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Take a recess from closing public schools

George Curry | 6/3/2013, 9:31 a.m.

(NNPA) – Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett has announced plans to close at least 50 schools as a cost-cutting measure. But before any other urban school system follows suit, it should take an extended recess and reflect on what has happened in the past that makes this such a foolish idea.

We can start by looking at what has happened in Chicago. A volunteer group called Chicagoland Researchers and Advocates for Transformative Education has produced a briefing paper on past school closings that provides some interesting insight.

First, there is the issue of trust. Based on its past performance, there is no reason to trust the Chicago Board of Education’s financial projections. The board approved a budget with a $245 million deficit for the 2010-2011 school year. But instead of a deficit, the board ended up with a $328 million surplus.

There was a similar pattern for the 2011-2012 school year. The board budgeted for a $214 million deficit. Instead, it had a surplus of $328 million. In each year, the board missed its target by $500 million.

And what about the students who had to enroll in new schools and students who had to receive them? Bad news on both counts.

“A 2009 study by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research found that 82 percent of the students from 18 elementary schools closed in Chicago moved from one underperforming school to another underperforming school, including schools already on probation,” CREATE said. “In a follow up 2012 report, the CCSR determined that 94 percent of students from closed Chicago schools did not go to ‘academically strong’ new schools.”

It cited another study that found “students who transitioned into new schools following closure scored lower on tests one year after closure; they were at an increased risk of dropping out, as well as an increased risk of not graduating.”

The researcher stated, “School closings will also negatively affect the achievements for students in the receiving schools … For one thing, closings often lead to increased class sizes and overcrowding in receiving schools. As a result, the pace of instruction is slower and the test scores for both mobile students and non-mobile students tend to be lower in schools with high student mobility rates.”

When the Chicago School Board announced its previous closings, it figured it would sell, lease or repurpose half of the schools. However, a Pew study found that of the buildings closed between 2005 and 2012, only 17 schools were either sold, leased or repurposed. Another 24 closed properties remain on the market.

Surprisingly, of the 77 public schools closed in the past decade, 80 percent now house other schools.

Everyone realizes that with a dwindling school-aged population, not as many schools will be needed in the future. And across the country, we have seen how former schools have been converted to community health centers, churches, community centers and other useful facilities.

But if they are simply becoming schools again, what’s the point in closing them in the first place?