School & District Management

Chicago Mishandled School Closures, Says State Panel

By Denisa R. Superville — July 08, 2014 5 min read
West Pullman Elementary School in Chicago closed last summer as part of aggressive cost cutting in the city.

An Illinois state task force has released a stinging report on the wave of school closures last year in Chicago, assailing the district for what it sees as a lack of long-range planning, adequate community engagement, a formal system to track and evaluate the student-level impact of the closures, and evidence that the closings benefited students.

The report, issued last month by the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force, is laden with criticisms of the 400,500-student district’s planning, execution, and other actions related to its closings in 2013 of 49 schools, which directly affected 11,728 students. African-American, poor, homeless, and other students deemed at risk were disproportionately affected by the closures, the report says. More than half the students who moved attended new schools that were on academic probation, it says.

But the district is aggressively pushing back against the report, which Chicago school officials said is riddled with inaccuracies. It is rebutting some of the major findings point by point and accusing task force members of excluding key facts and data that the district provided in response to its questions.

The state task force’s report—which looked both at the mass closures in 2013 and consolidations and closures in 2012—is the third in recent months offering harsh indictments of the closures and their effects on Chicago students, parents, and communities. One point that the district contests in the new report is the view that the school system does not individually track students affected by the closures, a charge that John Barker, the school system’s chief accountability officer, labeled “factually incorrect.”

Tracking Students

The district twice presented information about students to the task force, Mr. Barker said, and a midyear report from the district in March was possible precisely because the school system was tracking students. The district’s year-end report on the closures is planned for release this summer, he said, and a study in conjunction with the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research incorporating parents’ perspectives on the closings is underway.

“It’s still too early to know the complete picture of the impact,” Mr. Barker said, but students who moved from closed schools to other schools had “higher attendance rates, fewer misconducts, and higher grade point averages for the first semester.”

Facing a $1 billion deficit, the school system closed dozens of schools in 2013, embarking on the biggest downsizing in its history. It cited underutilization as a major reason for the closures.

But the facilities task force blames the district for contributing to its own problems. The report says that while the school system has lamented enrollment losses, it has opened 33 charter schools with 23,368 slots since 2011.

So far, the 2013 closures have cost taxpayers more than $263 million, including for expenses related to closing and emptying the buildings, and new programs, upgrades, and repairs in the receiving schools, according to the report. The task force was unable to calculate the final cost and savings from the closures.

In May, the Chicago Teachers Union released a report concluding that the district had not kept the promises it made when it embarked on the closures. It found that many of the receiving schools did not have enough resources; classes were overcrowded in others; and staff vacancies were higher in receiving schools than the district’s average. The union report also criticized the district for a lack of transparency about the costs and savings associated with the closures, and said the money should have been reinvested in existing schools.

“This is typical of the CPS,” said Carol Caref, the union’s research director. “They have a ‘portfolio’ approach to schools, as if schools were [a] business. And part of that approach involves closing those schools and, of course, opening more charter schools and building selective-enrollment schools.” The district disputes the union’s findings.

Other Views

The Collaborative for Equity and Justice in Education, a research-and-advocacy group at the University of Illinois at Chicago, released findings on the impact of the closures from parents’ perspective. That report, issued last month and based on in-depth interviews with 23 parents, revealed that parents thought their children were negatively affected by the closures, and that their children’s new schools were no better than those that had been closed. The process left the parents traumatized and deeply distrustful of the school system, according to Pauline Lipman, the study’s lead researcher. Those perspectives differ sharply from the viewpoint of the Chicago district. In its midyear update—which the outside groups dismissed as largely superficial—district officials praised their handling of the closures and the transition and listed $41 million in savings. The report touts the success of Safe Passage (a district program developed in the wake of the closures to help students safely get to and from school) and the millions of dollars it used to prepare the receiving schools for new students. (The Safe Passage program and transition funds also got plaudits in the facilities report.)

But the schools’ data show that while students’ grade point averages increased districtwide, those of students in schools not affected by closures rose higher than the GPAs of students who moved to new schools and their peers in the receiving schools. The teachers’ union questioned the numbers used in the district’s midyear report, which it said showed only minor improvements in selective categories.

Both the facilities task force and the University of Illinois reports call for a moratorium on school closings and turnarounds. Mr. Barker said Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the district’s chief executive officer, had already committed to a moratorium on school closures; however, turnarounds were in response to federal education policies.

The facilities task force also calls on the Illinois legislature to dissolve the state charter agency; mandate the preservation of existing public schools when possible; and require the Chicago district to provide detailed plans on the possible future uses of school buildings and the costs involved before approving closures. The panel also wants the district to provide five years of academic and financial support to students affected by the closures.

A version of this article appeared in the July 10, 2014 edition of Education Week as Chicago Is Criticized for Its Handling of School Closings

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