Last week the Chicago Public Schools announced a massive plan for school mergers and closures. Here is Juan Perez, Jr. for the Chicago Tribune: “(F)our South Side schools would close over the summer and the district would send hundreds of displaced students to surrounding schools. One building would be demolished to make way for a new high school, and privately operated charter schools would take over two other sites… Students at two predominantly African American elementary schools near downtown would merge with more diverse campuses. One of those buildings, in the growing South Loop area, would gradually convert into a new high school. In addition, Hirsch, one of the city’s lowest-enrolled high schools, would share space for a privately run charter school program that’s backed by a local megachurch and a foundation headed by hip-hop artist Common… The proposals will be the subject of public hearings in January ahead of a Chicago Board of Education vote.”
Why this announcement now? WBEZ‘s Sarah Karp reports, “Chicago Public Schools has lost 32,000 students over the last five years, nearly the same enrollment drop as in the 10-year period leading up to the closures of 50 elementary schools in 2013. Those missing students could fill 53 average-sized Chicago schools. This massive enrollment decline comes as a self-imposed five-year moratorium on school closings lifts in 2018… The school system must announce by Dec. 1 any proposed closures for its more than 600 schools.”
Karp, who covered the Chicago Public Schools for Catalyst before the magazine’s closure, explains that expansion of charter schools has exacerbated enrollment decline in the traditional public schools: “But the district has contributed to its capacity problems by greenlighting new schools in recent years. Since 2013, a total of 39 new schools serving 16,000 students have opened, and 29 of them serve high school students. This includes several new charter high schools and 15 alternative high schools for dropouts. Those alternative schools are mostly in neighborhoods with the most severely under-enrolled high schools… When CPS closed 50 schools in 2013, high schools were spared amid fears that consolidations could spur violence among students forced to cross gang lines. High schools, then, are among the most underutilized today. Seventeen have fewer than 270 students.”
In a special report for the Chicago Tribune, Juan Perez, Jr. describes what has happened at Tilden High School on Chicago’s South Side: “Over the last decade, the district has expanded the number of high school options families can choose from, with the growth of independently run schools such as charters and of selective enrollment programs… At the same time, enrollment has plummeted. From 2006-2015, overall CPS enrollment declined by more than 21,000 students. Since the start of the 2015-16 school year, the district has lost close to 21,000 additional students. District officials blame much of the enrollment loss on falling birthrates, slower immigration patterns and the well-documented flight of residents from the city’s South and West sides. The numbers have left Tilden and many other schools facing a slow death.”
Parents and activists in Chicago blame the school district for under-investing in the high schools the new plan slates for consolidation or closure. One of the ways the district has accelerated the demise of some schools is through a policy Karp describes as zero-enrollment. After the district stops assigning students to a school, eventually so few students are left that the school is no longer viable. But public officials respond by blaming what our society has come come to call the “failing” school itself. Perez Jr. identifies another issue: the way Chicago allocates funding. In Chicago, the money follows the student, which means that schools with dwindling enrollment can afford fewer teachers and fewer programs that might attract students. It is a downward spiral.
In a report published just a year ago, Bruce Baker, the school finance expert at Rutgers University, challenges school districts like Chicago, where, despite the trend of smaller families and despite ongoing enrollment decline from out-migration, officials promote privatization and competition via rapid expansion of charter schools: “If we consider a specific geographic space, like a major urban center, operating under the reality of finite available resources (local, state, and federal revenues), the goal is to provide the best possible system for all children citywide…. Chartering, school choice, or market competition are not policy objectives in-and-of-themselves. They are merely policy alternatives—courses of policy action—toward achieving these broader goals and must be evaluated in this light. To the extent that charter expansion or any policy alternative increases inequity, introduces inefficiencies and redundancies, compromises financial stability, or introduces other objectionable distortions to the system, those costs must be weighed against expected benefits.”
Here is a similar analysis in a report published in March, 2017, from Roosevelt University in Chicago: “CPS’ approach to saturating neighborhoods with declining school-age population with new charter schools is stripping all middle-class, working-class and lower-income children, families, and communities of education security, where schools are rendered insecure by budgetary cuts, deprivation, or closure. Education insecurity is the product of the school reform agenda focused on cannibalizing the neighborhood public schools in order to convert CPS into a privatized ‘choice’ school system. While new charter schools continue to proliferate in low demand neighborhoods, all CPS neighborhood public schools experience debilitating budget cuts that lead to the elimination of teaching professionals and enriching curriculum. The most vulnerable communities are stripped of their public schools, or their remaining neighborhood public school is rendered unstable by the proximity of new charter schools… The cuts and deprivation across CPS neighborhood public schools underscore the problem of opening too many new schools in a system caught in the vice grip of austerity—there are not enough funds to provide all schools with the resources needed to succeed.”