Fact check: Chicago school closings

Fact check: Chicago school closings
Overton Elementary School is one of the 53 grammar schools proposed to be closed this year. WBEZ/Becky Vevea
Fact check: Chicago school closings
Overton Elementary School is one of the 53 grammar schools proposed to be closed this year. WBEZ/Becky Vevea

Fact check: Chicago school closings

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Chicago is bracing for a critical vote by the Board of Education Wednesday: whether to shut down 54 schools.

Conflicting figures are still flying, as they have through months of debate. There’s controversy around many questions:  Will closing schools save money or cost money?  Will kids go to better schools?  Are the targeted schools under-used, or not? 

WBEZ dug into these and other questions. Check your facts:

Chicago is closing 61 buildings.

Chicago Public Schools says it is shuttering 61 buildings and removing them from the district’s “footprint.”  But that number overestimates how much that footprint will actually shrink.

The real number of CPS buildings that could be closed is 48

  • Three of the buildings CPS counts in its 61 total were never part of the district’s “footprint” to begin with—they’re private buildings leased by charter schools.
  • Two other “buildings” the district says it will be able to close are actually additions. CPS is counting Goldblatt as one potential closure and the Goldblatt addition, constructed in 1972 and attached to the school, as a second building closure. The same is true for Songhai.
  • Two buildings CPS says it can get rid of due to closings are actually temporary buildings the district is considering demolishing. One is an annex next to Pilsen Academy (which is neither a closing school nor a receiving school) and a temporary modular unit built next to Ft. Dearborn. 
  • Six schools—Armstrong, Peabody, Parkman, Key, Kohn and Ross—have two physical buildings on their campuses.  CPS is counting each of these proposed school closures as two closed buildings. In some cases, the second building is a temporary annex or modular unit.
(WBEZ/Becky Vevea)

 One school slated for closure, Burnham, does in fact operate out of two buildings separated by more than a mile.

The number of buildings to be shuttered (48) is smaller than the total number of closures (54) because not all closures will result in a vacant school building. For example, Wadsworth school is closing and students are moving to Dumas. But the Wadsworth building will continue to house the University of Chicago Charter School-Woodlawn.

30,000 children are affected by school closings.

CPS says 30,000 children will be impacted by school closings. But the district’s plan actually will touch more than 46,000 children.

A WBEZ analysis shows that if the 54 proposed school closings, 6 turnarounds and 11 co-locations are approved by the Board of Education, 46,147 current students at 132 schools will be affected.

WBEZ’s 46,147 figure includes current 8th grade students at the closing and receiving schools. (CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll said graduating 8th graders were subtracted from the district’s count because they will move on to high school next year.) Neither the district nor WBEZ includes incoming kindergartners.
Schools are under-enrolled because the City of Chicago lost 145,000 children in past the decade.

School officials and city officials have repeatedly cited the 145,000 figure. It’s based on U.S. Census figures. The City of Chicago has around 18 percent  fewer children now than it did in 2000.

But a drop in child population does not automatically mean a loss of students in CPS.

In fact:

  • Between 2000 and 2013, actual enrollment in Chicago Public Schools has not decreased dramatically. Enrollment since 2000 is down 6 percent (28,289 students).
  • Also, since 2000, the proportion of Chicago kids attending public schools has actually increased. For decades, the percent of city kids ages 5-19 in CPS hovered around 65 percent. In 2010, the percent of all 5-19-year-olds in CPS was up significantly, to 79.7 percent.
1970 1980 1990 2000 2010 2013
Total CPS enrollment (includes Pre-K) 577,679 477,339 408,442 431,750 409,279 403,461
# of schools in CPS “more than 550” n/a 560 597 674 681
U.S. Census Bureau population totals for City of Chicago, Ages 5-19 904,731 731,103 592,616 625,776 513,476 n/a
U.S. Census Bureau population totals for City of Chicago, Ages 0-19 1,187,832 963,125 809,484 844,298 699,363 n/a
Percent of Chicago’s school-aged (5-19) kids in Chicago Public Schools 63.90% 65.30% 68.90% 69.00% 79.70% n/a
Percent of Chicago’s 0-19 kids in Chicago Public Schools 48.60% 49.60% 50.50% 51.10% 58.50% n/a

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Chicago Public Schools, Illinois State Board of Education, Chicago Tribune (for the number of schools in CPS in 1970)

And the loss of population in the city does not fully explain why some schools have lost enrollment. 

At the same time enrollment was falling, CPS launched an ambitious effort to open new schools (more than 130 since 2004). While district officials also closed schools during that time for poor performance or low enrollment, they did not keep pace with new schools opening. In 2000, CPS had 597 schools. In 2005, it had 625. It now has 681 schools and is slated to open 13 more by fall. Many new schools were located in areas experiencing population decline. Those areas are now home to proposed school closures.

