Photo of school kids eating lunch by Amanda Mills.
Another perpetrator might be going to jail, but that’s just the beginning of what needs to be done to counter the systemic educational oppression of Chicago’s youth. When I heard that Barbara Byrd-Bennett had been indicted for corruption, I felt numb. Byrd-Bennett, former Chicago Public Schools CEO, is a product of the controversial Broad Superintendents Academy and arrived in Chicago after executing programs of disinvestment in public education in Cleveland and Detroit.
I certainly wanted to see her pay for selling crony contracts to enrich herself at the expense of Chicago’s public school students—90% of color, the vast majority low-income.
I felt transported back to a day last fall when I heard that my former principal was stepping down over a financial scandal that had robbed the school of nearly a million dollars. This was the principal who had used a lack of funds as an excuse to fire me for helping student whistle-blowers, and who destroyed our Law Education Program for Students of High Needs. This was the principal who had dismantled our Restorative Justice program—nationally recognized for its empowerment of students. She was removed for misconduct.
In both of these cases of corruption, I didn’t feel righteous, vindicated, or thankful when the wrongdoing came to light. I just felt sad. I knew that the programs weren’t coming back, and whatever changes came out of it, my students still had a harder journey than they deserved.
While Byrd-Bennett was negotiating her casino windfalls with SUPES academy CEO Gary Solomon (who had been fired for sexual contact with his students and using racial slurs against African Americans), she was using the financial hardship caused by her corruption to close 50 schools for financial reasons. The narrative has changed in the aftermath, but at the time, she was very clear: these schools—all in African American and Latino communities -- were being closed for “underutilization”. Without enough money to spread among the schools, she said, keeping schools open was hurting students’ education. The formula she used to justify this was designed to under-assess students’ need for libraries, science labs or special education facilities.
In both cases the crimes of these administrators caused a great deal of harm to the young people of our city.
My training is in restorative justice. When people do harm, together we look for ways they can address the problems they’ve caused. So rather than taking delight in her well-deserved punishment, I wondered what she could do to fix the harm.
I think of one of my students, a victim of the 50 school closings by Byrd-Bennett, and who was forced to transfer to a new fourth grade school. She just buried two of her loved ones—victims of violent crime. Schools in these neighborhoods had often provided what little community and stability were available for their students. But these 50 schools will not be reopening. The students have lost their community spaces and are forced to travel out of their neighborhoods to attend classes.
The person who unilaterally appointed Byrd-Bennett, Rahm Emanuel, will not be calling each victim to apologize for this disaster he’s overseen. He will not even slow his reform juggernaut to check the condition of the students it has struck on its path.
Unfortunately these crimes are not isolated cases. Even now, there is the School Lunch scandal where a private firm has an essential monopoly on food in schools and uses the term “healthy food” to push unhealthy processed food and prevent students from bringing their own food. There is the Cleaning scandal where a private firm was brought in to clean, charging more money and cutting staff but leaving most schools full of pests and with floors only washed once a week. There’s the Special Education scandal in which Chicago Public Schools is allegedly trying to dictate the contents of student's Individual Education Plans—despite that being against federal law.
There are the network offices which are used as placements for political appointees who change mandates in area schools every year or so. before the next political appointee comes along. There are the bank scandals where the appointed members of the school board have colluded with banks to complete illegal toxic rate swaps that rob the students of upwards of $200 million per year while other cities have sued to retrieve the money.
There’s the bevy of testing scandals where CPS has spent tremendous amounts of money on testing the literacy of kids whose schools don’t have libraries and spending considerable energy bullying families who choose to opt out of the testing. There’s the evaluation scandals where the tests are racist or transphobic, and the evaluations are always late.
There are even the two scandals that look just like the Byrd-Bennett scandal -- where board members and high level staffers moved directly from companies or school management organizations and then used their influence to award large contracts to their previous employers.
Why are these scandals such a common occurrence?
Since Chicago switched to mayoral control of the school district, the operating question has transformed from, “How can schools benefit students?” to “How can schools benefit the mayor’s agenda?” Emanuel uses his office to reward his supporters; the education and welfare of the students becomes an afterthought. Each misdeed represents a violation of the basic human rights of the youth of this city, violations that would never be allowed to stand if the youth were a little richer and a little whiter.
But I do not feel hopeless. Instead I think about what I have learned from restorative justice, and what we can all do to counter the harms done. I realize that I can use these scandals as teaching tools.
I spend every day teaching and learning through my school community as to how we can fight back. We learn to read, write, and think by studying these scandals and the heroic struggles for equity and freedom. We learn about public property.
"Property is valued in our society. If politicians create a financial crisis to sell our shared assets like schools or parking meters, is that theft? Draw a T-Chart and write a persuasive letter.”
We learn about charter schools.
“Is limited School Choice equivalent to having a well-resourced democratically-run community school? Draw a T-Chart, understand all of the argument, and write a piece on it.”
I also collaborate with fellow educators part of #EduColor to work for educational justice and to grow our community. I am involved in our national movement to reform teachers unions to be community-focused, social justice unions, and this movement is working.
The youth of our city are smarter, and more principled, resilient, and courageous than our adultist society ever gives them credit for. They will learn the lessons of the SUPES scandal or the history of Noble charter school Networks’ unfair fining of students, and they will fight for change.
We owe it to the students, and to ourselves, to support them. It’s not just that Barbara Byrd-Bennett was a corrupt person who sold out our students. An outsider should never have been making those decisions over our communities in the first place. It’s not just that students could have done a better job; it’s that our communities have both the ability and the right to design the schools we deserve.
I challenge everyone to reject the simplified narrative that says the scandal ends when Barbara Byrd-Bennett is locked up—and to reject the idea that we find justice merely by fighting back against our oppressors. In every classroom, in every community, we need to acknowledge the rights and power that every one of our students possess. Let’s teach them to fight and take back what is theirs. Let’s support them to build the beautiful, just, and democratic schools and communities that we all deserve.
Xian Franzinger Barrett previously taught Law, History, and Japanese Language and Cultures in the Chicago Public Schools, and received numerous teaching awards, including being selected as a 2009-2010 U.S. Department of Education Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow. He is Progressive Education Fellow for Chicago.