Chicago school closings and the allure of the cost benefit analysis

Much as been said about the Chicago Public Schools closings that are being voted on in a few days. In this cacophony of voices I felt reluctant to write, although I found myself in daily conversations with my daughters, my students, friends, co workers and strangers. I am in the somewhat unorthodox position of being a parent to two children that have attended 3 different Chicago public schools in the 3 years we have been in Chicago, I teach at a non for profit public charter part time and at the City College, and I live in front of a school that will receive students from two of the schools slated for closing.

I can think about the problems with school closings from many different angles, but what has been conspicuously absent is a look of the effect of the closings beyond a cost benefit analysis. One of CPS’s main arguments is that it is broke, and that it needs to cut on cost. The media has reacted by questioning the actual savings that will derive from closing schools by analyzing numbers, and coming up with their own figures. What about the loss of quality of life  that these 46,000 children (and their parents/guardians) will incur?

My daughters experience changing school was largely driven by factors besides the academic strength of the schools they were attending. Last year we commuted 3 hours daily by car, and they had to wake up an hour earlier than the previous year. It was extremely stressful and it deeply impacted our family dynamics, finances, and their overall happiness, in addition to affecting their school work. These negative impacts will be felt by the children affected by the school closings, and reverberate within their families and communities. We are talking about thousands of children, in neighborhoods that are already lacking infrastructure, and where violence and poverty are high.

Being poor already breeds instability and the closings will be another forced change that interrupts the continuity a school can provide. Speaking from experience, we had to move four times in 3 years in the city. Three of those moves were because of rising rents and having to find cheaper living spaces, and one move was caused by the violence we experienced at the hands of a neighbor. I know that my situation is mirrored daily for others who are single parents, working poor, and marginalized. Increasingly this is a dynamic that touches more and more people as the city prioritizes a funneling upwards of money (hello refurbished Navy Pier, and new DePaul stadium) toward corporate interests, at the expense of everyone else.

Chicago has been declared the most segregated city in the US again last year, and the school closings exacerbate further the tension and inequality already present. The media and CPS talk of “West Side” and “South Side” fuels a rhetoric of a separated city, one where we are not invested in each other, and can say “it is not my problem because I don’t live on the South Side, I am not black/latino/etc”. In this hyper individualistic scenario where we retire in our respective corners by declaring “It’s not my problem”, we all lose. Martin Niemöller‘s poem comes to mind when I look at the erosion of the quality of life in Chicago, as violence and cost of life go up while services are cut and children shut out of their schools.

First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the socialists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Catholic.

Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.

racial/ethnic chicago animation map
February 25, 2010, 2:58 pm
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if you click on the map it will animate the racial changes in neighborhood make up from 1910 to 2000. it blew my mind. talk about segregation!

seeing in color
May 3, 2009, 11:58 pm
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i have been thinking about race and history almost non stop for the past month, and feeling increasingly frustrated and confused. i have been in the united states for 7 years now, and i am still at the beginning of understanding and learning about the history of race in the U.S., and its impact on contemporary society.

coming from a monocultural country, one that has been monocultural and mono racial for centuries, i came to an understanding of race slowly. In italy there is a clear sense of being at the bottom of the food chain, a feeling of inferiority and insecurity pervading society, and prompting many to claim of being from neighboring switzerland when traveling abroad. from a young age it became a game to spot other italians in foreign counties and to try not to look “italian”. when i was in England the first time, at age 12, i distinctly recall being very proud when a native failed to recognize me as “other”, and asked me for directions in the streets of London. i was brought up ashamed of my country, and bombarded with anglophile messages.

When i came to the U.S. as an exchange student everything was laid out on the continuum between black and white, in a way that i still cannot navigate.  i am an ethnic other, but still passing into whiteness at times. Here in Bloomington you don’t have to think about race. it’s a white town, where people display “bloomington values diversity” signs, even though it’s 80% white.  it’s easy to feel post-racial and integrated when “otherness” is absent..

the upcoming move to chicago has forced me to look at the face of american racial history, of thinking hard about where i want to position myself, or even if i have a choice in the matter at all. Everything in the city seems to be about race. how people talk about neighbourhoods, or schools, or safety. i found an animated map of the city detailing the racial changes from 1910 to 2000, and it blew my mind that chicago in 1910 was 90% white.

i have to come to terms with my own prejudice, and with the reality of growing up in a society where it was completely normal to distinguish between civilized and primitive,  or where non-western meant inferior, or at best exotic, without a doubt, or a dissenting voice. i can tell myself it did not affect me at all, that the people closest to me are not caucasian, or whatever other bullshit, but there is no way. there is no way that the ideas about people that i was given to understand the world as a child are not impacting me now.

i feel that the only way of creating a less divided and tense world is to stop being paralyzed by fear, of saying something fucked up, or misunderstanding someone’s thoughts and refuse to be segregated. to stay in a completely artificial color bubble.

i am reading “sundown towns”, a book about all the places, town, and neighborhoods where whiteness was enforced violently.  the author challenges every reader to explore the history of wherever they live, and to realize that if a town, or even neighborhood is mostly white it’s no accident, and more likely than not the product of a history of official and unofficial regulations to drive out non-whites. he argues that divisions are only worsening prejudice and stereotyping , as most people will only have a mythical, media induced sense of otherness, without being able to relate a lived experience to it, whatever it is.

still, i am struggling to figure out how to position myself, to come to terms with the privilege of a lighter shade of skin, or to truly understand my fellow humans, without being a cultural tourist, or intruding in someone else’s space…