In an excellent report for Crain’s Chicago Business, Margaret Littman marks the end of a decade since, in June of 2013, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his appointed school board shut down 49 neighborhood public elementary schools.
Littman examines “a different educational landscape” today: “In the years since the mass school closings—the most at one time in the U.S.—the landscape for Chicago Public Schools, the nation’s fourth-largest school system, has changed. Chicago has a former middle school teacher and union organizer as a mayor-elect. Beginning in January 2025, the new school board will include 10 elected members, ending mayoral control.”
Chicago school reform with strong mayoral control under a fully appointed school board was accomplished in a 1995 state legislative plan carried out in the decades since by a line of mayors and their appointed CEOs, beginning with Paul Vallas and Arne Duncan. The city’s public schools have been ruled with a neoliberal bias for the expansion of charter schools, competition among schools, and student based budgeting. What has been missing is the kind of democratic oversight of public schools—by an elected board of education—that most Americans take for granted. Littman explains: “Families of color and those in low-income communities disproportionately bore the brunt of the Emanuel-era closures, and many say they continue to receive short shrift. Even as CPS enrollment has decreased, the demographic breakdown of students has remained constant. About 47% of students are Latino, 36% are Black, and 11% are white.”
Did the 2013 school closures save money? Littman reports: “One of the sales pitches the Emanuel administration used at the time was that the school closings would save money, a constant need in any discussion about CPS. The school district’s balance sheet today shows that was built on naive assumptions… Some of the deficit is related to the teachers’ pension system, an issue not solved by school closures. As written in the 2018 CPS budget summary, ‘For many years, pensions have been the dominant driver of CPS’s structural deficit. Unlike other school districts in (Illinois), CPS is required to fund its own teacher pension system with virtually no state support.'” Although Rahm Emanuel and his school board believed school closures would save money, Littman quotes several researchers demonstrating big costs for closing schools and maintaining empty buildings that still sit unsold along the city’s streets. Transportation costs have increased as students continue to be bused to schools far from their homes. The school district was unable to shed all sorts of fixed costs.
There have been, however, other costs that have nothing to do with money. Littman quotes Roosevelt University sociologist Stephanie Farmer: “The school closings became a touchstone for that generation of kids… They see it as evidence that the city does not care about them… If your mom, your cousins, your aunt, all went to a school there and it was closed, there was a pain there, regardless of what happened with your welcoming school.”
Littman adds: “Some of the Safe Passage programs and support that were supposed to help kids transition weren’t available as long as they (were) needed, in part because it cost money. In general, they typically only lasted one year. Resources that were supposed to move from a shuttered school to a welcoming school—even basics, like books—never arrived.” And sometimes “kids who had previously been at rival schools were now in the same classroom. Littman interviews Wallace Wilbourne Jr., the Middle Years Programme International Baccalaureate Individuals and Societies teacher at Oscar DePriest Elmentary School in the Austin neighborhood: “There are still long-term impacts… When you destabilize communities, people in the communities are dealing with trauma. That manifests in different ways outside the academic sphere, such as violence in the community.”
Litman explains that Chicago school closures were accelerated by intentional competition from charter schools: “According to a 2017 paper co-authored by Roosevelt University’s (Stephanie) Farmer, 71% of new charter schools—publicly funded, privately run schools—that opened between 2000 and 2012 did so within 1.5 miles of the 49 schools that closed due to low enrollments in 2013. The authors recommended imposing a moratorium on charter school expansion.”
One factor that is missing in Littman’s excellent piece is the added challenge of student-based budgeting. School decline accelerated in 2014, when Chicago adopted student based budgeting, which pushed many neighborhood schools into a downward enrollment cycle and further reduced services available in the schools in Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. For WBEZ, Sarah Karp and Nader Issa describe how ending student-based budgeting became a winning issue for victorious Brandon Johnson, Chicago’s new mayor and a former CPS teacher and teachers union organizer, as Johnson challenged Paul Vallas, the former Chicago Public Schools CEO and the father of the kind of school reform that eventually led to the 2013 school closures:
“Johnson… says he would… focus on beefing up traditional neighborhood schools in an effort to end the ‘Hunger Games scenario’ where kids ‘apply to access a quality school.’ That includes fully staffed special education departments, librarians, art and music teachers and nurses and social workers, he said.” “Johnson would rather the school district’s central office end per-pupil funding and guarantee a baseline of resources for every school… This would reduce the role enrollment plays in whether a school can afford staff and, he says, help ensure every neighborhood can offer a quality education. He would focus on addressing poverty and trauma.”
Littman does not oversimplify the challenges Johnson will face as mayor. But she does emphasize a lesson the 2013 Chicago school closures should have taught school policymakers everywhere. She quotes Rousemary Vega, a West Side mother of five, who has raised her children in the largely Puerto Rican, Humboldt Park neighborhood. Vega’s children’s school—Lafayette Elementary School—was closed in 2013 and turned into a specialty high school: “Me and my children have to walk past it very day. And now that building is not open to the community. They have great programs in there that the (neighborhood) community cannot benefit from. How unfair is that?”
That question was the subject of Eve Ewing’s powerful Ghosts in the Schoolyard, a book that explores the human consequences of the 2013 school closures for Bronzeville, an African American neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side: “The people of Bronzeville understand that a school is more than a school. A school is the site of a history and a pillar of black pride in a racist city. A school is a safe place to be. A school is a place where you find family. A school is a home. So when they come for your schools, they’re coming for you. And after you’re gone they’d prefer you be forgotten.” Ewing continues: “It’s worth stating explicitly: my purpose in this book is not to say that school closure should never happen. Rather, in expanding the frame within which we see school closure as a policy decision, we find ourselves with a new series of questions…. These questions, I contend, need to be asked about Chicago’s school closures, about school closures anywhere. In fact, they are worth asking when considering virtually any educational policy decision: 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?” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard) pp. 155-159)