To the Editor:
As a CPS parent and long-time community organizer, I am appalled by the actions of Barbara Byrd Bennett in stealing from Chicago’s children to feather her already robust nest. What is more appalling however, is Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s effort to isolate her actions as the corruption of an individual; and our acceptance of such nonsense. Corruption and discriminatory actions that disregard the voices of Black and Brown parents is central to the culture of the school privatization movement. While millions of dollars are pumped into selling the public on “school choice”, nationwide corporate education interventions have failed to improve the academic outcomes in Black and Brown communities, while a laundry list of “reformers” have been caught violating the public trust.
Barbara Byrd Bennett-A Spoke in a Wheel
Barbara Byrd Bennett was lauded as an accomplished educator, who had the ability to relate to the everyday parent and the skill to lead the nation’s 3rd largest school district. The spin from the Emanuel administration highlights improved graduation rates as proof of her competency. What is not mentioned are the schemes used to give the illusion of growth; the rapid increase of alternative schools, programs such as credit recovery and CPS outright falsifying the data on the graduation rate. This is smoke and mirrors, not improved education. This is the true legacy of Barbara Byrd Bennett in Chicago. What is also conveniently left out of the conversation is that in Detroit, she was an active participant in stripping the publicly elected school board of its authority, while dismantling an African-centered curriculum and focus that was dramatically improving student performance. In Cleveland, her expense account (provided by privatizers) was nearly as large as her annual salary, while the math performance of Black males plummeted on her watch. It is important to understand that Barbara Byrd Bennett is not the issue. Privatization produces the Barbara Byrd Bennett’s of the world, setting the tone for this type of behavior. She is a symptom, not the disease. Unfortunately, she has a lot of company. In Chicago, the former president of the Chicago Board of Education David Vitale approved 27 turnaround schools for the Academy of Urban School Leadership, where he used to be the board president. These were no-bid contracts. How are those schools doing? In Washington, DC Michelle Rhee was hailed as a “education warrior” who would lead the charge on bad teachers and failing schools; until it was revealed that she inflated her students’ scores and taped their mouths shut as a discipline measure. Geoffrey Canada from the Harlem Children’s Zone was celebrated as a visionary for connecting social services to his charter schools, creating a cradle to career system in Harlem, promoted as a national model; until we learned that he pushed out students from his first 3 classes to make the school look better than it really was. Similar to New Orleans, where they “cooked the books” to make the charter system look like a success, where, according to 2014 data, over 56% of the Recovery School District schools received D or F grade from the state board of education. Similar stories are told in Newark with the now deposed Cami Anderson, Detroit under the emergency manager system, Philadelphia where there were efforts to build 2 new prisons while closing 24 schools and Ohio, where there are efforts to advance privatization despite the fact that one of America’s greatest public education success stories is right around the corner in Cincinnati. Cincinnati, where since 2003 their model of Community Learning Centers has raised the graduation rate from 50% to over 80% and the opportunity gap between Black and White students has shrunk to 4% is being ignored, while failed corporate education interventions are promoted as “the new civil rights movement.”
This “new civil rights movement” is colonialism, plain and simple. The author Alice Walker once said, “No one is your friend who demands your silence and denies your right to grow.” In Chicago, New Orleans, Camden, Philadelphia, Newark, DC, Detroit and scores of other cities where the schools serve primarily children of color, a common denominator is that we don’t have voting rights. Our silence is demanded, while school boards in over 94% of America’s cities are elected. We have no direct way to hold officials accountable for the policies they set. Here is what we know; nationally, only 1 out of 5 charters outperform traditional public schools, but we see across this country the starving of neighborhood schools while charters and contract schools are expanded.
We have given the Chicago Board of Education viable solutions. The Coalition to Revitalize Dyett High School engaged in a deliberate, respectful process of engaging parents, educators, students and neighborhood residents in Bronzeville and developed a world class plan for Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology High School as the hub for a sustainable community school village. Education experts from across the country and CPS itself, acknowledged that it was the best plan for Bronzeville’s children. The mayor of this city and his education chair Alderman Will Burns blocked this plan because of politics. I was one of 12 people who reluctantly launched a 34 day hunger strike on August 17, 2015 not to run a charter school; or land contracts, but for CPS to finally value Black children in Bronzeville like they do children in Lincoln Park. What was burned on our memory was that on the 25th day of our hunger strike, Rahm Emanuel and Forest Claypool awarded Lincoln Elementary, a well-resourced school in Lincoln Park a $21 million dollar annex. They held a ribbon cutting ceremony while we starved in Washington Park. This lack of respect for our legitimate voices is the problem and Barbara Byrd Bennett is merely the fruit from a rotten tree.
This is why we are even more committed to winning an elected, representative school board and transforming Chicago to a Sustainable Community School district. To paraphrase the late, great organizer Ella Baker, “until the education of Black and Brown boys and girls, Black and Brown mother’s sons, is as important as the education of White boys and girls, White mother’s sons; we who believe in freedom will not rest until it comes.
Jitu Brown, National Director of the Journey for Justice Alliance and one of the Dyett Hunger Strikers