Chicago Students Organize to Save Their Schools

If you want to see an inspiring example of young people speaking truth to power, take a look at the clip above. At a recent meeting of the Chicago School Board a group of students publicly demanded to know, one after the other, why the board was closing down fifty public schools in predominantly black and brown Chicago neighborhoods – and publicly asked why the students themselves had no voice in decisions that directly affect them and their communities.

The video begins with a single student speaking at the podium. At about the 2:00 mark individual students begin standing up and speaking out from the audience as security guards rush in and escort them from the room. Finally a hand is placed over the video taker’s camera and he is pushed out – you can hear his voice telling the guard, “I’m just here for students.”

The students’ action is all the more dramatic when you consider that the Chicago School Board is an unelected body that is appointed by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel – meaning they are utterly unaccountable to the community.  Underscoring the depths of this fraudulent “public body”, Emanuel recently announced that he was appointing millionaire venture capitalist Deborah Quazzo to replace outgoing board member, billionaire Hyatt heiress Penny Pritzker (recently nominated by President Obama to be US Commerce Secretary).

What makes Quazzo qualified to make decisions that will impact the 400,000 students that attend Chicago Public Schools? According to reports, Quazzo is the daughter of a corporate CEO/bank chairman from Jacksonville who moved to Chicago after marrying Stephen Quazzo, Co-Founder and CEO of Pearlmark Real Estate Partners. She successfully climbed the ranks of investment banking and venture capital at J.P. Morgan and Merrill Lynch. In 2001, she co-founded ThinkEquity Partners – an “investment firm boutique” that a few years later ran into serious financial problems and eventually had to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection.

Quazzo is just the latest example of the kind of people who the mayor has personally chosen to serve on the Chicago School Board (which is headed up by President David Vitale, Chairman of Urban Partnership Bank and former President and Chief Executive Officer of the Chicago Board of Trade.)

This, in a nutshell, is why these courageous young students spoke their truth to a body that so patently answers to wealthy corporate interests rather than the communities of Chicago. 

For my part, I’ll second the words of the invisible cameraman: “I’m here for the students.” Please watch this clip and share this widely.

14 thoughts on “Chicago Students Organize to Save Their Schools

  1. Ellen Gradman

    Thank you for posting this! These students have been fighting from the beginning of this attack on Chicago schools! They welcomed Rham back from his skiing trip, after the hit list of schools was made public while he was gone. They have been at every rally, organized a boycott of testing and tried to save the schools that CPS closed. Everyone, of these kids are an inspiration! Xian Barrett, is the voice heard at the end of the video. He is a CPS teacher and a founding member of CORE. He works tirelessly teaching at a Westside school, and working as an activist for peace and equality. He was removed from the meeting today, for just saying those words you hear at he end of the video and his hand is covering the lens, in order to protect his camera. This is Chicago! This is a city with NO public schools left in Humbolt Park, a city that is sabotaging the schools on the West and South sides and placing children in danger and this is a city that would rather support an arena for Depaul (who could use the United Center for FREE) instead of fund its schools.

  2. Michele Levin

    This video is being shared all over the education and social justice blogs. Tens of thousands will see it. Will they act, for the children. Let’s hope so. What is being done to the students in Philly and Chicago should be criminal. Rahm Emanuel, Arne Duncan and their long time friend, President Obama, need to hear from all of us. It can’t wait.

  3. Steve Hinman

    With all due respect, I don’t even know where to begin. Chicago has lost 900,000 residents since 1950. Fewer people, fewer schools. Most of the 200,000 who left in the last ten years were minorities, according to the census. It’s a bad thing.

    David Vitale worked for a number of years as the Chief Admin. Officer for CPS for $1 per year after a successful business career. The Urban Partnership Bank is the successor to SouthShore Bank, which pioneered lending in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. It was Bill Clinton’s favorite bank for this reason until it went under. Let us ask ourselves, who among us can follow in Vitale’s footsteps?

