- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Just six months after a strike shut down city schools, Chicago teachers and Mayor Rahm Emanuel are again at each other’s throats.

Led by the Chicago Teachers Union, thousands rallied Wednesday afternoon against the mayor’s plan to shutter more than 50 underperforming schools across the city, one of the largest such closings in American history.

More than 100 protesters intentionally tried to get themselves arrested by blocking the entrance to city hall before marching en masse to the Chicago Public Schools headquarters.

It’s the latest bare-knuckle battle between Mr. Emanuel, former chief of staff to President Obama, and the city’s teachers union, a politically potent force and historic ally of Democratic officials.

“We intend to use whatever nonviolent protest actions we have in this fight for education justice,” said union President Karen Lewis, who spearheaded the nine-day strike last fall.

“The bottom line is the schools targeted for closure are based on the racial makeup of those schools and their ZIP codes. We will continue to … fight in the courts and in the streets for what is right for our students,” she added.

Mr. Emanuel has defended the plan as both financially necessary and in the best interest of the city’s students. Chicago’s education system is facing a projected $1 billion budget shortfall this year, and the school overhaul plan would go a long way toward closing it.

Mr. Emanuel has admitted that it’s difficult to close buildings and relocate students, but argues that’s a better path than trapping them in failing schools.

“Keeping open a school that is falling short year in and year out means we haven’t done what we are responsible for,” the mayor said Wednesday.

But the battle has become about more than just the closure of physical buildings. Ms. Lewis and other critics of the mayor have brought race and class into the debate, accusing Mr. Emanuel of targeting schools only in predominantly black neighborhoods.

Last week, Ms. Lewis dubbed him “the murder mayor,” alluding to the city’s high murder rate but also saying that Mr. Emanuel is “murdering schools, murdering good jobs, murdering housing,” harsh charges that the mayor has shrugged off.

But the pressure isn’t coming just from union leaders and teachers. A coalition of Chicago ministers Wednesday also urged Mr. Emanuel to abandon the school closings plan, arguing their case largely on moral grounds.

“It’s much too rushed to do the most vulnerable children any good. The safety plan obviously is not in place,” the Rev. Marshall Hatch, senior pastor of New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, told the Chicago Sun-Times. The plan “is not in the interest of these communities, particularly the most vulnerable children from the most fragile families.”

Mr. Emanuel has countered that low-income and minority Chicago students aren’t benefitting by staying in failing schools, or buildings that are in poor condition or only half-full on a daily basis.

By consolidating, the mayor contends, resources can be shifted to actual education.

Mr. Emanuel’s plan will be voted on by the city’s Board of Education in May.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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