There are 28,289 fewer students in all CPS schools (district and charter) since 2000. But there are 75,680 fewer students in CPS-run, non-charter schools. (All 54 schools slated for closing are district-run). That enrollment loss has come at the same time enrollment in charter schools has increased by 47,391 students.

If you take a long view, you do see dramatic declines in CPS enrollment. Fueled by white flight, CPS lost 100,000 students in the decade between 1970 and 1980. The district lost more students in the two years between 1978 and 1980 than it has in the past 14 years.

At the time, city officials proposed closing dozens of schools at once, but didn’t follow through. Newspaper articles from that time read like déjà vu.

In a Chicago Tribune article published on Feb. 6, 1980, then-Mayor Jane Byrne suggested closing 65 public schools in order to cut costs, arguing at the time that the school system operated inefficiently because it had too many schools for its steadily declining enrollment.  

Enrollment declines have not been even across schools and depend on everything from neighborhood change and gentrification to the addition of charter schools in an area.

The chart below outlines CPS schools with the largest enrollment dips in recent years.

The following are schools with the largest enrollment declines since 2000. An * indicates the school is slated to be closed or to receive students from another closing school.

SCHOOL Community Area 1999-2000 Enrollment 2012-2013 Enrollment Percent Change
Duprey* WEST TOWN 495 92 -81%
Montefiore* NEAR WEST SIDE 127 27 -79%
Field ROGERS PARK 1443 384 -73%
Von Humboldt* WEST TOWN 1330 362 -73%
Williams* DOUGLAS 868 256 -71%
Faraday* EAST GARFIELD PARK 615 184 -70%
Mason* NORTH LAWNDALE 1490 485 -67%
Goldblatt* WEST GARFIELD PARK 700 236 -66%
Dubois RIVERDALE 488 174 -64%
Songhai* WEST PULLMAN 878 317 -64%
Nash AUSTIN 1042 392 -62%
Holmes ENGLEWOOD 751 288 -62%
Dett* NEAR WEST SIDE 524 202 -61%
Hearst GARFIELD RIDGE 935 363 -61%
Fiske* WOODLAWN 558 220 -61%
Morgan* AUBURN GRESHAM 587 236 -60%
Hinton ENGLEWOOD 687 281 -59%
Armstrong, L.* AUSTIN 239 98 -59%
Reavis KENWOOD 679 279 -59%

Chicago Public Schools recently released a draft 10-year master facilities plan that included demographic projections through 2017 for various neighborhoods throughout the city.

Children will be going to better performing schools.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has said the key reason to close schools is about getting children “trapped” in low performing schools to a better place.

But moving schools doesn’t guarantee moving up.

In a 2009 study of school closings, the Consortium on Chicago School Research found that between 2001 and 2006, most students whose schools were closed by the district re-enrolled in schools that were academically weak. Consortium researchers found that most students lost academic ground in the year their school was slated for closure. And once they were in their new school, they continued on an academic trajectory that was just like the trajectory of the closed school.

There was one group of children who did much better after their low-performing schools closed: the 6 percent of kids who ended up in significantly better schools. Several years ago, CPS decided to change its school closings guidelines and promised that schools would only be closed if kids could be sent to better performing schools.

However, CPS has defined “better” very differently than the Consortium. Marisa de la Torre, the author of the Consortium’s school closings study, said in order for students to get better academic results, the closings would have to result in students going to schools in the top quartile of all CPS schools.

Out of the 55 designated receiving schools, there are six that are in the top quartile of all schools: Burnham, Chappell, Chopin, Courtenay, Jensen and Leland.

Just three out of 53 grammar school closures move kids from the lowest performing Level 3 schools to schools in the top quartile. They are King to Jensen, May to Leland, and Trumbull to Chappell.

In 18 cases, students will be moving from Level 3 schools to Level 3 schools.

Closing Level 3 Receiving Level 3

CPS needs to close schools to address a $1 billion deficit.

CPS has said it faces a  $1 billion short on funds this school year; that represents about 20 percent of the district’s operating budget.

But closing 54 schools won’t reduce that shortfall.

Nearly every press release CPS has put out about school closings mentions a billion dollar deficit (though no official budget has been released yet this year). Every “transition plan” given to parents at closing schools begins like this:

“CPS is doing everything possible to provide Chicago’s children with a 21st century education that helps them thrive and succeed.….However, our District faces a $1 billion deficit, which threatens everything in our system by making it difficult to provide the robust supports and services that all children deserve. Our District’s financial crisis is significantly challenged by underutilization, resulting in financial resources being invested in half empty buildings that are costly to maintain and repair. Currently, CPS is financing schools and buildings with a capacity for 511,000 students while only serving 403,000 students. This utilization crisis is spreading our already scarce financial resources much too thin.”

