The School Closure Playbook – How Billionaires Exploit Poor Children in Chicago

Rebecca Rojer, who directed this film essay about a public school version of the Shock Doctrine playbook called “corporate school reform” asked us to present her video after it first appeared on Jacobin. It is accessible yet presents a hard-hitting overview of who is behind this taxpayer looting program and the mechanics of how it operates. From Rojer’s overview:

The piece uses Chicago to explore the broader neoliberal campaign against public schools, focusing on how education “reformers” manufactured a budget crisis through a combination of creative accounting, secretive tax schemes (specifically TIF), and media cooperation. It also looks at some of the organizing that developed to regain local control of schools (and possibly just forced Rahm into a run-off election!).

What is stunning is the degree of out and out grifting that has taken place in Chicago, with millions diverted from public schools to create a false image of a budgetary crisis. And some of the money wound up in dubious-looking pockets, like a Hyatt Hotels franchise.

I hope you’ll watch this video. Be sure to circulate it to anyone you know who lives or votes in Chicago.

The School Closure Playbook from Jacobin on Vimeo.

If you have trouble viewing the embedded version above, you can also view it here.

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    1. nobody

      “Obama was a community organizer from about 1985 to 1988, when he left Chicago for Harvard Law School. During that time a critical issue in Chicago politics was the ongoing crisis in the public schools. A movement was underway from two angles: below in black, latino and other communities for more local control of schools and from above by business interests who wanted to cut costs.

      “(For a fascinating account and analysis see Dorothy Shipps, The Invisible Hand: Big Business and Chicago School Reform, Teachers College Record, Vol. 99, #1, Fall 1997, pp. 73-116 or her later excellent book on the subject: School Reform, Corporate Style: Chicago, 1880-2000 (Kansas 2006.))”


      “A report authored by Dorothy Shipps on the first three years of the Annenberg Challenge program, when Obama was its Board chair, concluded: “The Challenge sought to build on the momentum of the 1988 Chicago School Reform Act which had radically decentralized governance of the Chicago Public Schools.”

      “While many school principals had been fired by the LSC’s, kids were still doing poorly in schools and there was chaos of a sorts in the system. (See Shipps, Invisible Hand, for a summary of the problems.) Interestingly, Shipps concludes that the local control movement in Chicago, though backed by radicals like Ayers, gave “business the clearest voice in systemwide reform.”


      “[T]he Annenberg Challenge money came through…due to the efforts of Bill Ayers, among others. It had to be matched 2 to 1 by corporate and foundation money (in fact, they raised an additional $60 mn from the private sector alone by 1999), so the Board Chairmanship would have allowed Obama to be in touch with the powerful money interests in Chicago, including possibly the Pritzker Family and others that Kaufman mentions in his story. Penny Pritzker would join the board of the Chicago Public Education Fund which received its startup funding from the Annenberg Challenge as the Challenge wound down in 2001 – the Challenge, in effect, handed the baton of support for school reform to the CPEF.”

      1. Carolinian

        Have just finished reading your very informative link. Worth noting that some back in 2008 even claimed Ayers ghost wrote one of Obama’s books.

        However the linked article is from almost 7 years ago. With more water under the bridge we now know who “sent” Obama–Wall Street. I suspect education will survive the neolib assault. The fate of the economy is looking a lot more dubious.

  1. cassiodorus

    Add Eli Broad to the list of billionaires deciding public policy. “Charity,” yeah, what a great cover.

    There are enormous amounts of money to be made in the privatization of public schooling, dwarfing what WalMart pulls in per year. Basically they take the money from teacher salaries — the charters don’t pay what the public schools pay, they don’t perform as well, and so the whole notion of “profit” here is about giving that teacher money to “entrepreneurs.” And then on top of that you have the enormous amounts pulled in by Pearson, the world’s largest educational sales company.

    Pearson is also a curious corporate creature because its “chief education adviser” is this creepy fellow “Sir Michael Barber,” whose mission is to get the world’s governments to endorse the same sort of idiocy you see in public education here: standards, testing, Common Core curriculum.

    Against all of this, what you will eventually see are nationwide boycotts of the testing regime.

  2. wbgonne

    Fine video. Good work. The neoliberal infestation must be resisted at every turn. Dumping Rahm would be a nice accomplishment.

