Education Opinion

Closing 80 Schools in Chicago Would Be Psychological Warfare

By Marilyn Rhames — March 20, 2013 4 min read
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UPDATE 3/21/13 8:43pm: Chicago Public Schools announced this evening that it will close a total of 61 elementary schools. “Fifty-four Chicago public schools are slated to close. Eleven will be co-locations and 6 schools are turnarounds-making for a total of 71 school actions (abcnews.com). I am in disbelief!

UPDATE 3/21/13 2:36pm: Shortly after publishing this post, news reports said that Chicago Public Schools had decided it would close 50 schools. An official announcement has not yet been made. Stay tuned...

This school year could be the last for about 14 percent of traditional pubic schools in Chicago. Below is a list of statistics that are associated with this impending decision:

* More than 100,000 vacant student seats exist in the school system.

* About 20 percent of the 535 district schools are half empty, and another 25 percent are considered “under-utilized.”

* CPS faces a $1 billion budget deficit, plus its $340 million pension payment is almost due.

* Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn proposed a state budget that cuts $278 million from elementary and high schools to pay into the public pension system that’s $97 billion underfunded.

* Up to 80 schools in the city could be forced to close.

* As many as 43,000 students may have to find a new school.

* March 31st is the deadline for announcing the final list.

Meanwhile, charter schools, like mine, will be virtually unaffected.

* There are 110 charter schools in Chicago.

* Every charter school is full, with a collective 10,000 students on the waiting list at any given time.

* Last year, the district announced plans to open 60 charter schools in the city over the next five years.

* Since 2001, the parental demand for charter schools has risen substantially every year.

Considering the statistics above, it makes sense that people are asking, “Is Chicago Public Schools closing traditional schools to make room for more charters?”

CPS chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett insists that the answer is no. She says the district is in a dire financial condition and needs to be right-sized to ensure that educational resources are distributed wisely and more efficiently. Her response makes good sense.

The root of this controversy is trust. Byrd-Bennett is the fifth CEO of Chicago Public Schools in four years. She was a key negotiator in the teachers’ union contract, which was settled only after a seven-day teacher walkout in the fall. The metrics that determine what constitutes an “under-utilized” school building and an “empty” seat has been scrutinized by the Chicago Teachers Union and several other school advocacy groups.

And with the preoccupation on closing schools, daily operations in the central office are reportedly abysmal. My sources report that the command center is more chaotic than it’s ever been—and that’s quite a feat!

To her credit, Byrd-Bennett has fulfilled her promise to hold multiple community meetings before making any final decisions about which schools to close. First she had to petition state legislators to lift their December deadline for announcing the list of schools to close and reschedule it for the end of March. Then she hand-picked a panel of eight commissioners to hold town hall meetings in every community that would potentially be affected. As expected, residents resoundingly said no to closing schools.

But what else would you expect? A school is often the community vault, containing priceless intangibles like people’s personal identities, family histories, and even one’s sense of security.

After the first round of public meetings, Byrd-Bennett agreed to take high schools off the table for safety reasons. Then she took under-utilized but high-performing elementary schools off the list. She took the list from 330 schools down to 129 schools, of which no more than 80 would be allowed to close. That’s proof that she is listening, she said.

Still, 90 percent of the schools that remain in jeopardy of closing are in African-American communities on Chicago’s south and west sides. Distrust abounds.

I’m not the kind of blogger who pontificates as if I have all the answers. I don’t know how Chicago should fix its complex education problems that have been festering for at least 30 years.

But what I do know is that 80 schools are just too many schools to close at one time. The neighborhoods that would be affected are already on fire, burning with the same rage of violence that sent 6-month-old Jonylah Watkins to the cemetery yesterday.

I believe in education reform, but I also think that closing a massive number of schools will play psychological warfare on thousands of children who already pass dozens of abandoned buildings on their way to school. How depressing would it be to see their school boarded up, too? How devastating would it be if their school re-opened as charter but they did not win the lottery to be able to attend?

In addition, the receiving schools will also face incredible change. Will they still be able to perform well after accepting hundreds of new and likely disgruntled students from a rival block?

That is not to say that CPS should not close schools. It probably makes sense to close one or two dozen of them. But as many as 80 schools? All at once? With only five months to implement a transition plan? No way!

I wish I could be optimistic. I hope my fears are proven wasteful. I live on a cash budget, so I appreciate the district’s hard line on getting its financial house in order. But quality planning is the key to success, and it has been impossible for CPS to work a solid plan with CEOs coming and going every year.

I’m told that a transition plan is in the works, but it is not yet complete. I’m rooting for Barbara Byrd-Bennett and the success of CPS; but I admit, she’s got me worried.

The opinions expressed in Charting My Own Course are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.