But despite all the references to the deficit, Chicago Public Schools has admitted that closing 54 schools will not reduce this year’s budget deficit at all.

That’s because all cost savings, plus tens of millions of additional dollars (for a total of $233 million), will be put into receiving schools this year.

“We’ve assumed that we’ll have to spend in this first year an investment that we’ll make back over time with the savings that we’ll realize both in operating savings and cost avoidance of capital investment at these closing schools. So that’s the way we’re looking at it,” Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley told reporters on a telephone briefing March 21.

“Budgets reflect priorities. This is a major priority for us,” added CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll.

Chicago Public Schools will save $43 million annually in operating expenses by closing schools.

Chicago Public Schools spokeswoman Becky Carroll said the district will realize $43 million in net savings by closing 54 schools. But Carroll has not responded to multiple requests from WBEZ to itemize the costs and savings the district would realize by closing schools. And no news organization has published an itemized accounting of costs and savings that add up to $43 million.

In an e-mail, Carroll said “the bulk” of the district’s operational savings from closing schools would come from “reduction in non-teaching positions such as principals, clerks, engineers, etc.” The district would also spend less on utilities and maintenance.

WBEZ did find one cost of closing schools that CPS had not considered in its equation. The district is borrowing $329 million to pay for improvements to receiving schools. Borrowing that money will cost $25 million in debt service every year for 30 years, beginning in 2015—it will be paid for out of revenue normally directed to the operating budget.

CPS will save $560 million in capital expenses over the next 10 years.

When it first announced closings, Chicago Public Schools said it would save $560 million in capital expenses over the next 10 years by shuttering schools. The savings would come by avoiding repairs and other upgrades to those buildings. On May 2, the district quietly lowered that number to $437.8 million. But most of the numbers fueling the revised figure are not based on any new building assessments.

Students will have busing if their new school is more than 0.8 miles away from their old school.

CPS has committed to busing students at nine of the 54 closing schools because the distance from school to school is more than 0.8 mile. They are: Bethune, Bontemps, King, Overton, Lawrence, Canter, Kohn, Ericson, and Trumbull . But transportation will only be offered to current students through their graduation, not to kindergarteners and new students who move into a school’s attendance area next year. 

The district’s transportation plan also doesn’t look at the distance between a child’s home and his or her new school. It measures from closing school to receiving school. Buses will not pick students at home. Instead, eligible students will go to a designated location—possibly their closed school—and get on the bus there.

Schools slated to close are half-empty.

CPS officials have said the district cannot continue to throw money at “half-empty” schools. Parents and activists have challenged the notion that all targeted schools are truly “half-empty.”

Here’s what’s behind the debate:

District officials calculate how under-used, overcrowded, or “efficient” a school is by assuming that every school should have 30 students in each homeroom.

The formula says 76 percent of rooms in a school should be considered homerooms; 24 percent of a school’s rooms should be considered “ancillary” rooms for specialty classes like art and music.

If you apply CPS’ own formula to the 54 schools proposed for closing, you find not all are “half-empty.” Fifteen have a utilization rate higher than 50 percent: Buckingham, Canter, Emmet, Ericson, Fermi, Goodlow, Key, Mayo, Near North, Overton, Owens, Ryerson, Trumbull, Williams Elementary and Williams Middle.

But activists have challenged CPS’s formula. Rod Estvan, education policy analyst for disability advocacy group Access Living, says the utilization rates are “totally wrong” for schools like Trumbull and Lafayette, because they have inordinately high proportions of special education students (30 percent and 28 percent, respectively).

CPS officials have admitted the formula does not take reduced special education class size requirements into account in the formula. By state law, self-contained special education rooms can have no more than eight students per teacher or 13 if there are two teachers. However, district officials say an adjustment accounting for self-contained programs would not dramatically alter a school’s utilization rate.

Because an “efficient” school can have a utilization rate of up to 120 percent, CPS’s formula has also been criticized for allowing classrooms of 36

Others have a more fundamental problem with the “half-empty” designation. 

“It’s like this bad metaphor that gives people this image of like a restaurant that’s half empty or something as if CPS has teachers teaching half empty classrooms or schools are literally full of desks that don’t have kids in them,” said Seth Lavin, a teacher at Noble Street Charter School-Rauner College Prep who opposed the closing of his neighborhood school, Brentano. “How many seats you want in any school, how many kids you want in any school, is totally in the eye of the beholder.”

The final report of the School Utilization Commission issued in March concluded that “many schools are well used, but technically under-utilized.”

Becky Vevea and Linda Lutton cover education for WBEZ. Follow them @WBEZeducation.