  3. Simon

    To me, this process seems to be driven by a deep misunderstanding of the sort of value that a school produces, and thus again a total misunderstanding of what “efficiency” and “deficit” mean in the context of an educational system. Schools and other educational systems, especially but not solely public ones, do not and cannot provide value in terms of immediate profit: what a school is seeking to do is prepare people to participate in and contribute to a society. The value of that participation will only become apparent over the entire lifetime of the person educated, and I very much doubt will prove amenable to capture as a monetary value. So efficiency will be measured how? In the number of children educated (note: schools do teach, but hopefully do rather more than just impart a set of skills), in the outcomes achieved of course. But again, and this is a cautionary tale for systems that include so-called league tables as a measure, this is not an absolute but depends on starting points. As to whether a school or school system shows a surplus or a deficit: this is really not something that can be easily measured. What, in reality, is a deficit in a public or non-profit school? The apparently missing value is in all likelihood more than accounted for by the value generated by the students over the remainder of their lives. Under this consideration, could you not say that the real problem is when the system shows a surplus?

    1. nobody

      “…what a school is seeking to do is prepare people to participate in and contribute to a society…”

      No, what schools generally are seeking to do is to produce “obedient workers… Obedient workers, people who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork. And just dumb enough to passively accept all these increasingly shitty jobs with the lower pay, the longer hours, the reduced benefits, the end of overtime and vanishing pension that disappears the minute you go to collect it…” (Carlin, 2005)

      Except for the schools hooked up to the school-to-prison pipeline. What they are seeking to do is swell the ranks of the expendable classes and ensure a steady stream of rents for the Big Club owners of the for-profit prison corporations.

      And then there are the schools like Groton, St. Albans, or the Phillips Academy. I suppose you could say that they are seeking to prepare people to participate in and contribute to a society, but on a somewhat different understanding of what “contribute to” and “a society” means than you probably had in mind.

      1. JTFaraday

        “No, what schools generally are seeking to do is to produce “obedient workers.””

        But don’t you think that Americans line up for that? Scott Walker is not exactly cutting against the grain of much of– if not most of– the American public here:

        “Walker lives the life of a true education hater. Asked about not finishing his undergraduate experience (which I’m not necessarily attacking), Walker said, “The reason I went to college, in large part, was not just to get an education for an education’s sake, but to get a job.” For too many politicians, it all comes down to money.”

    2. cassiodorus

      I addressed the issue of schools as producers of “value” in this diary over at

      The point in discussing schools as producing “value” is that “value” is to be quantified, so legislators such as Scott Walker and corporate advisers such as Peter Orszag can use government to make teachers, professors, etc. more “efficient” in producing “value.” In short, they want to cut education budgets.

      Merely changing the meaning of the term “value” doesn’t really interrupt the train of thought about education as such. Educational “efficiency” is a dystopian concept in which students are mere economic units, somewhat like the workers in Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” This last line of thinking needs to be fleshed out, then, to make its consequences fully visible to a mass public motivated to keep the likes of Walker and Orszag from making policy.

  4. Simon

    As an addendum to the above, note that Chicago and the US is not the only place this is happening. There is, unfortunately, a move to privatised, profit seeking education almost everywhere. There is of course nothing wrong with an educator making a profit, as long as the essence of education: that the value it creates cannot be expressed in monetary terms and that therefore profit is a byproduct not the main aim of a school or university is neither forgotten nor ignored.

  5. Jim Haygood

    ‘who is behind this taxpayer looting program’

    In our area, the taxpayer looting program consists of $10-$15K annual property tax bills on ordinary middle class houses … two-thirds of which goes to schools.

    Why would one expect anything but high prices and low quality from an entrenched monopoly whose business model is the same as the military-industrial complex: cost plus.

    1. bob

      Another bit in NY that is probably affecting you and your schools- Demand for munis is driving “school building”.

      Building or adding onto schools that is not needed, or at best cosmetic, in order to get muni’s to sell on down the line. Especially true where you are, lots of Wall st money needs a place to hide, tax free of course. Put it in the bank? They run the banks, they know– much safer to be able to count on the tax revenue, as opposed to any TBTF bank.

    2. diptherio

      Direct financing of public schools by the Treasury would be a superior option to relying on local property taxes, imho, since relying on property tax has well-known discriminatory effects–poor neighborhoods end up with underfunded schools. And by “direct” financing, I mean to imply spending that is not offset by taxes or borrowing. Education expenses seem as good a way as any to drip-feed new currency into the system (a necessity so long as people have a desire to save).

