Austerity deepens in Chicago this year with the firing of more than 3,000 total school staff after closing 50 schools
JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.
Chicago Public Schools has announced the firing of nearly 2,300 teachers and support staff in the country’s third-largest school district, in what’s being described as one of the largest round of teacher layoffs in the city’s recent memory. This latest round of cuts comes on top of the 855 teachers and staff laid off when the city approved plans to close 50 schools last month. The city says the layoffs are necessary due to a drop in enrollment and a massive budget deficit.
Now joining us is Xian Barrett, one of the teachers just laid off by Chicago Public Schools. He taught law and Chicago history at Gage Park High School. He’s the recipient of a number of teaching awards, including being selected as a 2009-2010 U.S. Department of Education classroom teaching ambassador fellow. He’s also a founding member of the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators and former political director of the Chicago Teachers Union.
Thank you so much for joining us, Xian.
XIAN BARRETT, EDUCATIONAL ACTIVIST: Thanks for having me, Jaisal.
NOOR: So, Xian, start by describing how you found out that you were getting laid off.
BARRETT: Well, it was Friday morning, and I got a phone call from my mother, who said that my principal had called my parents’ house, which I haven’t lived in in 20 years, and said that there was important news and that I needed to call back to the school. And so then my mother, you know, she had called and relayed this. And then I called the school, got an answering machine message. The principal called back within about five minutes at 9:11 a.m., and she read me a script that thanked me for my service to the district and informed me that I would no longer be employed with the Chicago Public School.
NOOR: And so, Xian, you are one of the 3,000 Chicago teachers and support staff that have been laid off this year alone. This comes on top of the 50 schools that Chicago voted to close down. What is the feeling in Chicago right now? ‘Cause as viewers of The Real News know, there is massive opposition, civil disobedience, hundreds of people got arrested, marches across the city that ended up being futile, ended up failing at stopping these cuts.
BARRETT: I think what we’re coming to realize here in Chicago is that the people running our city, and especially the school district, which is unelected–it’s exclusively appointed by the mayor–is not really interested in the voices of parents, students, or educators. And until we escalate to a point that we can force them to stop what they’re doing, no reasoning or pleading is going to stop their push to undermine the public schools.
NOOR: And, Xian, it’s not just the schools being closed and teachers being laid off. School budgets are being slashed across the city. What kind of impact is this going to have on public education in Chicago, which is a majority African-American, Latino, low-income school district?
BARRETT: I mean, it’s going to be devastating. Just to put it in perspective, a lot of times in these moments, people focus on the jobs lost, which, I mean, each job represents a person, their livelihood, the career that they’re passionate about, and their ability to feed and provide for their own family.
But at the same time, with these massive cuts, we’re talking about an extreme impact on the youth of Chicago, who already attended a school system that much of the funding was being diverted away from the neighborhood schools, to the point that even prior to this round of what we estimate to be between 50 and 20–excuse me–15 and 20 percent budget cuts, a lot of our neighborhood schools, the facilities were falling apart. There was no availability of soap or toilet paper. The textbooks were very old. The classrooms were, you know, in the summer up to the 90s and in the winter on Monday morning would start out in the 40s. So the conditions are already horrendous for learning. And a lot of people were wondering where these cuts would even come from. And, you know, what we found out is that they’re going for the last piece, which is the actual human being there to teach the students each morning.
The other thing I’d just like to add to that is when I looked at out at my classes last August, my rosters ran between 30 and 40 students each. So when we’re talking about a 15 to 20 percent cut of staff, we’re talking about that in the context of already classroom sizes in the high 30s. And so a student can’t learn in an environment beyond that, especially when we’re talking about Chicago students that–many of whom are coming from relatively transient and difficult conditions beyond the school.
NOOR: And, Xian, let’s talk more about who runs Chicago, who runs Chicago Public Schools. Your mayor, Rahm Emanuel, was President Obama’s former chief of staff. And at the same time he’s been cutting city budgets, including in education, he’s been giving tax breaks to private institutions, to corporations. We did a story about how the same time they’re closing 50 schools, they’re giving DePaul University a free stadium to the tune of $50 million. Now, Illinois Representative Mary Flowers has proposed a bill to tax financial transactions at the Chicago Mercantile exchange at 0.01 percent, which would raise up to $80 billion annually, enough to fund the entire Federal Department of Education, let alone Chicago Public Schools. What are activists, what are people on the ground calling for? What kind of changes are people calling for in Chicago right now?
BARRETT: I mean, what the big thing we’re asking for–I mean, the financial transaction tax fits into this, but we would just like to see an entire priority shift, in that currently, under this non-democratically elected school board and this mayor who was elected with a small portion of the total registered voting populace voting for him on the tune of $9 million coming from outside the city to support him, under this group of people, we’re seeing again and again that they’re choosing private stadiums over schools. We’re seeing again and again that they’re raising taxes and fees on working people and lowering them on the very richest residents of both the city and the state of Illinois. So we want to see a complete priority shift. And if we need to remove the current people in power in order to get that, then we’re ready to take all action necessary to do that.
NOOR: And finally, Xian, you were aware one of the founding members of the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators, a group of educators that got together and started reading The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein and then a few years later took over the leadership of the third-biggest teachers union in the country. Now, a lot of people kind of view these latest round of cuts as payback by Rahm Emanuel against the leadership of the teachers union and the teachers who went on strike in 2012 against budget cuts and against school closings. What is the future of this fight for public education going to look like in Chicago?
BARRETT: I think the first thing we have to do is understand the fact that what we’re talking about in terms of this being retaliation for teachers stepping up, unionists stepping up and pushing for our rights amounts to victim blaming in a lot of ways. This push to destroy the public school system in Chicago is not something that happened because the union got more militant. It’s part of a three-decade-long push in Chicago, but not just in Chicago, all over the country. The playbook that was used for this round of cuts and school closings is literally a playbook that was printed by the [incompr.] Foundation, which is active in cities all over the country.
So we’re certainly going to continue to organize and increase our fight-back in Chicago, because we feel like this isn’t a case that our fight-back caused these problems; it’s that things would be even worse if we were not mobilizing our members, if we were not working with our parents and students and our community.
That doesn’t mean that through that mobilization we’re going to win tomorrow or next week or even this year, but the Chicago public schools won’t be truly the schools that our students deserve until we as a city take back the school system and mold it in an image of what the community wants rather than the image of what these very wealthy profiteers who send their own kids to nonpublic schools want.
We also look forward to learning as we ally and collaborate with educators and those interested in the public schools from all around the country in the world, because if the other side is organizing internationally, we need to do that as well.
At the end of the day, though, they’re very rich, but there’s many, many more people who are directly invested in the public schools than there are this small group of people who are investing for profit in the public schools. So through that organizing we believe we will win.
NOOR: Xian Barrett, thank you so much for joining us.
BARRETT: Thank you, Jaisal.
NOOR: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.