CHICAGO — The Chicago Board of Education will close 50 schools in the city; the decision will mark the largest wave school closures in United States history.
The board saved only four schools from its initial proposal, which the board has stated will save $560 million over the next decade for the district that is currently facing a $1 billion deficit.
“Today’s reality requires change,” said David Vitale, president of the Chicago Board of Education, in an address at the scheduled board meeting. “It is undeniable we have excess capacity in our system; it is also undeniable that we operate with constrained resources.”
The decision calls for 49 elementary schools and one high school to be closed in an attempt to consolidate underutilized schools and provide a better educational experience for the approximately 27,000 students who will be affected. Backed by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, as well as Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara
Byrd-Bennett, the move is promised to provide all students in Chicago with a 21st century education.
However, the plan has developed fierce opposition from parents, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and the community. Some protesters present at the decision-making meeting had to be physically removed from the building as tensions began to boil.
“We have a situation that has been created by bad policy that is now being exacerbated by bad policy,” said Karen Lewis, CTU president. “Closing 50 schools should not even be thought of as OK. It doesn’t save money; it doesn’t help children.”
Lewis said there has been extensive research demonstrating that students who move schools, particularly if that student’s school is closed down, lose anywhere from three months of learning to one year.
“They call themselves data-driven, but they ignore data when it doesn’t suit their agenda,” she said.
The mayoral-appointed board has been enormously misguided, Lewis said, and though she believes the board genuinely has the best interest of children at heart, their agenda is simply too skewed.
“I think it is very clear: mayoral control is an absolute failed experiment and nightmare,” she said. “It might even work with reasonable people, but it certainly doesn’t work with people who have an unbelievably bad agenda.”
Lewis used Detroit, St. Louis and Kansas City as examples of cities that have had little success after a wave of school closures.
The board has said the funds from the closures will be used for much-needed amenities such as air conditioning in every classroom, a library in every school, iPads for all students in grades 3-8, new and updated technology, improved American Disability Act (ADA) accessibility, upgraded facilities, improved food services and customized school safety plans.
Ten new STEM programs, six international baccalaureate programs and a new fine arts program will also be included.
Byrd-Bennett issued a video statement in defense of the proposal.
“We can’t continue to tell our parents that we’re providing a quality education for our children and we know we are not,” Byrd-Bennett said. “This is the first step to ensuring a guarantee for every child in Chicago Public Schools.”
Chicago Alderman Robert Foretti spoke against the closures, worrying that past hearings on the issue might have been a “charade.” The massive school shuttering will lead to higher dropout rates and increased street violence, he said.
“You’ve said you will save a lot of money by closing these schools; however, there is no proof that you will save any money due to the burgeoning costs of what these school closures will make,” Fioretti said.
But board officials have said the time is now to make decisions that will benefit the students of Chicago.
“We have to fix our schools, and in order to do that, we cannot continue to operate when we have too many schools for the number of students we have,” said Andrea Zopp, Chicago Public Schools board member. “We have to act. We cannot wait another year.”
Parents who say the closures disproportionately affect black students and special education students have filed two class-action lawsuits to halt the closures. Supported by the CTU, a four-day hearing in July was granted by Judge John Lee.