Chicago's Students Deserve Acts of Heroism

The following piece was written by NEA President Dennis Van Roekel and published in his blog on The Huffington Post:

For weeks now, teachers, parents and community leaders have been protesting Chicago Public Schools' plan to close 50 schools in what will be the largest single wave of school closures in U.S. history.

The media coverage has been dramatic, but what you see in the eyes of educators who are so adamantly opposed to this plan is the same thing you see in the eyes of educators all across this nation -- the innate instinct to protect the children we care about.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that Mayor Rahm Emanuel's plan to shutter 50 (yes, 50) schools won't be good for Chicago's children, especially children of color. The New York Times reports that "in the 100 schools that have closed in Chicago since 2001, 88 percent of the students affected were black."

Not only is there evidence that all class sizes in the city will increase -- some by as much as 40 percent -- but recent studies have concluded that only a very small minority of students will be placed into substantially better school environments. And worse: children will have to leave their neighborhoods and commute to school through gang boundaries using what the CPS website calls "safe passage routes."

What is a "safe passage route"? Google the term and you'll find essentially two definitions: It either refers to the designated routes Palestinians may use to travel from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip, or it refers to special routes created by the city of Chicago so children can more safely navigate through gang territory to get to their new schools. (Incidentally, the plan is to staff these routes with on-duty firefighters who are not trained for this type of security, and who will still be expected to answer fire calls while guarding the route.)

 Let that idea sit with you for a moment. A decision was made to purposefully send children through areas so dangerous they have to be "protected" by a safe passage route.

Imagine the backlash from teachers, parents and the community if Mayor Emanuel proposed a similar scenario for the students of Lincoln Elementary School in Lincoln Park, where 65 percent of the students are white. What would we expect the reaction to be if parents were informed that their neighborhood school was going to be closed in an effort to save money, and as a result their children would have to use a "safe passage route" to navigate through gang-controlled areas to a different school where, by the way, class sizes were guaranteed to be larger and test scores were only marginally better?

Our children deserve more. The whole purpose of public education in America is to level the playing field and provide opportunities to all children, regardless of their background. As educators, we ask ourselves: "What is best for our students?" We all know the right answer -- it's literally right in front of us. All children deserve high performing public schools in their own neighborhood, preferably ones that don't require crossing what is effectively a war zone.

This is not the first time cities have tried to save money by closing schools. What independent experts found in the past was that these types of closures actually realized much smaller savings than originally predicted. It's clear that it is time to shift this conversation. Instead of closing schools, we should be talking about improving existing ones. Instead of discussing the best way to cut costs, we should be talking about making smart investments.

This is important because schools are considered assets, and they can and should be the heart of a community. Shutting the doors and abandoning schools sends a very clear message: your community, your neighborhood and your children are simply not worth the investment.

This is wrong and educators know it. They know it because their first instinct is to protect their students from that which promises to harm them, whether it's bullets, natural disasters, poverty, hunger or ignorance. Educators all over this country step up every day -- in all types of ways -- to safeguard their students. Now is the time for elected officials and policymakers to act more like the heroes in our classrooms and schools, and lay it all down on the line for our students. Together, educators, parents, lawmakers, community advocates and business leaders can create lasting and sustainable change that will transform our communities forever.