Why did Mayor Rahm Emanuel Close 50 Elementary Schools in Chicago?

rahmToday is Thursday, May 30, 2013.

There are screaming headlines these days about how Chicago Rahm Emanual closed 50 Chicago elementary schools, and then appropriated money to build a stadium.  Reportedly, there is a lot of outrage, which makes for very good news copy, but poor decision-making.

Chicago Public Schools  (CPS) is unlike other school districts in the nation, in that it is headed by a “CEO” rather than a superintendent, and the CEO and the Chicago Board of Education are directly accountable to the mayor, who appoints  people to the Board.  That said, I doubt very seriously that the Mayor. himself,  single-handedly and unilaterally closed these elementary schools.  The final decision was made by the Chicago Board of Education, after a lot of thought and deliberation.  Other city districts have closed schools, too, including St. Paul, MN, and  Philadelphia, PA., just not as many at one time.  I remember there was a lot of resistance to the restructuring in St. Paul, and I’m sure there was also a lot of furor in Philadelphia and other places that have resorted to this type of measure.   This sort of thing has been played out over and over across the United States, not only in big cities, but in small rural communities who can no longer support a school of their own, and which are therefore obligated to consolidate with nearby towns.  The rural parents have made the same claims as the Chicago parents are making: closing schools will undermine local neighborhood communities, and students may be traumatized by the move.  Still others claim that the students aren’t doing much better in their new schools than they did in the old ones, which may or may not be true.  Basically, when drastic measures such as these are announced, people in general show exactly how fearful they are of change, even if they say that “the education system” in the United States has to change.  Oh, they’d like to see changes, all right, but in other districts – not their own.

First, it’s important to understand that when a public school district closes schools, this does not mean that children have nowhere to go.  What is happening is a restructuring, where kids who are currently at one of the schools slated to be closed will attend a different school.   No student will have no place to go.

Next, it’s important to understand that Chicago Public Schools has, this year, over 600 elementary and high schools.  That’s a lot of schools, and a lot of buildings.  Each and every building has to be maintained, heated, wired for computers, and upgraded as necessary.  That means big bucks.

Also, it’s important to realize that school enrolments are declining all over the United States, and this is true in Chicago, as well, particularly on the west and south sides of town.  Why are enrolments declining?  Because we’re in a Baby Bust, that’s why!  America’s fertility rate has declined steadily since the founding of this country with only one major hiccup, the Baby Boom that we experienced right after World War II.  In the early 1970s, the fertility rate began to drop again, and we are now just a little lower than we were right before World War II.  What do we mean by fertility rate?  It’s the average number of children per woman during the course of her childbearing life.  Back in 1800, the average was 7 children.  The rate went down to just above 2 children before WWII, and then spiked to around 4.  It is now 1.93.  The “replacement rate” is 2.1, technically.  In other words, if every woman had 2 kids and a few of them had 3, then we would just be replacing our population every generation without any population growth.  Today our fertility rate is below the replacement level and dropping, meaning that our population is going to have fewer kids and more mature adults, like they have in Japan nowadays.    Remember, also that schools are funded on a per-capita basis, meaning for each child enrolled in the district, they get a certain amount of money from the state.  (Federal money does not go to general education.  Instead, it pays for special education programs, equal-access programs, and English-As-a-Second-Language instruction.  That’s because education is the province of the states, not the federal government.  All the federal government is concerned with is ensuring equal access to education.   Also, by the way, federal money is generally only about 10% of any school’s budget, and sometimes less.)   Basically, with fewer kids enrolling now and in the future, there is less of a need for so many classrooms and so many buildings.

What this “restructuring” is all about is money, pure and simple.  CPS is in debt to the tune of $1 billion.  It seems absurd to the average person that a school district would be able to keep running with such a high debt, but remember that public schools don’t have the option, as private businesses  – and private and charter schools – do, to close totally.  They are expected to open their doors to kids every school day of every year, regardless, and that is what they do.   Every time their bills go up, people complain.   Nobody wants to pay more in taxes, but somebody has to.   Everybody’s heating bill and electricity bill has gone up in recent years.  So has everybody’s food bill and the cost of filling our cars with gas.  Surely you don’t think schools are exempt from these rising costs!   Districts have to pay for heating their buildings in winter and for keeping all the lights on during the school day.  They have to pay for the cost of maintaining the school buses and filling them with gas.   They have to buy food for school lunches, when the cost of the food goes up, but the amount students pay remains the same each year, and where many of the students get lunch free or for a reduced price, depending on their parents’ income.

With fewer kids in each building, schools are forced to limit the number of teachers they can hire with the reduced amount of funding they get from the states.  This means that many of the schools with the fewest kids are forced to have “split” classes, where one teacher has to teach two different grades.  Essentially, what this means is that kids get to be with their teacher only half of every school day and they are given seat work, or “busy work” to do while the teacher is working with the other grade level.  In this economy, with rising costs and lower enrolments (read: less state funding), it doesn’t make much sense to hang onto expensive buildings when fewer and fewer kids come to school, so districts are reorganizing and restructuring.   Yes, class sizes will be a little larger next year, but remember that Chicago Public Schools will still have  over five hundred elementary schools, including regular neighborhood schools, magnet schools, selective enrollment schools for gifted children, and regional ELL center schools for kids whose first language is not English.

By closing some buildings and consolidating schools, CPS hopes to use their buildings more effectively and economically.  They may not end up saving as much money as they had ad first claimed, but they will certainly be able to save some money by jettisoning buildings.   Some people are worried about “abandoned buildings” in neighborhoods, but if the city is smart, they will find other uses for the buildings, or they will have them torn down and something else built in their place.

The PowerPoint presentation shown to the school board (easily accessible, if you know where to look), says that too many buildings do not provide safe and secure environments for kids.  I assume that this means they cannot have electronic sensors wired into the doors to keep them locked after a certain time in the morning, and that there may be other safety issues for students.  The presentation also speaks of “costly capital needs” – meaning repairs and maintenance.  It says, furthermore, that some of the schools to be closed lacked basic amenities such as playgrounds, libraries, and new technology, by which I assume they mean the buildings are too old to be wired for computers.   It also says that limited district resources are spread too thinly among too many schools.  Really, if your child’s school building were unsafe, and it lacked a library and a playground, how much would you really care if it closed, and your child was enrolled at a school with a playground and a library?    Just checking…

Now… about the stadium.  I’m not sure why Rahm Emanuel wants to build a new sports arena for private, Catholic DePaul University, which has a basketball team, but no football team.  However, even if the $173 million that the new arena would cost were given on a silver platter to the Chicago Public Schools, it wouldn’t make much of a dent in their $1 billion debt.   I think the Chicago taxpayers are right to protest having the taxpayers pay for an arena for a private university that wouldn’t even use it that much.   The arena wouldn’t even be built near the university, but instead it would be built near a convention center.  Somehow, I sense that this is some sort of sweetheart deal for businesses, and not necessarily for the university.  Time will tell, I guess.    Still, $173 million would not keep 50 more schools open.   😦




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