Last night, I had the very good pleasure and honor to welcome Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis to my congregation. In recent years, Karen’s leadership has put her at the center of one of the most important labor struggles in the country – this past September the CTU teachers’ strike was a national news story, due in no small way to Lewis’ visionary and stalwart leadership. Now she’s leading the charge to resist plans by Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Public School board to close 54 Chicago schools – a decision which would affect 30,000 children, mostly in low-income, African-American neighborhoods on the city’s South and West sides.
When Karen first accepted our invitation to present at JRC, she told us she was particularly interested in talking about the Chicago schools crisis from a religious values point of view. Many aren’t aware that Karen converted to Judaism twenty years ago – at a time in which she was on a personal spiritual search and was drawn to the Jewish tradition of questioning and debate. As it turns out, she will be celebrating her Bat Mitzvah in June – so I encouraged her to use JRC appearance as a laboratory to explore some of the themes in her Torah portion.
Her portion, Shelach Lecha (Numbers 13:1-15:41) relates, among other things, the story of the twelve scouts send by by Moses to report on the Promised Land. Ten of them return with words of discouragement, reporting that they saw giants in the land. “We felt like grasshoppers to ourselves,” they said, “and so we must have looked to them!”
In her presentation, she pointed out that forces of domination in society can often have this effect on us. In the case of Chicago schools, it is easy to feel cowed by the powerful political-corporate interests that are decimating public education in our city – and in fact, in cities around the nation. The key, Lewis said, is not to be daunted or to give in to a slave mentality that “idealizes Egypt.” The answer, as ever, is to organize and fight back.
Among the many important points Karen made in her presentation was her insight into the deeper issues around the school closings. While she did not disagree that there are problems in Chicago Public Schools (she likened it to a “mildly dysfunctional family”) she vociferously denied Mayor Emanuel’s claim that the system is “broken.” What’s truly broken, Lewis rightly pointed out, is our commitment to the most vulnerable communities in our city.
This was, for me, her most important point of the evening. “Rahm Emanuel says that closing these schools was ‘a difficult decision'” she said. “Make no mistake: closing schools in black and brown communities on the South Side is not a difficult decision. That was an easy decision. You know what a difficult decision would be? If Rahm Emanuel went to his good friends at the Chicago Board of Trade and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and told them to pay their fair share. That would be a difficult decision!”
Amen. In a recent Chicago Sun-Times article, Chicago community organizer Amisha Patel pointed out, in fact, that claims by City Hall and CPS that schools must be closed to save money are simply not true. In fact, they are choosing to close schools while sending millions of dollars to Wall Street:
Every year, CPS pays approximately $36 million in toxically high interest rates, linked to so-called swap contracts, to banks like Bank of America and Goldman Sachs. These arrangements, in which CPS pays a fixed interest rate to the banks — typically between 3.5 and 5.25 percent — to protect itself against fluctuating interest rates in the bond market, were supposed to save CPS money.
But the arrangements backfired — and became morally reprehensible — when the banks crashed the economy and the Federal Reserve slashed interest rates to bail them out. Now the banks are profiting greatly from the federal bailout, but Chicago’s schools get nothing — no such relief for them from crippling high interest rates — even as the banks continue to extract millions of dollars from CPS.
Big banks were saved by public money, but many Chicago communities are besieged by record high unemployment and foreclosure rates. After jeopardizing our jobs and our homes, now these banks are coming for our children’s schools. We need a mayor who will stand up to Wall Street and fight for our communities.
But rather than demanding that these banks renegotiate the swap deals, as other cities successfully have done, Emanuel is choosing to close 54 schools. CPS claims the closures will save an average of $60 million a year for 10 years — numbers that many studies have shown are based on unrealistic assumptions, such as the district being able to sell 50 percent of shuttered schools. At the same time, CPS fails to account for the cost to the children who must cross new gang lines to get to school, the disruption of their stability and the creation of even more vacant buildings.
Renegotiating these swaps could save CPS tens of millions of dollars every year — money that could keep schools open. But that would mean putting the interests of poor, black children ahead of the banks, a difficult move for a mayor whose top campaign contributors come from the financial services industry.
Karen Lewis taught powerful Torah last night – and I’m happy to say that there is a Jewish organizing initiative growing in our city that is heeding her call to fight back against the corporate decimation of our public school system. Jewish Solidarity and Action for Schools (JSAS) has drafted a letter to Mayor Emanuel that states “these discriminatory school closings fly in the face of our Jewish and human values.” The letter will be delivered to the Mayor’s office by JSAS activists today.
Here’s Karen with the leadership of JSAS after her talk: