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Chicago's proposed school closings called unfair to city's poorest students

In what would be the largest public school closing in US history, Chicago officials are proposing to shutter 61 schools, 9 percent of the 681 schools citywide.

The proposed move is being blasted both by the teachers union and parent groups, who charge that the city is misleading the public regarding the decline in population in certain neighborhoods where it seeks consolidation. They say the decision will ultimately harm the poorest of the city’s children by forcing them to commute farther away from their homes and learn in overcrowded classrooms.

The district has never before closed more than 11 schools in a single year.

“No doubt this is going to be deeply disruptive,” says Steve Tozer, a professor of education and director of the Center for Urban Education Leadership at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel says the decision’s reasoning is financial. The Chicago Public Schools (CPS) system, which is the third largest in the nation and operates under the control of City Hall, faces a $1 billion budget deficit in the new fiscal year and that each closed school will save the district between $500,000 and $800,000.

“Our students cannot wait for us to put off these difficult decisions any longer…. This problem is not unique to Chicago, and like school systems where enrollment has dropped, we must make tough choices,” he said in a statement released Wednesday.

However, advocacy groups, the union, and academics agree that the metric the city is using to establish a need for consolidation is not accurate, and that the decline in enrollment is not as harsh as it insists. Last fall, for example, CPS officials ranked 330 schools as underutilized because of enrollment declines. Between 2000-2013, the city says it lost 145,000 students.

However, the school district’s own data show that enrollment in traditional schools dropped by far less, just 75,680 students, even as charter school enrollment skyrocketed. Including the charters, the data show, total CPS enrollment over the last 14 years fell by 28,289 students, or 7 percent.

An analysis of US Census data suggests that, while the population of children aged 5-19 dropped by 18 percent, the proportion of Chicago school-aged children enrolled in CPS has actually increased between 2000-2010, from 69 percent to 80 percent.

Jeanne Marie Olson, a CPS parent who launched Schoolcuts.org, a website that mines data to compare different schools within the city, says that population drops are not as severe as the city suggests and its argument is a “red herring” for its push for more charter schools, some of which are newly open in the same neighborhoods in which the city is expected to shutter traditional schools. Indeed, CPS officials announced last year plans to open at least 17 more new charter schools by next fall.

“In certain communities, even though enrollment was declining, the district was still opening up charter schools, diluting the student population” from traditional schools, Ms. Olson says.

Another misleading statistic, she says, involves schools that specialize in special education programs. Because teaching autistic children requires having fewer students in a classroom, the schools are targeted for closure because they are deemed not utilized to capacity. The Chicago Sun-Times reported Thursday that several of the schools slated for closure serve special education students.

“The formula [CPS has] to calculate which schools are at capacity or underutilized has a few flaws,” she says.

A representative with CPS declined to comment for this article.

Closing such a high proportion of public schools is not necessarily following a nationwide trend, but some districts across the US have chosen to deal with recessionary pressures by cutting programs, personnel and operating costs, says Professor Tozer.

Chicago is choosing to take the most drastic measure to cut down its deficit because the dynamics of state funding for public education gives them no choice, he says. According to CPS, Chicago receives only 18.6 percent of total state aid despite serving 19.5 percent of its students. The district also serves 90 percent of the state’s low-income students, but receives a disproportionately low amount of aid designated for that population.

“It cannot be overlooked that the city of Chicago is being forced by the inequality of funding in the state of Illinois. If CPS had a per-pupil funding that matched those in the upper quintile of the state, we wouldn’t have the budget deficit that would be forcing these closings in the first place,” Tozer says.

A factor deeply embedded in the debate over the closings is race: The majority of students in CPS are either black or Hispanic, and the Sun-Times reports that most of the schools targeted for closure are located on the far South and West sides of the city, which have been plagued by street violence. City homicides surpassed 500 last year, a four-year high; most were shooting deaths located in areas known for marginalized schools.

In a statement released late Thursday, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis called Emanuel “the murder mayor” and “cowardly” for scheduling the closures on the week of his vacation.

“He is murdering public services. Murdering our ability to maintain public sector jobs and now he has set his sights on our public schools,” she said, adding: “School closings will not save money and taxpayers will not see costs benefits in two years. Why? Because vibrant school communities will be quickly transformed into abandon buildings, neighborhood eyesores and public safety hazards.”

A rally and march organized by the union is scheduled in downtown Chicago next Wednesday.

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