Education activists headed to Springfield early Wednesday morning to lobby for a moratorium on school closings. Their campaign for legislative action comes on the same day as the Chicago Board of Education votes on a proposal to close a record-breaking number of public schools in Chicago. Meanwhile, the Illinois General Assembly has less than one month left in the spring session, which ends May 31.
“We’re going to put pressure on state legislators,” said Hueron Wilks, a senior staff member of Action Now and one of Wednesday’s trip organizers. “Our representatives have failed their constituents, they could have done something about these school closings a long time ago.”
Boarding shortly after 6 a.m., a busload of approximately 50 Action Now members are scheduled to meet with activists, parents and teachers from organizations such as the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), SEIU* Local 1 and the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO) at the state capitol later this morning.
Wilks said he expects more than 200 demonstrators from organizations across the city to participate in the 10:30 a.m. rally in the Capitol Rotunda in Springfield.
Action Now’s activists plan to specifically call on members of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus for intervention, claiming the Chicago Public Schools’ proposed school actions disproportionately affect African-American students.
While 42 percent of the district’s population is African American, approximately 80 percent of the students impacted by the proposed actions are black.
“This is our city, not their city,” said Wilks, who has a grandson enrolled in a CPS school. “We put them in office, but if they don’t do right by us we can certainly take them back out of office.”
The activists’ call to action is in response to a CPS proposal to close 54 schools, consolidate 11 and turnaround another six, affecting more than 30,000 students across the district. CPS has attributed the plan to a reported $1 billion deficit and “utilization crisis” of more than 100,000 empty seats.
Tuesday night, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett retracted her recommendations for four school closures, one turnaround and has plans to phase in another proposed closing.
The schools reportedly removed from the closure list include Marcus Garvey Elementary School; Mahalia Jackson Elementary School; Leif Ericson Elementary Scholastic Academy; and George Manierre Elementary School, according to the newspaper. Clara Barton Elementary School has been taken off the turnaround list, and Miriam Canter Middle School’s closure will reportedly be phased in.
The remaining list of schools slated to close, numbering 49, is still the largest wave of school closures in the nation's history.
Activist Adeline Bracey called the overall plan “racist” and a “blatant disrespect” to her community. She said she is outraged that state legislators have neglected to intervene when “African American communities need them most.”
“They need to remember where they came from,” said Bracey, 63, a resident of Auburn Gresham and member of Action Now. She is heading to Springfield to campaign for “all of the kids in CPS who aren’t getting what they need for a quality education.”
Bracey has three grandchildren enrolled in CPS schools, although theirs have been spared from the school closure list. She referred to Mayor Rahm Emanuel as Mayor “Wrong” Emanuel.
“These legislators know the blight of black America,” she said. “Our mayor doesn’t know it, but they do. Some of these schools in our community are in such a state of disrepair, but instead of investing in them they’re just going to close them up, and that’s not right.”
HB 3283, sponsored by State Rep. Elgie Sims (D-Chicago), has been stuck in the Rules Committee since February.
Both bills would halt school closings for this year and next while the district establishes “clear criteria” for school reform.
“What have these legislators really done this session,” asked Donna Roberts, 58, an Englewood resident and member of Action Now, who also traveled to Springfield. “They need to speak up on these school closings; on this job loss in our communities; on these vacant buildings; the system in our communities is shutting down and they should step up and do something.”
In addition to the rally, Action Now activists plan to serve legislators with “failure notices” for their lack of involvement in CPS school closures.
“They’re closing schools in African-American neighborhoods, where our children will have to travel further distances through gang territories,” said Wilks. “Their blood will be on our state representatives’ hands.”
Wilks said Action Now also plans to have protesters staged outside CPS headquarters, at 125 S. Clark St., during Wednesday’s Chicago Board of Education meeting. (Check back with Progress Illinois for our full report on the meeting. And follow us @ProgressIL on Twitter for live tweets from CPS headquarters and the Chicago Board of Ed meeting.)
Mae Mcleninen, 62, a member of Action Now and mother of three children enrolled at a school slated for turnaround, Isabelle O'Keeffe Elementary School, is also making the trip to Springfield. She spoke with Progress Illinois in anticipation of her trip:
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