s fault. This community did not create a million dollars deficit.
This community has been sacrificed year after year after year, and I for one come from this community; and I feel like my education was sacrificed, and I had to work extra hard because the resources were not provided for me in 1988, and they are not provided for our students now in 2013. —Doris Gillmore, Marconi teacher, parent, and alumna
Post author: Don Washington