        1. diptherio

          Money doesn’t fix everything, but it’s sure hard to fix anything if you don’t have any. We have the ability to directly fund education, so why do we rely on property taxes, is all I’m saying.

  6. bob

    This should be getting a lot more press than it is now. Some examples-

    Cuomo agrees. The money behind it, no names available-

    A good longer piece on how it was done in California-

  7. PNW_WarriorWoman

    I’ve been following the neoliberal privatization of public schools intensely for over a year. It’s a slow motion nightmare unfolding and, many D and R parents are united on the disaster that is Common Core and the rest of the high stakes testing/punishing teachers deforms. I’ve already opted out my two teenagers of CCSS testing for this Spring. I realize NC readers likely already know this. The informative blogs readers might want to follow are:

  8. Rosario

    Day by day we are dismantling what little commons we have left. Including the commons of human thought/education. I apologize for those who dislike Zizek, but I recommend:

    Education is far too important to be left to business (the same should be said of health care). It belongs to the commons. In addition, school privatization is being reinforced by pseudo-science (more like data driven dogma), and nothing is more dangerous than incomplete, quasi-scientific studies being used as a rationalization for policy. Junk science is Neoliberalism’s boom stick.

    1. diptherio

      Since you mention it:
      Education as Commons: Bachilleratos Populares in Argentina ~teleSUR

      As for popular education, this is where the bachilleratos are most innovative, creating new ways of not only teaching and learning, but relating to the community. Ninety-nine percent of the students in each bachillerato come from that community, thus there is a real dedication by the neighbors and people in the area for the success of the students and project. Many neighbors support the process in various ways from attending public events the students organize to bringing food and helping to build and later clean the spaces for education.

      Classes are organized with face-to-face meetings, influenced by or using direct democracy, striving for full participation and the breaking down of hierarchy. The size of the groups range from ten to thirty people, with each group choosing what they will study, how, where, and then what they will do at the end of the study process.

      To say the students choose what course of study they will undertake is to say a great deal. When do students anywhere get to enter a classroom setting and decide the themes around which they will learn? In the bachilleratos they do.

  9. dbj

    A superb mini-documentary, moving and powerful.
    As I’ve noted on this blog (and others), the combination of the current Mayor of Chicago and the new hedge fund billionaire governor of the state is a lethal one. Illinois will be turned into the Mississippi of the U.S. in record time. For all those contemplating the consequences of austerianism/ordoliberalism, it’s a truly terrifying – and tragic – prospect.

  10. Chauncey Gardiner

    Presently volunteering in the early K-12 grades at a local public school, mostly assisting the kids one-on-one with their basic math and reading skills, and some online research projects. About half the students are from minority households.

    Today I initiated a conversation with one of the teachers about testing and teaching to Common Core. She is an excellent teacher, but would only say that the testing is continuous.

    These billionaires and their politicians who are so opposed to public education that they have organized to de-fund it, should try it sometime. Much as they might dislike the idea, their future and that of their descendants depends on well-educated citizens populated by those capable of critical thinking, who are creative and capable of change. The myth of the individual is just that.

  11. Ping

    Here in Arizona, the debate about Common Core and defunded education rages.
    Not being a parent, I have not immersed myself in the issue but know that ‘privitization’ or ‘public-private parntership’ are code for profit extraction to the public detriment.

    I do know that property taxes and their allocation to school districts have gone up dramatically after property values collapsed after 2007-08.

    There are many closed and dormant school buildings and sad to know vital programs like Physical Education, music etc is no longer available. And cafeterias, while never good (mostly outlets for subsidized wheat sugar corn agribusiness) when I was attending decades ago, are now replaced with fast food concessions grooming a generation of diabetics or other degenerative ailments with no concept of healthy diet. Teacher pay pathetic and having to buy their own supplies.

  12. McWatt

    In order to begin to end school and city government corruption you must end TIF’s.

    “They can do anything we can’t stop them from doing.” Catch-22 Heller

  13. EB-5

    In Florida, 16 charter schools being built or expanded by handing out EB-5 visas.
    This one listing — for a $500,000 investment you get 10 EB-5 visas (total 230 issued) for supposedly creating 435 jobs .

    Sounds like a safe investment.

    “In the form of a subsidy per student, Florida Charter Foundation (Franklin Academy) will receive a source of steady income from the local government and the state of Florida to cover for the school operating costs. As they do for all schools across the state, the government will remain responsible of overseeing the school’s financial and academic performance. “

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