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Educating. Institutional Mourning: Chicago School Closings and the Supreme Court

The Children Are Watching

In 2013 Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel closed 49 public schools at one time.   “Bad schools,” “failing schools” according to the official justifications.  More than 80% of the children in these schools were African American.  The schools anchored their communities, held the histories, centered the stories.  None of that mattered to the bureaucrats who saw only test scores and “underutilized” classrooms:  numbers silent on the things that matter in educating our children. 

What happens when a public school is closed?  What happens to the students, the teachers, the families, the neighborhood when the public’s school is shuttered?  We know that the children are scattered to schools out of the neighborhood; families who can, move away; shops close, and property values begin to decline.  That decline not a side effect or “unintended consequence” of the school closure but a key part of the strategy of real estate “developers” complicit in politicians’ claims to improve education by closing “failing schools,” reducing the costs of big money moving in to “gentrify” with shiny new, and newly unaffordable, condos and apartments.  Public school closures are also central to the business plans of corporate charter chains and their investors, often given the keys to now vacant school buildings or tax breaks to come into the now open “education market.” Professional, experienced teachers who know the children and the community are let go, usually replaced by novice, often unlicensed, and markedly less expensive adults to oversee classrooms (most not yet teachers by any stretch of the definition). 

The record is clear:  closing public schools does not improve the children’s learning, does not enhance the teaching profession, does not contribute to healthy neighborhoods and thriving communities.   If we know all this, why is it still happening despite impassioned, strategic, collective resistance by parents, teachers, and their neighbors?

Eve L. Ewing tells us in her startling and essential new book:  Ghosts in the Schoolyard:  Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side.  Ewing lives in Chicago and grew up on Chicago’s South Side.  Ghosts is the story of a community in mourning when its school is closed, a community she knows well.

Ewing takes us to Bronzeville, seen by Chicago’s elite business and political class as poverty and deprivation, but lived by its residents as the legacy of a rich history with vibrant possibility.

Bronzeville is special.  "Beginning about twenty blocks south of downtown Chicago… the region occupies a single place as Chicago’s historic hub of African American culture: …the destination of thousands of migrants…from southern states during the Great Migration and home to luminaries such as Richard Wright and Gwendolyn Brooks."

Ewing taught school in Bronzeville and grew up nearby.  She is not a neutral observer.  Her book documents the “dueling realities” of the school board’s cold reliance on numbers – and the then-superintendent’s claims the schools should be closed because they are “under-resourced,” with no acknowledgment that she is the official who can remedy that inequitable condition: she controls the resources!

Ewing then brings us the stories:  the voices of students, teachers, parents, and their allies who speak eloquently of loss, of powerlessness, of shock.  None of what they value is valued by the officials so arbitrarily and callously selecting schools to close.  Racism is a prime motivation that Ewing does not hesitate to document and call out herself and in the voices of those she interviews.  Greed, real estate grabs, and power are not veiled –even by the powerful themselves.

The book is a must-read for anyone concerned about the public’s schools, the centrality of neighborhood schools to democracy and any possibility we have for achieving equity and justice for America’s children.  Buy the book, send a copy to your local school board, send copies to your state board of education and to anyone who thinks “failing schools” are the fault of the schools, not the officials who govern them.

For me the message goes beyond even policy:  the most powerful chapter is “Mourning.”  Ewing, herself an artist and celebrated poet, brings her poetic voice and unique insights as a South Side native to a deep understanding of the nature of loss when a school is closed.  She eloquently describes what she calls “institutional mourning.”  The students and their parents, the teachers who have lost their jobs and their connections to their students – all talk of the closing of the school as a death.  An inalterable loss.   The generations of family members who went to the school are seen as being erased, along with the many stories – happy, sad, silly, perilous, hopeful stories – that get told and re-told when former students re-connect, when families get together.   The lives and legacies of Black civic leaders, artists, writers, educators for whom the schools were named are lost as well, purging a community of pride, accomplishment, elders and identity. 

For Ewing, and those she listened to, the loss is not just the school as an institution.  She says the loss of an institution is also the loss of who we were when that institution was with us.  We mourn the building, the activities, the classes, the actions on the playground.   But the “ghosts” aren’t just the names of favorite teachers now gone or class rolls of students; they are us – the “we” – who we were as a part of the life of that institution, a life before and after our presence there.  A source of shared identity and common good gone.  School closings are an erasure.   Careless or deliberate?  Racist or merely thoughtless?  For Ewing there is no question: erasures are continuous with Jim Crow, with legal discriminations old and new, with cultural destruction.  She asks “Is there room for democracy and real grassroots participation in a school system that has been run like an oligarchy?”   If school closings and other policy decisions are framed as “what is the history that has brought us to this moment?,” then the questions of “who gets to decide?” and “how do power, race, and identity inform the answer to that question?” are more likely to shape the decisions.   That is the hope she holds out, the reason she wrote this book as a re-framing.

Institutional mourning.  It turns out I needed these words.  I was reading this book as the US Senate was voting to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the position of Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.  Ewing spoke to me in that moment as I was seeing the highest court of the United States, the court whose rulings carry no mechanism for appeal, be in a sense “closed” to the American public.   A man widely criticized for questionable application of the law and selective use of “facts” in his rulings in his current judgeship, a man deemed by his own law school professors as unfit for the higher court, and a man with a record of sexual misconduct was being confirmed to fill a seat on the nation’s highest court. 

We can’t romanticize the Court as always – or even mostly – fair and wise and just.   The most recent court gutted the Voting Rights Act and opened political campaigns to uncounted floods of cash with already dire consequences in voter suppression and “dark money.” And it declared corporations as “persons” with religious beliefs (what could be more absurd?).   So, no, the Court has not been perfect.

But the addition of Kavanaugh to the bench feels like a certain kind of death for the court:  the death of hope that the Court will any time soon restore voting rights, challenge big campaign money, protect our fragile environment, protect workers’ rights and everyone’s health.    Like many Americans, I was feeling ill during every minute of those hearings.  It was Eve Ewing who helped me understand what I was feeling:  I was mourning the Supreme Court for what it has been at its best and for a best it would now not likely return to in my lifetime.  Mourning an institution that I can recall as affirming the highest goals of our democracy, an institution whose “ghosts” are not only good justices from the past, but the plaintiffs and attorneys of the future who will search its halls for a standard of justice that, like the shuttered schools of Chicago’s South Side, may be systematically erased.

Ewing’s book keeps the schools alive in the stories shared and keeps alive a hope for the neighborhood in the strength of organizing and challenging entrenched power.  Turning mourning into action even when hope seems illusory.  Thank you, Eve Ewing, for helping me understand and for giving us a language for thinking about the ways our institutions shape us and carry --- or erase -- our identity as a people.

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Linda McSpadden McNeil

Linda McSpadden McNeil passed away in April, 2021. She was a professor in the Department of Education at Rice University, and Director of its Center for Education...