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Hunger Strikes By CPS Parents Have a History of Working

The tactic worked in Back of the Yards and Little Village. But activists in Bronzeville face difficult political and financial challenges in securing an open-enrollment high school to replace Dyett.

Community members protest outside the office of 4th Ward alderman Will Burns last year to try to save Dyett High School.   Photo: Heather Charles/Chicago Tribune

For eleven days, parents and activists have been holding a hunger strike over the closing of Dyett High School in Bronzeville, which the community has been trying to convert into a green-technology-oriented school since CPS voted to close it in 2012. Yesterday two of those hunger strikers were hospitalized.

The backstory on the strike is this: Back in 2012, Walter H. Dyett High School was failing. According to Reuters, “Just 10 percent can pass the state math exam; barely one in six is proficient in reading.” The Chicago Board of Education voted to phase out Dyett, shutting the school down by 2015. In the three years since, local activists have staged a few demonstrations to try to get the board to reverse the decision: a sit-in at City Hall in 2012; another sit-in outside of Ald. Will Burns’s office in 2014; and a rally outside of Mayor Emanuel’s office just last month, to name a few.

CPS announced last year that it was accepting proposals about what to do with the site. Three have been submitted so far. The first is a community coalition put forward (and the strikers support): a district-run neighborhood school focusing on leadership. The second proposal was submitted by the arts non-profit Little Black Pearl, which would use the site as an arts-centered school. Finally, Dyett principal Charles Campbell hopes to turn the school into a sports-centered career academy. CPS was expected to hold a meeting in August to vote on the proposals, but earlier this month pushed that vote back to September 15. That move sparked the current strike, which began last Monday. The dozen strikers hope CPS will move up the vote and make a fair decision.

So, why are they doing a hunger strike, of all forms of protest? One answer: because the tactic has worked before.

The scene yesterday at a CPS board meeting mirrored one 20 years ago at a school-council vote over the fate of 91 children who had attended the Richard J. Daley School in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, when parents who had been on a hunger strike for six days fainted during the tense vote.

The dilapidated building was being closed after community pressure called attention to the school’s conditions. “Parents protested the presence of lead and asbestos, broken water fountains, clogged toilets, a leaky roof and the faulty heating system in the 65-year-old building,” the Tribune reported in September 1994. “After months of complaining to politicians, confronting school board members and even bringing in the Chicago Department of Health, parents were finally told by school officials in the spring that the building at 5017 S. Hermitage Ave. was unsafe.” During the prior school year, Daley had gone without water fountains for six months, with students getting drinking water from bathroom sinks.

Daley was one of many schools that had fallen into disrepair. A 1991 Sun-Times investigative series, “Schools in Ruins,” found that two-thirds of CPS schools were in “dire need” of repair, after the school system had not merely delayed repairs over the years but had cut substantially from maintenance positions—40 percent of tradesmen over twenty years.

In the early fall of 1994, the board of education announced a proposal to bus several hundred students from Back of the Yards to a school in Englewood, ten blocks away. It was a short distance, but as so often when children are moved from one school to another in Chicago, parents voiced fears of gang violence. At the beginning of the year, parent volunteers held classes for the students in a vacant lot near the school in protest; the Sun-Times estimated that about half the parents at Daley kept their kids from being bused to Englewood.

The open-air-class protest didn’t work, so in late September, a handful of parents went on a hunger strike, joined by then-state senators Miguel Del Valle and Chuy Garcia. Not joining the strike was another future political opponent of Rahm Emanuel, Gery Chico, then the chief of staff to Mayor Daley. But Chico would play an important role in the success of the strike, as Jorge Oclander reported in the Sun-Times shortly after it ended.

A lesson in Latino power was taught last week at the Chicago Board of Education.

It came when a group of boycotting Mexican parents at the Southwest Side Daley School forced the Chicago Public Schools to abandon an unpopular busing program and build a new school in their neighborhood.

The Hispanic parents, some with less than six years in this country, were joined by all six Hispanic legislators who argued their case with School Board officials. And when it looked like the deal would fall apart, they were bolstered by three top City Hall officials, Hispanics as well, who had the power to put it back together.

“The demographics showed the area needed the school, and the families deserved it,” said Gery Chico, Mayor Daley’s chief of staff, himself a second generation Hispanic American. “They were going to get it.”

They barely got it; it took three dramatic votes, Oclander reported:

After Fire Department paramedics took the blood pressure of some participants, the council voted again. This time it was a tie, again defeating the proposal.

Shouting and screaming began again. Fists were shaken at Daley principal Stephen Hara, who had “guaranteed” the deal Monday night at the Chicago Board of Education.

State Sen. Jesus Garcia (D-Chicago), one of six Hispanic legislators who negotiated for the protesting parents, ran around shouting “calmense!, calmense! (calm down).”

TV cameramen and reporters jumped up on the stage to see the drama in the audience. And the crowd screamed: “Get down, we can’t see the council.”

Finally, after order was restored, Hara whispered something to council member Valerie Arredondo and she changed her vote. That gave the boycotters the 6-4 vote they needed to end the plan to bus their children to Washington School.

The parents secured temporary locations at local neighborhood schools, and two years later got a new school a couple blocks away.

