By Michael Sainato

Though Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has tried to brand himself as a Trump Resistance figure, he seems to be on the same page as the Trump administration when it comes to education reform.

In April 2017, Emanuel met with Trump’s Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, who served as a board member and president on several pro-charter school education think tanks and organizations focused on reforming public schools through a push for privatization. In a press release, DeVos noted, “I look forward to continuing to find ways in which the Department can work with the Mayor’s office.” Their shared education agenda was criticized by the president of the Chicago Teachers Union, Karen Lewis,  in a January 2017 blog post. “There is very little daylight separating Emanuel’s agenda from that of DeVos,” she wrote. “Both DeVos and the billionaires backing the mayor’s education policies apparently believe that because of their wealth, they have the right to impose radical disruption upon low-income students of color and their public school classrooms.”

Emanuel and DeVos have long favored school choice, charter schools, and privatization. “He is advancing corporate education reform, a neoliberal effort to run schools like businesses at great profit to the corporations involved and at great losses to actual children,” Julie Vassilatos, a Chicago-based education blogger and Chicago City Schools parent, told The Real News Network in an interview.

These education reform policies have been pushed by several corporate Democrats in the past decade. Obama’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan endorsed the destructive policies being pushed by Emanuel’s administration, and designed Emanuel’s proposal last year to enact high school graduation requirements for students to either have plans in place to attend college or the military. The majority of Democrats in the Senate and House helped push through the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, an education reform pushed by the Bush administration that was widely regarded as a failure, though the Obama administration continued to implement the policies the legislation seeked to enact nationwide. The Renaissance 2010 project was created under Democrat Chicago Mayor Richard Daley in Chicago as a privatization push to open new charter schools. The project, aimed to create high performing schools, was largely a failure, yet Emanuel has continued to advocate for similar reforms and policies.

“Whatever his intent might be, Mayor Emanuel’s policies have a disproportionately negative impact on black and brown students,” said Niketa Brar, co-founder and Executive Director of Chicago United For Equity, in an interview with The Real News Network. “It is no longer just activists who speak this truth to power — it is academics, researchers, lawyers, and the everyday residents who were awoken to their responsibility to fight for justice in the Trump era — and have realized that the source of the most harmful public policies in Chicago today were not introduced by the president.” Emanuel’s policies were created by a long history of segregation and systematically reinforced through education, housing, transportation, and economic policies, she said.

During Emanuel’s first term as mayor, he abruptly closed 50 public schools in 2013, while pushing for new charter schools. Fifteen percent of Chicago’s students currently attend charter schools, a trend that has continued to increase under Emanuel. A recent report by the Associated Press found charter schools are among those most racially segregated, and have been cited as a catalyst for gentrification in cities.

DeVos and Emanuel’s education reform interests have intersected several times over the past few years. In December 2017, Emanuel spoke at an annual summit on education reform hosted by the Foundation for Excellence in Education, on whose board DeVos served before she was nominated for Secretary of Education. The Foundation for Excellence in Education has long praised Emanuel’s abrasive relationship with the Chicago Teachers Union.

The billionaire DeVos family has strong ties to Chicago, and has made several multimillion-dollar real estate purchases in the city. Betsy’s husband, Dick DeVos, owns a stake in the Chicago Cubs, and the DeVos family has donated over a million dollars to the Chicago-area megachurch, Willow Creek.

Last month, the Chicago Tribune reported the Chicago Public Schools District would receive $15 million in federal funding to open up three new magnet schools, part of a program implemented by DeVos’ Department of Education.  In August 2017, Emanuel backed a school-voucher compromise that DeVos has pushed nationwide.

As Emanuel and DeVos push their education reform agenda in Chicago, the city’s school district continues to close down schools, displacing thousands of students and facilitating growing trends of gentrification. In December 2017, the Chicago Public Schools District formally proposed the closure of the elementary school, National Teachers Academy, despite public outcry and the fact that the school achieved the highest possible academic rating. The Chicago Teachers Union characterized the decision as a maneuver to push out black working-class families. Over time, the elementary school will gradually be converted into a high school based on the current plan that activists, unions, teachers, and parents are actively fighting to stop before the Chicago Board of Education approves the proposal.

“Closing a neighborhood public school is bad for any community, but this set of school closings is especially egregious given that NTA is a high-performing neighborhood institution that the community loves and depends on and the four neighborhood high schools being closed in Englewood will mean that those students will not have the opportunity to even graduate from those schools, which sends the message to the students of those schools that their education is not as important as that of students in other neighborhoods,” said Erika Wozniak, a Chicago Public Schools Teacher, in an interview.

“Neighborhood public schools in Chicago and across the country should be anchors of a community and it is the job of our elected officials to ensure that students have access to education in their neighborhoods,” Woziak said. “Rahm Emanuel has not done this and has done his best to deliberately destroy public education in Chicago.”

Several families from National Teachers Academy, and four high schools slated for closure in the Englewood neighborhood, protested Mayor Emanuel on January 24 by attempting to enroll their children at the University of Chicago Lab High School, a private school where Emanuel’s children are enrolled.

“When we first heard about this announcement last year, everyone at the school, including myself, became pretty much entrenched in rolling up our sleeves, stepping in to see what are some things that we can do to win this battle,” said Lisa Clark, whose seven year old daughter currently attends National Teachers Academy, in an interview. Clark explained that parents are concerned about disrupting children’s education, as well as access to services like free lunch and free swimming lessons in a school that is performing well academically. They also worry about their children having to lose friends and siblings being forced to attend separate schools in different neighborhoods — particularly when many students already experienced displacement when 53 schools closed in 2013.

A study conducted by Chicago United For Equity found the proposal will hurt poor and black students most, contrary to Chicago Public Schools’ claims. The group is advocating for the district to allow community residents to vote on alternative solutions for a new high school. The school district funded their own study as a result, approving an $85,000 contract with the Maryland-based research firm Westat. Their analysis is scheduled to be completed sometime in February 2018.

“It’s all to appease a certain group of people that are wealthy constituents of Rahm, who’s also white, mostly white,” Clark said. “The whole goal seems to be gentrification. It’s pushing out people of color and taking something from them that they have worked hard to achieve.”

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Michael Sainato is a contributor to The Guardian and a journalist based in Gainesville, Florida. Follow him on Twitter @msainat1.