When Hurricane Katrina Hit Chicago

Meme: Most public school closures in US history? New Orleans. Second most public school closures in US history? Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Last month, on the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Chicago Tribune columnist, Kristine McQueary, made a racist, cruel and callous admission that she was “wishing for a Hurricane Katrina” in Chicago to force drastic change. It was similar to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s heartless and gutless statement that Hurricane Katrina was “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans” because of all the school privatization it unleashed. It is no accident that well-known Chicago voices are prominently advocating for a calamity that has significant parallels to man-made disasters imposed upon the windy-city in recent years.

Actor Wendell Pierce of The Wire and Treme fame recently lamented the vilification of Black teachers like his mother, who predominated in the New Orleans school system prior to Katrina. According to a recent In These Times article, “10 Years After Katrina, New Orleans’ All-Charter School System Has Proven a Failure,” anywhere from 3,000 to 4,000 teachers were laid off after the levees broke, and the teaching force went from a 73 percent, largely African-American, veteran union workforce to 54 percent Black, with less experience and all non-union.

Any and all of the premature celebrations of New Orleans’ current renaissance glosses over the more than 1,800 lives lost, removal of nearly 100,000 African-Americans, growing child poverty, and gaping inequality between white and Black residents.

The “back from the ashes” narrative also fails to acknowledge the myriad ways that Black students have been irreparably harmed from draconian zero-tolerance policies typical in many charter schools. Additionally, the citywide attendance boundaries for charters and a haphazard enrollment system forced many students to travel far outside of their communities to attend classes.

Soon after the entire school district was handed over to charter operators, New Orleans reached new notoriety for having the largest suspension and expulsion rates in the country as these schools pushed out students with disabilities and behavioral issues to improve their test scores.

Sound familiar?

Since mayoral control of Chicago’s public schools began in 1995, Mayors Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel have unleashed a tsunami of charter schools and school closings upon the city with devastating results.

Since Chicago destroyed the greatest number of public housing units in American history with the Chicago Housing Authority’s Plan for Transformation, Rahm Emanuel followed suit with the greatest number of school closings in history, all focused primarily in the Black community. In the aftermath of the closings, students had to travel increasingly long distances because of mass school closures. There also has been a precipitous decline in the number of veteran Black teachers in Chicago Public Schools since closings and charter expansion have accelerated in recent years. Since the year 2000, the percentage of Black teachers in CPS has declined from 40 percent to 23 percent, according to an Education Post article, “Why Chicago’s Public Schools Are Losing Black Teachers.”

Recent reports have found that charter schools expel and suspend students of color at a rate of 11 times their neighborhood school counterparts. Despite their advantages in removing students with low test scores, charters on average underperform when compared to their neighborhood counterparts. We have not even begun to calculate the loss of unionized teachers due to charter growth, or the economic health of our communities in the wake of mass teacher layoffs. Teachers at charter schools are paid an average of 20 percent less than those in union schools.

Nonetheless, there is hope on the horizon that some of the damage caused by these wrong-headed reforms can be reversed.

The fight for Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology High School is more than an effort to re-establish a neighborhood high school—it is a fight for the soul of our city.

When I walked through Dyett in 2012 after CPS slated the school for phase out, I noticed the overwhelming number of veteran Black teachers who grew up, lived and worked in the community. The effort to undermine the veteran Black leadership in our schools has come alongside a sustained attack on Black students, their schools and communities. It has the features of a scorched earth campaign whereby public officials claim to save the child by destroying the village.

The mayor can demonstrate a willingness to reverse course and acknowledge the terrible scars that school reform has caused the Black community. A community high school led by committed parents in Bronzeville could close a dangerous chapter in Chicago’s history and open the possibilities to rebuild our proverbial levees and restore some racial and educational justice in our city.

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About Jackson Potter

Jackson Potter is a Chicago Public Schools graduate. As a high school activist in 1995 he led a walk-out at Whitney Young HS to push for equitable school funding. He taught and served as Chicago Teachers Union delegate at Englewood HS until Arne Duncan “phased out” the school. Jackson currently serves the CTU as its staff coordinator.

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