    I have two children in CPS and am happy to have the Mayor appoint the school board. If I don’t like how things are being run, I get to vote to fire him. In fact, even the left leaning Center for American Progress has advocated eliminating school boards (

    1. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author


      Yes, most of the the hundreds of thousands who have left Chicago in the last ten years are minorities, but you can’t simply stop your analysis at “it’s a bad thing.” The vast majority of closings are in communities of boarded-up homes that have been devastated by the foreclosure crisis and predatory lending – a crisis that has hit Chicago harder than any other major city.

      That means these communities have essentially been decimated by corporate greed. The school closings are just the latest step in this process: The corporate interests that govern the CPS are gutting the public institutions that form the heart of these communities and replacing them with privately-funded charter schools.

      Yes, I agree: it is indeed a bad thing – and it’s not only happening in our schools. Across the country, the public institutions that have formed the heart of our urban communities are being divied up and sold off to the highest bidder – and as ever the ones who are bearing the brunt of this greed are the poor and people of color.

      Yes, Vitale has an impressive resume, but my point is that he works for and represents corporate America. He, along with the rest of the CPS, are political appointees. This is a problem that can’t be solved at the ballot box: if and when Rahm is replaced, the new board will still be packed with members that are only accountable to the mayor, not the communities that the ostensibly are supposed to serve.

    2. hoops

      Yes, the black population of Chicago decreased over the past decade — not by accident or by 100,000 African-American families suddenly deciding to move to the country. De-Industrialization along with the tearing down of public housing, led to massive displacement, pushing thousands of black families out of the city and into struggling, under-resourced suburban communities (only places that will accept Section 8 vouchers) and schools. Many have left the state altogether. The result of this whitenizing of Chicago has been the so-called “under-utilization” of public schools, now being used as an excuse to shutter dozens of neighborhood schools which increases neighborhood blight and pose a direct threat to the health and safety of some 30,000 more displaced students.

      In their place come the new middle-class tech-ies and professionals needed to maintain the new information age and service economies of the big cities. Selective enrollment and charter schools are being used to deal with these dramatic demographic changes, thereby promoting policies such as re-segregation which only reinforce and replicate existing inequities in the educational system.

      “A bad thing”, Steve? Yes, the understatement of the year.

  4. Melissa Mizel

    Dear Brant,

    Im ambivalent about what youve written here. I can see your point about the school boards lack of accountability and people such as the ones you identify (implicitly) having little understanding of the students lives or what would serve them. At the same time, corporate America can be said to have an interest in an educational process that produces competent, adaptive, critically thinking and innovative workers. These are qualities and skills that would very much benefit students, whether theyre headed for the business world or not, so to that extent, their interests are aligned.

    I dont know how many schools in Chicago are functioning well or whether or not any of the 50 schools targeted for closing are among them. I think its great that students feel empowered to go to a public meeting and state their views, however Im doubtful that students are in a position to prescribe what it best for them. Im unaware, for example, of any students campaigning for a longer school day or more demanding courses. Nor have I ever heard a student complain that his or her poor spelling or sub-par grammar or mathematical errors were overlooked, that a teacher didnt notice the incorrect historical references, the faulty logic in their arguments or the suspicious similarity between their own essay and that of their best friend. Its in most young peoples natures to get away with as much as possible, which is why we have different standards for minors and adults.

    And teachers unions, too, seem to demonstrate all too frequently, that they, like other unions, are advocates first and foremost for their members, specifically, getting the most compensation for the least effort, which makes them natural allies for students fighting to preserve the schools that dont educate them.

    In my view, public education has yet to get over what feminism did to the labor pool some 40 years ago, with the result that theres been a mass migration of female labor to higher-paying fields and an education system thats been left to manage with some of the least gifted workers, with the very worst usually assigned to the students who have the greatest need for the best. Pay scales that continued to assume that women were a captive market have made this a very expensive and difficult problem to solve. Ive actually spoken about this with the celebrated childrens advocate Jonathan Kozol, who acknowledged the merit of what Im saying here yet could offer no way to address it.

    Do you have a remedy of your own?

    All the best, Melissa

  5. Susan Klonsky

    Melissa’s letter must be intended as satire:

    Blaming “feminism” for elevating the socioeconomic stature of women.

    Blaming “feminism” for expanding the professional options of women.

