More Education News from Chicago: WBEZ Publishes the Troubling History of Chicago’s Public School Closures

It is quite a week for education news from Chicago.  Yesterday this blog covered the first teachers’ strike at a charter school network, UNO-Acero Charter Schools in Chicago.

Today’s post considers nearly two decades of closures of traditional neighborhood schools in Chicago.  Chicago’s closure of so-called “failing” schools began in 2002. Two years later, Chicago’s technocratic model of test-based, punitive, turnaround-based school reform was formalized into Renaissance 2010, the program led by Arne Duncan. The “turnaround” idea—later brought by Duncan into federal programs— was to punish schools posting low test scores by firing teachers and principals, closing schools, and replacing them with privately operated charter schools.  It was an early example of an ideology the inventor of this kind of school policy calls “portfolio school reform“—the idea that a district manage its schools, public and charter alike, as though they are a stock portfolio. Keep and invest in the schools that raise scores, and shed the failures.

The “portfolio” model features disruption as a virtue and condemns stability as the product of bureaucracy and tradition.  It is a business-school idea whose proponents have forgotten to consider that real children, parents and communities are involved, and that there might be human damage from this kind of disruption. The theory involves test scores, moving kids around, and formulas to determine which buildings are being optimally utilized. The ideology dreams up a spiral of continuous growth in the number of high-scoring schools.

On Monday, Chicago’s WBEZ published a history of the Chicago school closures which have been the centerpiece of this plan: “In the time it has taken for a child to grow up in Chicago, city leaders have either closed or radically shaken up some 200 public schools—nearly a third of the entire district…. These decisions, defended as the best and only way to improve chronically low-performing schools or deal with serious under-enrollment, have meant 70,160 children—the vast majority of them black—have seen their schools closed or all staff in them fired… 61,420 black children affected. The number of children who have lived through a Chicago school closing since 2002 is jaw dropping, and the impact on the black community in particular has been profound. A total of 70,160 Chicago students have experienced either a school closing or a total re-staffing of their school firsthand; of those, 88 percent are black. That’s a wildly disproportionate number… Some 7,368 Latino children have lived through a school shakeup.  Meanwhile, white students have been nearly untouched.  In almost 17 years, just 533 white students have experienced a closing.”

WBEZ reporters attempt to remain agnostic about whether this sort of school reform has been a good or bad thing in Chicago. They report that school achievement as measured by tests has improved, but they also add details that make it hard to know what caused higher scores. One place scores have risen is in the growing number of highly selective schools in Chicago. The reporters add, however, that the rest is only speculative: “And to the core question of whether school shakeups made a difference for the students they were meant to help at chronically low-performing schools, there is no easy answer.  The city still considers 10 percent of district-run schools so low performing they need ‘intensive support,’ though it considers nearly 80 percent to be in ‘good standing.’  That’s a much rosier picture than in 2002, but both the tests used to evaluate students and the accountability systems used to evaluate schools have  changed dramatically, making comparisons fraught.  And even if it were possible to compare to 2002, it’s impossible to say what’s behind any improvement.”  “After nearly two decades, the school system is still confronting the same two problems that prompted it to begin shuttering schools in the first place. It still struggles with chronically low-performing schools.  And despite the pain and protests that accompanied so many school closings, the system has a more dramatic under-enrollment problem today than it did when it started shutting down schools in 2002.”

WBEZ‘s reporters also interview students, parents and teachers who have been forced to change schools, many of them dislocated more than once—separated from friends, beloved teachers, family traditions and neighborhoods. The reporters reference the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research’s report on the mourning process that has affected students and families not only in the schools that were shut down but in the schools that received masses of new students, where significant readjustment followed.

And WBEZ reporters also talk with Eve Ewing, the University of Chicago sociologist whose profound new book portrays widespread grieving across Black Chicago for the loss of community institutions woven into the lives of generations of families and their neighborhoods: “‘It’s heartbreaking,’ said Eve Ewing, a University of Chicago sociology professor whose recent book examined the 2013 school closings in Bronzeville and their impact on the African-American community.  Ewing said the ‘astronomical’ numbers show school closings have ‘actually become part of the fabric of blackness in Chicago for many people.’  She said school closings play into social instability, ‘and the fact that so many black Chicagoans feel like this city is not a stable or a safe place to stay—and are leaving.'”  The reporters add that Chicago Public Schools have lost 42,000 students since 2013. The assumption is that school closures have been part of the motivation for families to move to Chicago’s suburbs or to Northwest Indiana.

Ironically on Monday, the same day WBEZ published its history of Chicago’s school closures, a Cook County judge blocked the Chicago Public Schools’ plan (see here, here, and here) to close another predominantly African American school, the National Teachers Academy, this one located in the South Loop. Chicago Public Schools had planned to convert the building into a high school to serve the area just south of downtown, an area lacking a high school. The District immediately announced it would accept the judge’s ruling.  It will keep the National Teachers Academy open as an elementary school to prevent further disruption among students, their families, and the community.

Parents have been protesting the planned closure of the highly rated, majority black, traditional public National Teachers Academy for several years. The school district had announced it would move National Teachers’ Academy students to join South Loop Elementary, where the students are mostly white. Chicago Public Schools has always promised, however, that students from closed schools would not be moved to a lower-scoring school.  In October, test scores at National Teachers Academy topped scores at South Loop. The judge’s decision, however, was decided on what the judge accepted as a civil rights violation.  The Sun-Times Lauren Fitzpatrick explains: “NTA families had organized nearly two years ago to loudly fight CPS’ plans to take over their building…. Their lawsuit alleged that CPS violated the rights of NTA students, who are mostly African-American, under the Illinois Civil Rights Act….”

In Chicago, as the school district has closed public schools, it has also allowed the number of charter schools rapidly to expand.  In another action on Monday of this week, the school district recommended closure of two charter schools deemed under-performing.  For the Sun-Times, Lauren Fitzpatrick adds: “Officials also denied applications for three new privately managed, publicly funded schools seeking to open, though all five operators can appeal to a state board that has overturned CPS’s decisions in the past… And the same school board was set Wednesday to consider applications for three new charter schools, amid plummeting enrollment and finances that have improved but are no means plentiful.”

What is clear is that Chicago’s experiment with “portfolio school reform” continues.  The new WBEZ history concludes: “In the 2019 mayoral race, candidates are already weighing in on school closings—and it’s obvious the city’s next mayor faces an under-enrollment crisis. Chicago has more under-enrolled schools today than it did in 2013, before it closed 50 underutilized schools. It’s been losing 10,000 children annually for the last several years.”

How would Chicago be different today if policy makers had thought about the people who would be effected by school closures and examined what have turned out to be the inevitable fiscal implications of continually opening charter schools to expand the portfolio of choices? I believe hindsight is clearer than the WBEZ reporters want to admit. Researchers at Roosevelt University have documented, for example, that the competition created by the rapid expansion of charter schools resulted in the closure of traditional public schools and also contributed to a financial crisis in the Chicago Public Schools.

In her new book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard, Eve Ewing suggests additional considerations: “What do school closures, and their disproportionate clustering in communities like Bronzeville, tell us about a fundamental devaluation of African American children, their families, and black life in general?… What is the history that has brought us to this moment  How can we learn more about that history from those who have lived it?  What does this institution represent for the community closest to it?  Who gets to make the decisions here, and how do power, race, and identity inform the answer to that question?” (pp. 158-159)

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