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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
And I'm Linda Wertheimer.
The city of Chicago wants to close dozens of public schools, claiming that money could be better spent. But protests are growing. Hundreds of members of the Chicago Teachers Union and other labor groups rallied yesterday.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Whose schools?
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Our schools.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Whose schools?
WERTHEIMER: The city plans to shut down more than 10 percent of the district's 400-plus elementary schools. Teachers Union President Karen Lewis and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel have long been at odds. Lewis wasted no time pointing the finger of blame at Emanuel.
KAREN LEWIS: This is the mayor who, behind closed doors, decided to take away schools.
WERTHEIMER: This is the second part of a political showdown over Chicago schools that began earlier in the school year when the teachers went out on strike.
NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.
CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: When Chicago school teachers went out on strike last fall, there were lots of eyes on a battle considered symbolic of the country's struggle over school reform. Now this latest fight over school closings - which approved, could be the country's largest - puts the mayor's education efforts in the spotlight again. So, before protestors gathered in the plaza across from city hall, the mayor had this message for opponents.
MAYOR RAHM EMANUEL: Ideas are what matter, not insults. Do you have an idea how to move not only our graduation rate, but our college attendance? When you have a disparity between what parts of the city and kids are achieving versus other parts, where's your ideas to achieve that?
CORLEY: School officials and the mayor says the district faces a $1 billion deficit, so their idea is to close 54 so-called underutilized schools and programs. They believe those closures would help plow more money into the kid's new schools and provide resources, such as libraries, air-conditioned classrooms, access to iPads and other technologies.
It's an explanation that doesn't persuade Michelle Young, a parent who is the head of a local school council. She says part of the school system's problem is Emanuel's support for charter schools, which she says helps deplete regular schools of the resources they need.
MICHELLE YOUNG: So, Rahm Emanuel, enough is enough. You came in here on a handshake, and we're getting ready to send you out with a boot.
CORLEY: Chicago is a city where racial tension has long been a component of the political culture. Now the union and others say it's racist for Chicago public schools or CPS to close schools in predominantly African-American neighborhoods.
Chicago Sun-Times columnist Laura Washington says that's a perception that should worry Emanuel.
LAURA WASHINGTON: The reality is a population loss has come in the African-American community. So that's where the cuts have to come. The problem also is is African-Americans are suffering most in terms of economic development, in terms of lack of jobs, and in terms of lack of educational achievement. So it looks like he's targeting the weakest, most vulnerable part of the community.
CORLEY: At Mahalia Jackson Elementary School on the city's South Side, the play lot is empty, the school dark. This week is spring break. The school is one of two slated to close in the area represented by Alderman Howard Brookins. He sat on the school closing commission and says the plan does affect African-American communities, but isn't designed to do so. He says the plan is really...
ALDERMAN HOWARD BROOKINS: Just mainly some of the last vestiges of segregation and school segregation in the city of Chicago.
CORLEY: Brookins says in the past, multiple schools were built in black neighborhoods for one reason...
BROOKINS: In order to stop kids from moving geographically across these lines of demarcation, with respect to black Chicago and white Chicago.
CORLEY: Another South Side alderman, Pat Dowd, says her ward has done its share. Seven schools will be effected, two to be shut completely.
ALDERMAN PAT DOWD: And now we have to spend the money to improve them. And I see some indication that CPS is moving in that direction. But I certainly plan to hold their feet to the fire and that, you know, they have to meet their commitments.
CORLEY: At the rally, Alderman Bob Fioretti says the school plan is creating a movement for an elected school board instead of one appointed by the mayor. And as far as a political risk for Mayor Emanuel now...
ALDERMAN BOB FIORETTI: He reads his polls. He knows what to do, and he's banking that his support comes from the corporate interests. And we'll see what happens.
CORLEY: What Chicago's Teachers Union chief Karen Lewis wants to happen is for protesters to ignore any school closings next fall.
LEWIS: On the first day of school, you show up at your real school. You show up at your real school.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
CORLEY: The final vote in Chicago school closures occurs in May. The next mayoral election will be in 2015.
Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.