    It was not long ago (in my lifetime) that female teachers had to leave the profession if they married or (heaven forbid) became pregnant. Melissa claims that the “least gifted” are left in the teaching profession. This thoroughly unreasoned argument could only be made by someone unfamiliar with the intellectual caliber, academic accomplishments or challenging working conditions of our public school teachers.

    None of this, however, is responsive to the topic of Rabbi Rosen’s post, which is the students’ effort to address the Board with their burning concerns.

    No matter how little respect Melissa may have for the teaching profession, or for the legitimacy of teacher unions, she’s missed the point.

    These young people are upset and angry as they watch their teachers being fired en masse, favorite programs being stripped from schools due to budget cuts, and all of these cuts being imposed heavily and unequally upon schools serving children of color.

    These serious young people were willing to stand up, speak up and risk arrest in order to be heard. They deserve respect and attention.

    Apparently this is of little concern to anyone who longs for the days before “feminism” ruined everything.

    1. Melissa Mizel

      Dear Susan,

      Just saw this! And I was being straight, not satirical. However, you’ve drawn some incorrect conclusions from what I wrote.

      For starters, I’m not “blaming” feminism for anything or “longing” for pre-feminist times. I am, in fact, crediting feminism for expanding women’s opportunities and blaming those who determine teacher salaries for behaving as though women continue to have few other choices.

      I am also not challenging the legitimacy of teacher unions, only stating the obvious, which is that their role, first and foremost, is to serve the interests of their members rather than those of, say, administrators, students, parents, school boards or the public at large.

      Further, I don’t think it’s disrespectful to the profession or to the many admirable people who practice it to observe that, as a whole, the caliber of entrants to this profession has declined in the US. This McKinsey report contains much valuable data on the subject:

      Click to access Closing_the_talent_gap.pdf

      Among other useful stats, it notes that a mere 14% of teachers in America’s high-need schools graduated in the top third of their classes. Does Chicago, the largest city in the state with the worst disparity between what is spent on rich school kids and poor ones, differ significantly on this score, and, if so, in what direction?

      I’m also not sure on what basis you charge me with being ignorant of the challenges faced by today’s teachers. I’m ready to grant that the challenges are daunting and then some. When coupled with the obsolete pay scale, they present a formidable disincentive to embrace teaching as a career to those whose talents enable them to choose more remunerative and less stressful alternatives.

      Finally, I’m all in favor of giving every participant in the civic process, and especially young people who have the courage to speak publicly to the authorities, respect and attention. What I’m not in favor of is assuming that their judgment is more developed than it is or that their view of what is best for them should be regarded as definitive.


  6. MFC

    I’d like to follow in the same vein as Steve Hinman’s comment. I’m searching for what you would suggest should happen, Rabbi. The city of Chicago and the state of Illinois are in very bad fiscal straits. Financial imbalances in the public sector often do indeed end up hurting the least well off, as fiscal conservatives at any level are often at pains to try to point out. I note your attribution of what happened to housing in Chicago and elsewhere to “corporate greed.” This is the same sort of debate-stopping trump-card phrase as “apartheid” tends to be in the central core of issues treated on this blog. Greed, and indeed what was clearly criminal financial mischief, certainly played its role in the financial crisis. But it was greed that found its opportunity in federal housing policy promoted and then fiercely defended primarily by liberal interests in Washington. I know you’ve heard that before but it doesn’t make it any less true.

    The point is, the implication that if we just keep shoveling resources away from private property and into whatever is identified as the least fortunate sectors of society – and do so ad infinitum – we will solve problems is largely contrafactual. And the constant attribution of negative motivations to all who oppose this perspective is another difficult matter to engage. I’m sure the Chicago city school board has its share of scoundrels. The idea, however, that there’s a magic bullet in shifting from appointed to elected school boards again lacks evidence. The easiest thing in the world to do is to advocate procedural reforms along the lines of centralized vs. decentralized, elected vs. appointed, etc. Whatever is the system now, do the opposite, right? Much harder is to implement the necessary policies, particularly in the fiscal sphere. The point here is, your glide from saying that you oppose what the school board is doing (which is your right) to saying that they are democratically illegitimate is not supportable, as I am not the first to point out in this thread. Perhaps you can tell us who you would like to support for mayor and what they intend to do on school policy.

