Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his handpicked team of Chicago Public Schools administrators are intent on closing perhaps dozens of schools, claiming an urgent need to better utilize the district’s limited finances. By the end of this month, CPS will submit to the Board of Education a list of schools to be shut down for the 2013-14 school year.
The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), meanwhile, contends that the closures are really about replacing unionized neighborhood schools with non-union charter schools.
A closer look at CPS’s evidence shows little reason to believe closing schools will produce significant savings.
Remarkably, both the CTU and city officials are making their respective cases about the school closures by citing the same study: a 21-page report from Pew Charitable Trusts released in October 2011. A CPS communications official acknowledges that this report has guided the school shutdown budget process, including an estimate that the district can save between $500,000 and $800,000 per closing. Meanwhile, Hainds says, “The Pew Charitable Trust study is pretty much what everyone uses.”
Pew did not focus exclusively on Chicago, providing a six-city analysis with special attention paid to Philadelphia’s school closing history. Regardless, the report concluded that the cost savings was “relatively small.”
Indeed, if CPS is able to maximize the savings and squeeze $800,000 from each building closed, the district would save $20 million from closing 25 schools. That amounts to 2 percent of CPS’s estimated $1 billion budget deficit for the next fiscal year.
The same Pew study additionally found that getting a buyer for school buildings is almost impossible, and that these buildings can be both expensive to maintain
and, if left abandoned, contribute to community blight. The study also states that there is no evidence that school closings either significantly help or hurt the academic performance of affected students—the same conclusion of a report last year from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research.
School closings, then, might not be worth the trouble. The savings are small, the drawbacks—such as forcing students to cross gang lines to attend school—are potentially scary, and, according to Pew, the “political fallout is significant.” The Pew study’s authors, in fact, singled out Chicago for closings that have sparked community outrage since 2004.