CHICAGO, ILLINOIS — Dr. Martin Luther King spent time in the midwest U.S. city of Chicago in the mid 1960s to promote open housing and equality in public schools. Five decades after his intervention, parents of Chicago students say the fight continues. Those upset with recent budget cuts and school closings used the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s 1963 March on Washington to highlight their concerns.
This building formerly housed the Lyman Trumbull Elementary school in Chicago.
Its classrooms and playground, once bustling with students, are now eerily silent, a consequence of Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s efforts to narrow a projected $1-billion budget deficit by closing about 50 of the city’s schools this year.
“The schools that are closed routinely in this city since 1997 are located in largely poor, largely African-American neighborhoods in the south and west sides of Chicago,” said attorney Matt Farmer. His daughter’s school was not closed, but he is concerned about what he sees as a disparity in the quality of education between poor minority students and affluent white students.
“Fifty years after the 'I Have a Dream speech,' we are still not providing a quality education to our poor, our children of color. t is happening all over the country. So what is going on in Chicago is a microcosm of that fight,” he said.
That fight spilled onto the streets of Chicago on the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington.
Rousemary Vega was one of about 300 parents, teachers, students, and community activists who protested the school closures and proposed budget cuts in a march from Chicago Public School [CPS] headquarters to City Hall. “Fifty years ago they marched for education, justice, freedom. Today we are boycotting to show the problem is still not fixed,” she said.
One of their key demands is that school board members be elected instead of appointed by the mayor.
“An elected school board means we elect them. It means they listen to what we want, and they will give us what we want, or they will not be re-elected. So it is very important that the parents and the community and the students choose who runs their schools and who makes their laws,” said Vega.
CPS’s budget woes come as Chicago faces rising crime and other concerns that have topped the agenda for Ellyson Carter’s "Action Now" organization. “Our number one campaign is fighting against foreclosure, our number two campaign is fighting to raise the minimum wage, but since these school closures happened, that has taken over top priority in our organization.”
Carter believes school closures and budget cuts are influenced by racism, something Emmanuel and school officials strongly deny. Carter sees his participation in the march from CPS headquarters to City Hall as a continuation of King’s work.
“I mean the fights never end, and I think he understood that. That he started a fight and he knew that this fight would never end. I believe that he knew that,” said Carter.
One fight that will continue is the battle over the Chicago schools' future budgets. Officials say unless state lawmakers reach an agreement on pension reform, CPS contributions to pensions will increase from $193 million in 2013, to $534 million in 2014.