On the School Closings in Chicago

People protest the decision to close 50 public schools, mostly in Chicago’s South Side. Photo by Chicago Public Media.

The Chicago Board of Education’s vote to close down 50 schools is the largest single mass school closing in recorded US history. To be sure, such an event could not happen without significant backlash and attention.

Upon passage, it was derided in publications like the Huffington Post as being an ineffective measure to cut costs. The proposal was insinuated as racist by the head of the Chicago Teacher’s Union, Karen Lewis. And a swath of protestors, many of them parents, sought to block the move on the grounds that it could hurt their communities.

Nonetheless, the Board did the right thing in choosing to go ahead and close the schools, as all of these fears are categorically unfounded.

First and perhaps most importantly, closing these schools is crucial for the bottom line. CPS faces a deficit of between $700 million and $1 billion next year.

A billion dollar deficit, for one year of operation.

Even if some of these schools idle for a while, and CPS does not get full market value for them, they will still have resale value, and CPS can avoid the costs associated with upkeep. Selling off unnecessary capital assets could never harm the bottom line—one that has been stretched by exorbitant teacher salaries, benefits, and pensions, among other things. As the student population in Chicago has declined by over 100,000 students over the past decade, it stands to reason that there is significant excess capacity in the system. A billion dollar deficit + unnecessary space = an easy decision.

Not all agree with the basic math and logic, though. Instead, Lewis, in typical fashion, resorted to careless demagoguery to rally her base. She has characterized the school closings as being targeted, in a racist manner, towards blacks, out of the “design” of some pernicious planners, presumably the Board of Education itself.

These types of allegations are baffling, unprofessional, and reckless. In a school district where 87% of students are minorities, the idea that race—and not the district’s financial position, or the poor performance of its constituent schools—is the driving factor behind this decision is absurd, a distraction at best.

Indeed, Lewis’ contention that the school closings are somehow racially motivated is little more than a clever red herring from the real issue: that the school system has institutionalized the disadvantages which already face Chicago’s low-income communities. I help mentor at an underperforming high school about a half hour south of Northwestern. The school has struggled to get its graduation rates above 50%, and it is considered academically failing in nearly every regard. When I go there every week, I meet vibrant students with big dreams. There’s just one problem: few of them are academically prepared for the rigors of college. CPS has mindlessly passed them along without bothering to teach them. Their futures are on the line by the time these kids realize what is at stake.

To state that there is a moral dimension to this issue would be putting it lightly. Not acting aggressively is to condemn these kids and their younger compatriots to a life spent settling, their dreams put out of reach by poor educational preparation.

Lastly, some contend that communities will be harmed by these closings. This is a legitimate concern, to be sure, as transportation changes will send students into new neighborhoods. Others worry that this change will mean larger class sizes and less spending per pupil.

And yet, it would be hard to overstate the damage that Chicago Public Schools are already doing to their communities. Dropout rates north of forty percent are the norm in many sections of the city, and this helps reinforce the poverty and crime that affects so much of Chicago. Concerns about transportation and class sizes are not unwarranted (though empirically the evidence on class sizes affecting student outcomes is very mixed), but these are more arguments for a school choice program than they are against school closings. Offering parents greater choice in where their child can go to school would effectively sidestep concerns that all, at some point, stem from the parent not being able to control where their child can go to school. Violent schools, large classes, and bad teachers could all be avoided. Choice would bring hope.

This reform will certainly help CPS’ underlying finances, and there is reason to believe that it will help generate better student outcomes, as well. The Board acted correctly in going ahead with their plans to reform CPS by closing 50 schools. After all, fear of the future is no reason to accept the stupendous injustice of the present.

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