    So as not to be accused myself of not providing any constructive dialog, I personally don’t see what is wrong with such ideas as charter schools, some form of voucher program, certain kinds of school district consolidation, and so on. Instead of dismissing these ideas out of hand in a parody of reactionary teachers’ union attitudes – your friendship with the head of the union in question notwithstanding – why not engage these ideas rather than relying on trump-card arguments like greed and corruption? There’s certainly one massive problem on our hands with regard to the Chicago city schools. At least that we can all agree on.

    1. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author

      MFC: You and I differ fundamentally in our analysis of this problem. You see this as a problem rooted in a fiscal shortfall. I do not – I see this as a problem rooted in wealth-disparity. As such, I believe it is disingenuous of you to insist that I engage you in “constructive dialogue” on your own terms and dismiss my concerns and convictions as “debate-stopping,” a “parody” and “reactionary.”

      I agree wholeheartedly with you when you write this crisis was “promoted and defended primarily by liberal interests in Washington.” I don’t view this as a Republican-Democrat issue but rather a have and have-not issue. It is certainly true that corporate interests have had a good friend in the Emanuel administration just as they did with the Daley administration (and for that matter with the neo-liberal Obama and Clinton administrations).

      Your fiscal analysis begins and ends with: “the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois are in very bad fiscal straits.” With all due respect, I do not find that to be a particularly compelling argument. The problem is not that there is not enough money – the problem is that money is being funneled away from our schools to fund other more corporate-friendly projects such as the $360 million DePaul area.

      And it is being funneled away through other means as well. A recent Sun-Times op-ed pointed out that CPS has actually been paying $36 million a year in toxically high interest rates to the big banks:

      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.

      What do I think should be done? For a start I think CPS should renegotiate these outrageous contracts so that this money can benefit our children and not corporate bankers. Beyond this, I think that rather than shutting down schools and slashing budgets they should reinvest in our neighborhood schools and use the funds to create smaller classes, more social workers, functioning air-conditioning and heating, and a full curriculum, with teachers of arts and foreign languages in every school.

      Since the mayoral campaign has not started yet I cannot tell you who I would support – but I would certainly throw my efforts behind a candidate who understands the importance of community-based public education and is the least beholden to corporate interests.

      1. MFC

        I’m glad there’s a glimmer of an element we can agree on here. I’m also glad you think there may theoretically be someone who could come up with a mayoral position you could support. A comment you made elsewhere that this can’t be solved at the ballot box led me to fear we weren’t doing the democracy thing any more.

        My analysis certainly doesn’t begin and end with some single statement of mine, but this is an Internet comment and I want to synthesize the issues. I see two problems. One is the problem of scale. My understanding is that the schools are dealing with a $1 billion deficit. Okay, halve the interest rates on the financial instruments etc. We still don’t have a solution. BTW this is not uncommon in discussions of financial resources, where it’s difficult for people to imagine that the breadth of a problem (e.g. tens of millions of baby boomers going into retirement, or in this case, many dozens of underutilized schools) outweighs the depth of any given instance (usually a question of growing income inequality). I realize that the proposed school closings are only one element of what CPS is saying has to happen with its budget, so perhaps somebody could construct some math that says it wouldn’t have to happen. But I read your comments as agreeing with none of what CPS says should be cut, and indeed new elements of spending should be added to it. I don’t see how that’s possible.

        The other problem is one of imagination. Somewhere in this thread somebody linked the schools problem to the issue of gentrification. Implicit (or maybe even explicit) in the comment was that middle-class technical and professional people who would move in would be white. Why do they have to be white? Why can’t they be black (or Hispanic, or anyone – this is America). If we avoid discussing needed fiscal changes AND changes in educational philosophy, what are we proposing here? Keeping the public schools budget the same (somehow), letting the problem get even worse five years from now, and then what? Also, while the issue of forcing children to travel further across what is apparently gang territory is a very serious one, do you not see the interplay between why this is even an issue in the first place and the very depopulation of the neighborhoods that led to this budget issue? Perhaps parents who’ve moved to the suburbs would have effective things to say about this.

