Will Chicago Save Money From School Closings? The Evidence Is Thin

Matthew Blake

On September 13, 2012, at a rally downtown to support the Chicago Teachers Union strike, signs decry the closing of public schools in favor of charter schools, one of the major issues in the strike.

Chica­go May­or Rahm Emanuel and his hand­picked team of Chica­go Pub­lic Schools admin­is­tra­tors are intent on clos­ing per­haps dozens of schools, claim­ing an urgent need to bet­ter uti­lize the district’s lim­it­ed finances. By the end of this month, CPS will sub­mit to the Board of Edu­ca­tion a list of schools to be shut down for the 2013 – 14 school year.

The Chica­go Teach­ers Union (CTU), mean­while, con­tends that the clo­sures are real­ly about replac­ing union­ized neigh­bor­hood schools with non-union char­ter schools.

A clos­er look at CPS’s evi­dence shows lit­tle rea­son to believe clos­ing schools will pro­duce sig­nif­i­cant savings.

Remark­ably, both the CTU and city offi­cials are mak­ing their respec­tive cas­es about the school clo­sures by cit­ing the same study: a 21-page report from Pew Char­i­ta­ble Trusts released in Octo­ber 2011. A CPS com­mu­ni­ca­tions offi­cial acknowl­edges that this report has guid­ed the school shut­down bud­get process, includ­ing an esti­mate that the dis­trict can save between $500,000 and $800,000 per clos­ing. Mean­while, CTU researcher Sarah Hainds says, The Pew Char­i­ta­ble Trust study is pret­ty much what every­one uses.”

Pew did not focus exclu­sive­ly on Chica­go, pro­vid­ing a six-city analy­sis with spe­cial atten­tion paid to Philadel­phi­a’s school clos­ing his­to­ry. Regard­less, the report con­clud­ed that the cost sav­ings was rel­a­tive­ly small.”

Indeed, if CPS is able to max­i­mize the sav­ings and squeeze $800,000 from each build­ing closed, the dis­trict would save $20 mil­lion from clos­ing 25 schools. That amounts to 2 per­cent of CPS’s esti­mat­ed $1 bil­lion bud­get deficit for the next fis­cal year.

The same Pew study addi­tion­al­ly found that get­ting a buy­er for school build­ings is almost impos­si­ble, and that these build­ings can be both expen­sive to main­tain and, if left aban­doned, con­tribute to com­mu­ni­ty blight. The study also states that there is no evi­dence that school clos­ings either sig­nif­i­cant­ly help or hurt the aca­d­e­m­ic per­for­mance of affect­ed stu­dentsthe same con­clu­sion of a report last year from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Con­sor­tium on Chica­go School Research. 

School clos­ings, then, might not be worth the trou­ble. The sav­ings are small, the draw­backssuch as forc­ing stu­dents to cross gang lines to attend schoolare poten­tial­ly scary, and, accord­ing to Pew, the polit­i­cal fall­out is sig­nif­i­cant.” The Pew study’s authors, in fact, sin­gled out Chica­go for clos­ings that have sparked com­mu­ni­ty out­rage since 2004

CPS coun­ters that uti­liza­tion is not only about sav­ing mon­ey, but pool­ing resources in a way that might pro­vide bet­ter stu­dent-to-teacher ratios. But the idea of more effi­cient resource shar­ing, explored in a recent WBEZ/​Chicago Pub­lic Radio sto­ry, is a con­spic­u­ous­ly new ratio­nale for the old pol­i­cy of clos­ing schools. In fact, last year, then-CPS head Jean-Claude Brizard por­trayed the clos­ings in almost the oppo­site way, say­ing they were need­ed to get chil­dren out of under-per­form­ing schools.

Part of past mis­takes is this dis­trict has been focused too much on effi­cien­cy,” Brizard told the Chica­go Tri­bune in Decem­ber 2011, fol­low­ing the announce­ment of sev­en pro­posed school shut downs. Our focus has been about improv­ing the lot for kids around per­for­mance, not nec­es­sar­i­ly about sav­ing dollars.”

Between 2000 and 2010, before Emanuel’s tenure as may­or, CPS closed 44 schools but added a net of 84 schools, giv­ing the dis­trict a total of 681 schools. That 12 per­cent increase has per­haps con­tributed more to the so-called uti­liza­tion cri­sis than stu­dent pop­u­la­tion decline. The CPS stu­dent pop­u­la­tion dropped from 432,000 in 2000 to 403,000 in 2010, a 7 per­cent decline. 

It is a mar­ket­ing gim­mick,” Hainds says of uti­liza­tion. They are think­ing What is the excuse that we can use that has the least pushback?’”

The under-uti­liza­tion cri­sis has been man­u­fac­tured,” says Jitu Brown, an orga­niz­er at the Ken­wood Oak­land Com­mu­ni­ty Orga­ni­za­tion (KOCO). Brown argues that school clos­ings only fur­ther hurt the most­ly minor­i­ty, low-income CPS stu­dent population.

Brown and CTU are also con­cerned with how many schools CPS will actu­al­ly shut down. In the midst of September’s strike, the Chica­go Tri­bune report­ed that 80 – 120 schools were looked at being closed. Last month, CPS Chief Exec­u­tive Offi­cer Bar­bara Byrd-Ben­nett announced that 129 schools were eli­gi­ble” for clo­sure. Hainds believes the dis­trict will shut down between 50 to 60 schools over the next cou­ple of years.

Emanuel and school offi­cials have promised that once the pro­posed clos­ings are announced, they will ramp up com­mu­ni­ty out­reach efforts. It bears watch­ing if CPS can bet­ter explain then how shut­downs will save mon­ey and improve a trou­bled school district.

Matthew Blake is a free­lance jour­nal­ist based in Chica­go. He has writ­ten for the Chica­go Jour­nal, Wash­ing­ton Month­ly, Wash­ing­ton Inde­pen­dent and The Nation, among oth­er publications.
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