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School debate threatens Rahm Emanuel's re-election

After Rahm Emanuel’s administration closed 49 schools, education is playing a central role in the campaign to unseat him

CHICAGO – Facing billions in city debt, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration shut down 49 schools in 2013 – the largest mass school closures in U.S. history. The underused and underperforming institutions were deemed “failing schools” by Mayor Emanuel. Most were in black and Latino neighborhoods on the city's South and West Sides.

Jeanette Taylor has lived her entire life on Chicago’s South Side and says she feels Emanuel let her down by closing nearly 50 schools.

"Children are the most innocent people in the world," Taylor said. "That was an attack, to me, on children." 

The 40-year-old has two kids who attend Mollison Elementary, one of the schools that took in students when others in the area shut down. She told America Tonight that one of her children has autism and now gets his speech therapy services in the hallway.

“Schools are the only stable institutions [those communities] have left," she said. "And [the Emanuel administration] is corrupting them. They are in chaos.”

West Pullman Elementary was one of 49 Chicago schools that closed in summer 2013 as part of aggressive cost-cutting measures.
AP/M. Spencer Green

But Emanuel says his reforms are paying off: Graduation rates are up, suspensions are down and more African-American students are taking Advanced Placement classes.

“We used to have four out of 10 kids drop out of high school,” Emanuel said recently. “In two years’ time, we’re going to have eight out of 10 graduate high school. And more kids now are going to high school than ever before in the city of Chicago.”

Still, Taylor says the school reforms disproportionately affected low-income, minority communities in Chicago. She’s pinned her hopes on Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a 58-year-old Mexican immigrant, who has pushed President Obama’s former right-hand man to a runoff election.

The man affectionately known as “Chuy” has spent 30 years in local and state politics, running as an everyman candidate. Garcia didn’t have much money but is being supported by Chicago residents who feel Emanuel’s policies have left them out. He’s also got the backing of the powerful teachers union and a coalition of grassroots groups. 

For years, Garcia has been best known in Chicago circles as a mild-mannered activist and local lawmaker. Now, he has a chance at defeating Mayor Emanuel in a runoff election.
AP/M. Spencer Green, File

“When I saw that volunteers had come back and collected more than 63,000 signatures, I said, ‘Wow, people are serious. People want change in Chicago,’” Garcia told America Tonight.

Even with all the frustration in poor communities, Garcia doesn’t have widespread support. He still hasn’t convinced enough voters in Chicago that he has what it takes to deal with the city’s financial troubles. But he does carry the hopes of many of the city’s disenfranchised, which is enough to give a man with national name recognition, powerful political, Hollywood and Wall Street backing, and a daunting campaign war chest, a run for his money.

“[Emanuel] makes decisions based on the 1 percent,” Taylor said. “Those tough decisions are cutting the very people that you’re supposed to help. They’re your constituents, too.”

In February's election, Emanuel pulled in 45.4 percent of the vote to Garcia's 33.8 percent. In the April 7 runoff, Emanuel is heavily favored. A weekend poll of 951 likely voters showed the current mayor with a 16-point lead, but more than 18 percent were still undecided.

Garcia has one vote in Jitu Brown, the education director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, one of the oldest social justice groups on the South Side.

“I think that parents and people in the community see that this mayor does not represent our interests,” Brown said.  “His policies have hurt people.”

He took America Tonight to Anthony Overton Elementary, one of the schools that closed.

“What they don’t tell you is that for two straight years before they closed this school, you had a six-point improvement in the test scores and a 13-point improvement in their test scores,” Brown said, pointing to the respective improvements in 2011 and 2012.

Due to the school closing, displaced students are now at Mollison.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, left, and challenger Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia await the start of the first of three televised debates ahead of next month's runoff election.
AP/Charles Rex Arbogast

“Children should not be eating lunch in their classroom,” he said. “They should not be getting special education services under the stairs. They should not be in overcrowded classrooms.”

The mayor's office did not respond to a request for an interview. But in statements, Emanuel has defended his record, citing achievements like getting full-day kindergarten for Chicago children for the first time.

“If you look at the broader statistics, our kids are doing better," said Andrea Zopp, a member of the Chicago School Board and one of those behind the decision to shut 49 schools.

She said that between 2000 and 2010, Chicago lost about 200,000 residents, of which around 180,000 were African-American.

“What that means is that in our schools, we have way more seats than we have kids to fill them,” she said. “No business would function that way. We closed the schools because we didn’t need to the seats, and we thought we could give those kids a better chance at a better-resourced school.”

Zopp says she was a surprised that Garcia managed to force Emanuel into a runoff. But she acknowledged that the school closures were emotional for many residents.

“The teachers’ union is very well-organized," Zopp said. "And I think people were trying to send him a message that, ‘We are not convinced that you care about us.'"

Emanuel has been called abrasive and out of touch – an image he’s addressed in his latest campaign ads.

“They say your greatest strength is also you greatest weakness,” Emanuel said in the ad. “I’m living proof of that. I can rub people the wrong way. I talk when I should listen. But I own that.”

But his opponent is pushing a different kind of message.

“I will be a fair mayor,” Garcia said. “What they’re looking for is something basic: They’re looking for a mayor who will come around. They’re looking for a mayor who will sit at a table and at least listen to people.”

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