4 Big Questions Looming Over Chicago's School Closings

It's been a bruising and emotional year for Chicago's Board of Education and opponents alike. But the hardest part is still to come.

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Reuters

This week, the city of Chicago announced it would close 49 elementary schools and one high school, or 8 percent of its total school stock. It's the first time an American school district has closed so many schools at once. The second biggest single-year school closing order was in Washington, D.C. in 2008, when 23 schools were closed (though 15 more are in the works there).

The Chicago Tribune has a nice inforgraphic and map laying out the geography of the closures. The city says it focused on schools that were under-utilized, and the closures will reverberate throughout the entire city (though critics charge the burden falls largely on minority and low-income communities).

Opponents of the closures have promised to fight on in court (hearings over the legality of the Chicago Board of Education's decision will be held in July) and at the ballot box (the Chicago Teachers Union has already announced plans to try and unseat Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2015).

But assuming the closures move forward, the hardest part is yet to come. Reorganizing the school district will require a massive overhaul and reorganization of students, teachers, and building space. To better understand the stakes, we talked with Timothy Knowles, head of the University of Chicago's Urban Education Institute and an expert on Chicago public schools.

1. Could the Board of Education have done more to work with parents and educators? As Knowles sees it, school closures are "the hardest thing for a city to do," and inevitably, parents, students, and teachers are going to be upset by the results. For this reason, it's imperative to have as open and transparent a process as possible.

Chicago did some things well: the city laid out its criteria for school closures in September, stipulating that they would focus on closing under-utilized schools rather than low-performing ones. They set up a commission to draw up a list of schools. The commission recommended 80 schools for closure; the mayor and school board pared that down some more.

Along the way, the city offered dozens of opportunities for feedback in the form of community meetings and hearings. The city also put together a panel of retired judges, called a hearing panel, to sort through Chicago residents' concerns and weigh in on which schools should be spared. (They recommended saving 13 schools; only four escaped the ax.)

But critics say the school closure criteria did not account for early childhood programs that were utilizing space in schools. And parents said that some "underutilized" schools served as community anchors, especially in poor neighborhoods. Opponents charge that the closures disproportionately affect non-white and disabled students.

And some are attacking the decision-making body itself. The Board of Education is appointed by the mayor; after Wednesday's vote, Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown wrote a column calling for an elected school board. He writes:

Before Wednesday, I’d never thought it would make much sense for Chicago to switch to an elected school board, given the problems we already face electing good people to the offices we now fill.

Then I changed my mind while watching Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s six appointees to the Board of Education vote unanimously to close 50 schools next year despite thoughtful and impassioned pleas from community members begging them to reconsider.

"Along the way, the district tried to pay attention and listen to concerns," Knowles says. But, he warns, "even with an open and transparent process no one can expect even one school closure to be easy."

2. How will the re-assignments affect student safety? In a city like Chicago, where you go to school, and what neighborhoods you have to walk through to get there, matter a great deal. Gang violence is a pernicious issue, and students who cross rival boundaries face real risks.

Knowles says Chicago officials did a good job of listening "very carefully" to concerns about safety. As a result, he says, the district opted not to close many high schools where this issue is most relevant. But will that be enough?

3. Did Chicago try to close too many schools at once? Chicago knew it needed to take a serious chunk of its schools offline, and it made a choice -- rather than close 10 to 15 schools a year (as other cities have done), it would announce all its closures in one fell swoop.

In exchange, the city promised a five-year moratorium on school closures.

There are advantages and disadvantages to this approach. In the pro column, it gets the bad news out of the way in one year, so that students and parents and teachers don't spend several years in a row worrying about the fate of their school. On the other hand, it's that much bigger a backlash to manage, and the school district will now also be burdened with a considerably larger bureaucratic heavy lift to reassign that many students at once.

"Anybody looking clear-eyed recognizes that that's going to be a huge implementation challenge," Knowles says. 

4. Students shouldn't just be going to different schools; they should be going to better schools. Can Chicago pull this off? School closures aren't just about saving money. Done right, they get students into schools with better teachers and facilities. When this happens, these students do better academically, and have better outcomes.

But Chicago doesn't have a great track record with this. According to a study Knowles and his colleagues did in 2009, during past Chicago school closings, 90 percent of students were sent to schools that were of the same quality of worse:

Because most displaced students transferred from one low-performing school to another, the move did not, on average, significantly affect student achievement. The report demonstrates that the success of a school closing policy hinges on the quality of the receiving schools that accept the displaced students.

"In a city like Chicago, that's hard to do," Knowles says. "But it's essential."

About the Author

  • Amanda Erickson is a former senior associate editor at CityLab.