The deeper issue for Chicago schools

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The Commission on School Utilization at a November meeting
The Sun-Times today called for the Chicago Public Schools to spread school closings over two years instead of doing them all this year. Because CPS is "a dysfunctional bureaucracy even on its best day," it's more likely to screw up the process if it's rushed, the editorial reasoned.

This makes sense to me. The issue right now is not whether any schools will be closed, but how many and which ones, and how best to do it. That takes careful thinking and planning.

But don't expect CPS to follow the Sun-Times's advice. Mayor Emanuel likely wants this controversy in his rear-view mirror, the sooner the better. He doesn't want to still be closing schools in 2014 with the next mayoral campaign starting that fall.

CPS asked an independent Commission on School Utilization to advise the district on consolidation. In its final report Wednesday, the commission said it felt CPS could close up to 80 schools over one year or two. It added that closings would only be justified if "students are moved into better educational environments."

Would that happen? The commission observed that "consolidation has the potential to improve the education of tens of thousands of Chicago youth." But it also noted that closing schools "has not, in the past, led to greater educational opportunities for children."

To hear CPS tell it, Shangri-la hovers on the other side of closings. "By consolidating schools, CPS will be able to focus its limited resources to ensure that every Chicago public school student attends a safe, high-quality 21st century school with updated amenities, more individual instruction, and the programs they need to compete and succeed," a CPS statement says. Closing schools "will free up resources to invest in quality schools, where all students can flourish." The "new and improved schools will represent a new day for Chicago Public Schools."

You get the impression that if the public would just get out of the way of progress and let CPS close all the schools it wants to, the survivors might even be 22nd-century schools.

Turnout has been large at meetings about school closings, such as this one in January at Friendship Baptist Church on the west side.
  • Andrew A. Nelles/ Sun-Times Media
  • Turnout has been large at meetings about school closings, such as this one in January at Friendship Baptist Church on the west side.
Underenrollment is a genuine problem for CPS—but not the most important one by any means. It's also a problem the city helped create. Enrollment is down in African-American neighborhoods because the population of African-American kids in Chicago has dwindled—but also because the city has nourished charter schools, and now 50,000 Chicago kids are in them. If CPS really wants to "focus its limited resources," why has it supported the growth of a separate caste of schools?

And while focusing resources is essential, it's hardly a panacea. I agree with the Sun-Times that some schools should be closed. If the money that's saved is spent wisely—something more likely if CPS doesn't hurry through the process—it will improve things, but only incrementally. Will the savings be enough to make classes significantly smaller in the remaining schools? Don't count on it.

The most significant problem CPS faces is not too few kids, but too many poor kids. Eighty-seven percent of CPS children are low-income. Eighty-seven percent. The deprivations of poverty are especially potent in early childhood, so when these kids are old enough for school, they're not as ready for it as they should be. And for many reasons, kids tend to do better when most of their classmates aren't also poor.

CPS didn't cause this predicament (although it played a key role years ago), and it certainly can't solve it alone. The poverty of so many CPS children is a legacy of decades of racial segregation in and around Chicago, abetted by decades of cowardice on the part of elected officials unwilling to try to change it.

Undoing segregation is no easy task, of course. But at some point, everyone—CPS, the Chicago Teachers Unions, the mayor, and other elected officials and community leaders, in Chicago and throughout the region—will have to focus their wisdom on it.

All of these parties may say that the closing of schools is such a pressing issue right now that the time isn't right to start tackling segregation. But the time is never right.

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