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CHICAGO – The Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) concerns over space utilization has been a big issue in recent weeks, especially given the district’s creation of its own utilization commission, as well the unprecedented change to state law that extended the deadline for closings and consolidations until March 31, 2013. Utilization is not a “natural” phenomenon. School utilization is a district decision, and in this case, a crisis created by CPS.

According to Chicago Teachers Union research, CPS has added capacity for more than 50,000 students over the last 10 years. Charter school proliferation drove the vast majority of this increase, and most of the so-called underutilized schools are within blocks of a charter school. Today, the district announced plans to open four new charter operations, which further undermines their argument that there just aren’t enough students to fill the seats in more than 100 neighborhood schools.

CPS continues to pour resources into a counterproductive model for school reform.  At the same time they are planning to close neighborhood schools for under-utilization they continue to open new charter operations which is a glaring contradiction.  The proliferation of charter operations and the destruction of neighborhood schools have not helped in the creation of quality schools for all students.

CTU believes the under-utilization crisis was created by the district to expedite its school privatization schemes and aid in the further destruction of neighborhood schools. Here are some basic facts about CPS’ under-utilization assertion:

  1. CPS claims that the city has 145,000 fewer school aged children than it did in 2000, but the more relevant figure is student enrollment.

    1. In 2000, CPS had about 435,000 students.
    2. In 2012, CPS has 403,461, or a decline of 31,539.
    3. In other words, the declining student numbers combined with CPS’s expansion adds up to about 80,000 in “underutilization,” still about 20,000 less than the district’s claim of 100,000 “excess seats.”
  1. CPS’s utilization formula dramatically overstates the problem.

    1. The CPS formula is not based in national best practices for school space utilization. CPS has a one-size-fits-all formula for a variety of different educational contexts, such as different space needs for different educational programs and different space needs for diverse learners (e.g. students with mobility devices).
    2. The formula is based on large class sizes. CPS identifies 30 students per class as ideal. A school is considered underutilized if it has an average of less than 24 students per classroom and overcrowded only if the school averages more than 36 students per class.[1]
    3. The result is that far more schools are considered underutilized than with a fair and flexible formula.

              i.     Research with an alternative formula reduced the overall underutilization from 50% of schools to 38% of schools.
              ii.     The same research shows that the number of schools considered half-empty drops from 20% to 8%.
              iii.     The total number of “empty seats” drops from 19% to 2.7%

    1. A reduction in CPS class sizes to levels of surrounding suburbs or elite private schools like the University of Chicago Lab School would essentially eliminate system-wide underutilization. These schools have class sizes in the upper-teens or low-20s.
  1. Neither underutilization nor school actions are evenly distributed across the city.

    1. The vast majority of underutilized schools are located in predominately African American neighborhoods on the South and West sides of the city. These neighborhoods have borne the brunt of school actions over the last 10 years.
    2. Of the 42,000 students directly affected by CPS school actions, 88 percent have been African American.

Every new charter approved by the Board of Education only exacerbates the so-called utilization crisis, calling into question CPS’ real motive of “right sizing” the district if their purported intent is to save revenue in buildings that are not full.