Mouth agape: What the data tell us about school closure in Chicago

My mouth is agape. Rahmbo, the quasi-Democratic mayor of Chicago is angling to close more than 50 schools— about 11% of the district. Ingrained in the American psyche since birth is the mantra not to trust politicians. Yet, we have handed over the keys to our public schools to mayors in many large cities from Chicago to New York to Washington D.C. The extreme danger of mayoral control of schools is the potential for politics and $$$ to take precedence over students’ well-being and success. Is this occurring in Chicago? Let’s take a look at the data from a report on prior school closures in Chicago analyzed by Chicagoland Researchers and Advocates for Transformative Education (CReATE), a group of Chicago-area university professors specializing in educational research:

School closures historically have had a negative impact on children’s academic performance.  Analyses of school closures in Chicago reveal that 94% of students from closed CPS schools did not go on to “academically strong” new schools.  The evidence also shows that students transitioned to new schools experience lower test scores and are at an increased risk of dropping out.  School closings also negatively affect the achievement levels for students in the receiving schools due to increased class sizes and overcrowding in receiving schools.

School closures have not historically resulted in the savings predicted by school officials. In national studies of school closings, closure-related costs have consistently been underestimated or understated by officials, as districts found themselves paying for closed school site maintenance or demolition, moving services, new costs of transporting students and support for both displaced students and the schools that received them.  A Pew study shows that CPS is having difficulty disposing of the schools they have already closed.  Furthermore, public school districts may also lose federal and state grants if parents remove students from the destabilized public school system and send them to charter schools.

Chicago Public Schools measurement of ideal utilization of 30 children per classroom reflects poor education policy.  The evidence shows a huge gap between the number of empty seats CPS claims it has versus what CPS has reported in their yearly data, thus casting doubt on the magnitude of the so-called underutilization problem.  More importantly, studies on class sizes advise against the Chicago Board of Education’s standard of ideal utilization at 30 children per classroom.  The most credible study on the impact of class size, Tennessee’s Student Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR) program found that students from smaller classes outperformed students from larger classes, with the biggest gains seen among African American students, lower-income students, and students from urban areas.

School closures exacerbate racial inequalities in Chicago.  Approximately 90% of the school closings will impact predominately African-American communities.  The pattern of schools being considered for closure overlays the patterns of disinvestment in African-American communities such as closed public housing units, foreclosures, city-owned vacant properties and troubled mortgages.  Closing schools will deepen the distress and insecurity that these communities are already confronting.

School closings will contribute to even more violence Chicago communities are enduring.  Studies of previous school closures in Chicago found spikes of violence in and around the elementary and high schools where students from closed schools were sent.

School closures have historically benefited charter school expansion.  Previous rounds of CPS school closures have facilitated charter school expansion whereby 40% of closed CPS school buildings have been leased to privately operated charter schools.  Enrollment data show that the presence of charter schools contributes to declining CPS enrollment in neighborhood schools, which goes on to create the conditions for neighborhood school closures.  Charter school funding from the state is expanding while funds for public neighborhood schools are significantly reduced.  Finally, CPS signed an agreement with the Gates Foundation to introduce 60 more charter schools in Chicago at precisely the same time CPS threatens to close 80 neighborhood schools due to underutilization.

So the research and data is telling us that there are few $ savings, decreased student achievement, increased racial inequality, increased class size, increased violence…so school closure is a terrible, mouth agape kind of idea. Well…unless you are a quasi-Democratic mayor or a corporate charter management chain…

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p.s. Yes, the photo is of Rahmbo in a leotard and fro— or at least of someone with a striking resemblance. :)

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