The process was repeated again in 2001. Political pressure around the condition of schools like Daley led to an immense capital-spending campaign and the construction of new buildings across the city. One of those was supposed to be a selective enrollment high school in Little Village, to complement Walter Payton and Northside College Prep. The three schools were announced in 1998; Payton and Northside were built by 2000. The Little Village school remained on the drawing board, its campus a vacant lot. Chuy Garcia returned to the tactic he’d joined in 1994, leading a 19-day hunger strike. And CPS restarted the process. “I have a hell of a lot of respect for them,” Arne Duncan told the Tribune.

Both hunger strikes worked—but not in a vacuum. They tapped into an ascendant Latino power structure in the city, bolstered by a growing population. Meanwhile, the city’s black population has declined, and there’s a perception that black political influence has declined as well. The Dyett hunger strike is gaining attention, but to succeed, it will need a political boost as well (Rev. Jesse Jackson joined the strike last week, but only briefly).

The Dyett strike is also interesting from a historical perspective for a second reason. As mentioned, the Daley School strike was one part of a broader crisis of the city’s school infrastructure, one of hundreds of schools housing students in subpar, even dangerous conditions. And the new school that was built was part of a long, expensive infrastructure initiative led by then-Mayor Daley.

But Daley could not have taken that on had Chicago Public Schools not been released from state control in 1995—controls enforced in 1980 when the system was on the verge of bankruptcy. The School Finance Authority was able to right the system’s fiscal problems, but the physical state of the schools declined. When the control of CPS was handed over to the mayor’s office in 1995, Daley addressed that problem:

Equally important was the positive response from the financial community. In response to labor peace and balanced budgets, Standard & Poor’s raised the district’s bond rating from BBB- to BBB in March 1996, then to A- in 1997. The favorable bond rating enabled the school board to raise billions of dollars to finance the first citywide capital improvement project in decades.

The building projects were one of the keys to [Paul] Vallas’s efforts to connect public school improvement to the city’s overall “quality of life.” Simply put, better schools mean a livable city. Even when families do not have children enrolled in the public schools, they cannot completely avoid the adverse effects of a failing school system that contributes to dependency and higher dropout rates. Lacking basic infrastructure, many schools would not be able to meet the needs of an increasingly high-tech learning environment. Vallas and the school board were able to raise $2.5 billion to renovate aging buildings, improve existing operating systems such as heating, expand schooling opportunities with science laboratories and playgrounds, and build new schools. The new schools were designed both to reduce classroom overcrowding in Latino neighborhoods and to provide magnet-like high-school facilities to attract the middle class. These building efforts managed to slow the migration of middle-school graduates to high schools outside of the Chicago public schools.

How’d he do it? Here’s one way, as described by the Tribune editorial board in August of 1995:

On Monday Vallas unveiled a budget proposal that not only wipes out next year’s projected deficit but also balances the schools’ budget through 1999.

Vallas, the city’s former budget chief, is no magician, making deficits disappear with the wave of a wand. But instead of following precedent by borrowing cash, praying for a property tax increase or looking to a tightfisted legislature for additional funds, he relied on hardheaded business practices and the flexibility allowed by a new state law. The combination appears to have balanced the budget like . . . magic.

The new law lets the school board transfer to its general education fund some tax revenues formerly devoted exclusively to the teachers pension fund….

[snip]

The last time state legislators turned down a plea for additional money, they told Chicago school administrators, “First, show us you know how to handle the money you’ve got.” Paul Vallas and his team are doing just that.

You probably know how that went. If not, Heather Gillers explains it in a nuanced, detailed piece in the Tribune about how CPS returned to a perilous financial state, one that has people calling for another School Finance Authority: “The 1995 overhaul ushered in badly needed improvements. But records and interviews show that lax budget rules written into the legislation paved the way for the current financial crisis.”

[Update: Vallas responded to the Tribune piece shortly after its publication, writing that “In 1996, I made a promise in writing to the Chicago Teachers Union that Chicago Public Schools would increase pension contributions the moment funding levels dropped below an actuarially approved threshold. If that promise was broken, it was broken after 2001, when I left CPS with a fully funded pension system and $1.2 billion in cash reserves.”

Pension Fund documents back that claim up. In 2002, the funding ratio was 96.5 percent; in 2003, 92 percent, both above the generally accepted level of 90 percent. In 2004, it fell to 85.8 percent, on the heels of a slowed-down stock market, an ever-worsening ratio of employees to pensioners, and declining assistance from the state. The board began to pay into the system again in 2006, stabilizing it at an insufficient but not dire level of 80 percent. The really dramatic drop came after the economic downturn, hitting 73 percent in 2009, 67 percent in 2010, 58 percent in 2011. The downturn caused a financial crisis for CPS, which diverted revenues from the pension fund again—only it was much, much less robust this time.]

In other words: CPS had a financial crisis; while addressing that, an infrastructure crisis was created; addressing that led to another financial crisis. In the midst of that, the hunger strikers are trying to force CPS’s hand, as activists in Back of the Yards and Little Village did in the past. But the perfect storm over the past three decades has made the headwinds much stronger this time.

Update 2: On September 3, 2015, CPS announced a compromise situation to reopen Dyett High School. “Taking pieces” from all three proposals, the school will reopen in 2016 as an open-enrollment, arts-focused neighborhood school, according to the Sun-Times.

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