        Rabbi, broadly speaking, there is a valid viewpoint that is owed some respect that says that financial sustainability is itself an issue that deserves a hearing on behalf of the more vulnerable members of society. I would like to see the insight that says that the best way to rebuild infrastructure and educate all of our children is to place the institutions responsible for this on the soundest possible basis get some moral purchase in our synagogues and churches. Too often that is thrown aside in the search for demons, or in individuals’ taking credit for supporting “spending” in the immediate term that they believe constitutes moral progress when broader evidence may suggest otherwise. I know you will not agree with this but thanks for the forum to at least express it so people can see it. And if you read this as meaning that I think that in no way have you come up with a solution to the immediate problem at hand, well I’m sorry, but that is what is apparent to me and to several others in this thread, even if the Chicago political world has its share of self-interested operatives.

      2. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author


        Again, you and I have a fundamentally different approach to this problem. I simply do not accept your basis assumption that this crisis essentially boils down to balancing a fiscal deficit. There is money to address this issue. I’m always struck by the claims of poverty by deficit hawks that there “is no money” for public institutions such as our schools when there seems to be abundant streams of funding for multi-million dollar arenas and for-profit charter schools that are decimating our public school system in the name of school reform. Again, this is not about a fiscal deficit. This is about wealth-disparity – and the values/priorities that lie at the heart of our budgetary decisions.

        The CTU has rightly pointed out that the CPS’s approach to this fiscal issue is to close neighborhood schools and to cut resources for the ones that remain. There is has been absolutely no attempt whatsoever to find new sources of revenue. Your assumption seems to be that “the money is not there.” I would claim that the money is most certainly there – the problem is that our government is simply not interested in exploring these options. They/you are seem so thoroughly gripped by neo-liberal assumptions that the suggestion of a public/private partnership that actually invests in public schools and the communities they serve seems utterly unthinkable.

        As far as specifics, the CTU has long been advocating policies that would raise the needed revenue for our schools – of course it would mean a fundamental shift in the corporate mindset of so many of our local/national leaders:

        While planning massive budget cuts, the district has failed to provide concrete plans for generating revenue—either by redirecting tax increment financing (TIF) surpluses back to public schools, ending tax loopholes or raising a new tax levy for pensions that would stabilize the CPS budget and allow the district to pay the full $600 million cost instead of pushing for another pension holiday. A fair tax structure and financial transaction tax would provide more than $6 billion in revenue for schools.

        I share your concern that our public institutions much operate on “the soundest possible basis.” I simply reject your fundamental prescription: that the way to “save them” is to gut them financially and replace them with privately run operations that are not accountable to the communities they serve. It’s all too easy (and simply untrue) to say “the money is not there.” The proper answer, it seems to me, is to recommit to a vision of public education for the 21st century that can indeed operate in the soundest possible basis, then fund them so that they will have the greatest possibility to succeed.

  7. Grandpa Mike

    The proposed move to an elected school board in Chicago is not seen as a “magic bullet.” Rather it represents, for thousands who signed our petitions last fall, a shift away from autocratic mayoral control of the public schools. Under mayoral control, the school system has been turned into a wing of City Hall, probably the least reputable and least democratic (small d) institution in America.

    This is not about the city being broke. It’s all about priorities set by the wealthiest and most powerful people in Chicago and in the state. There’s plenty of money to pay for Rahm’s pals (OK, I won’t call them “greedy” if it upsets MFC) priorities — like building a $360 sports complex for DePaul, using millions in public funds and TIF dollars that should have gone to the schools.

    What we’re seeing in Chicago is the rapid erosion and selling off of public space and with it, public decision making. The move to an elected school board, while not a perfect solution, would be a step in the right direction.

  8. hoops

    A word about David Vitale:

    Vitale gives new meaning to the words top-down. The former bank president was even booted from his position as head of the Chicago Board of Trade for not being able to play well with others. A golfing buddy of former Mayor Daley, Billionaire Vitale was originally brought in as a dollar-a-year man to ride herd on CPS finances and keep former CEO Arne Duncan in line. Later he was appointed head of AUSL’s privately-run “turnaround” schools. The Mayor made Vitale president of the school board even while he still was running AUSL. Conflict of interests? Not in Chicago.

    Reason #708 why we need an elected school board and an end to mayoral control of the schools in Chicago


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