Teachers union: School closings brought broken promises for students

May 21, 2014

(WBEZ/Linda Lutton)
A report by the Chicago Teachers Union released on the anniversary of the vote to close 50 schools says promises to invest in receiving schools were broken. The district says the report "deliberately misrepresents the facts."

A year after Chicago’s school board voted to close a historic 50 schools, the Chicago Teachers Union says the closings have resulted in broken promises.

Chicago Public Schools has spent more than $80 million in operational dollars related to school closings. The union has a report out today that says just a tenth of that has made it to kids’ classrooms. Ninety percent went to things like security along school routes, fees to moving companies, and staff layoff costs.

In the lead-up to the school closings, school officials had promised to invest in so-called Welcoming Schools that would take in students from closed schools.

“The entire rhetoric about the consolidations bringing more investments to classrooms, we’re just not seeing that," says Pavlyn Jankov, a teachers union researcher and one of the report’s authors. "The resources aren’t there. Librarians aren’t there. Class sizes aren’t decreasing....They promoted this as being something that will benefit students and bring more resources, and that’s just not true." 

The union found CPS  built libraries and science labs in receiving schools—part of  $145 million in capital investments made to the schools— but didn’t always staff them with librarians or science teachers. The report says the science lab at Dett Elementary on the West Side  is being used as a fourth grade classroom. And it says teaching positions at the receiving schools have gone unfilled, especially for special education positions.

The report is based on public documents and interviews with teachers at seven receiving schools.

Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett says the union’s report “deliberately misrepresents the facts.”

Byrd-Bennett has touted improvements in attendance and grades as evidence the school closings process has been a success, though some of those improvements are miniscule. Attendance among children from closed schools, for instance, was up 0.3 percentage points between the first half of 2012 and the first half of 2013, from 92.7 percent to 93.0 percent.

When it comes to staffing, the district says principals have discretion to hire or bring in programs as needed at their schools.

The district’s justification for closing 50 schools changed over time. Originally, it was for cost savings. Later, school officials and Mayor Rahm Emanuel said it was to put students in better schools. They argued that resources saved from the closings could be reinvested in remaining schools. At the time of the closings, CPS admitted it would take two years to realize any cost savings from shutting down schools. It estimated that closing 54 schools would eventually save $43 million annually; that's slightly less than 1 percent of the district's current $5.6 billion annual budget.

The union’s report says receiving schools are “still disproportionately under-resourced compared to other elementary schools.” Jankov says the school board’s recent decision to “turn around” three schools by completely re-staffing them makes the union’s report relevant today.

“It’s still an issue, because they’re still implementing the same kinds of policies where they push what they consider efficiencies down onto these schools on the South and West sides,” Jankov said.

Linda Lutton is a WBEZ education reporter. Follow her @WBEZeducation.