Regardless of where you stand on the issue of school closings or charter school expansion, you should be very concerned by the recent trend of massive school closings and rapid expansion of charter schools. Many charter schools are expanding at a faster rate than can be sustained financially or academically. As a result, some charters have not been able to sustain the academic progress or operating stability they experienced in the past. 

Likewise, the wholesale closure of public schools has caused a shock in the system that extends beyond the classrooms. The social and economic costs outweigh any savings to be gained. These costs include disruption to students’ learning; increased violence; displacement of teachers; reduction in salaries and costs of starting up new schools; and disposing of public assets (which could be better spent in the classroom). 

It should be noted that rapid expansion of any type of school–whether charter, selective enrollment, magnet or neighborhood–without the financial capacity or sufficient population will result in failure. 

Chicago Public Schools (CPS), if left to its own devices, will continue to start new charter schools in communities with declining populations. As a result, CPS will continue to have more available seats than students. CPS has at one point claimed that there are 600,000 seats in the system, and only 400,000 students. 

CPS closed 50 schools in 2013 in an effort to correct the problem. Unfortunately, the data they used to make decisions were incomplete and inaccurate. The criteria were designed and applied in a manner in which African American communities were more adversely affected. While African American students made up approximately 41.6 percent of the school population at the time of the school closings, 92 percent of the students affected by the school closings were black. Likewise, the West Side was home to 17 percent of all Chicago Public Schools, but absorbed 48 percent of the school closures.

CPS engaged a firm in 2013 to help them complete a master facilities planning process. The study — which only included half of CPS’s school buildings — wasn’t scheduled to have been completed until June, 2014. That’s more than a year after the schools were closed. In the interim, CPS proceeded to close schools without a master facilities plan in place. 

The working document that was produced to justify the school closings at the time had no goals or objectives tying school facilities planning to a strategic education plan. Worse than that, the plans for West Side communities showed the low expectations for us. The highlights included a couple STEM schools, all-day kindergarten and little else in between.

CPS opened seven more charter schools in 2015, and is now poised to open or expand 20 more charter schools and open 12 new alternative high schools in 2016. This, in spite of the fact that there is excess capacity among traditional and charter schools. 

The consequences of closing schools are significant, and should not be taken lightly. Studies have shown that students typically lose six months’ academic achievement as a result of transferring to different schools. Unfortunately, the receiving schools often perform at the same levels or worse than the schools that close. New schools take at least 5 years to fully develop. 

On top of that, a Catalyst Chicago study of Chicago charter school finances revealed that nearly 50 percent have had significant cash flow problems in recent years, including challenges funding state mandated contributions to teacher pension plans. This does not bode very well for long-term sustainability for some charter schools. Unfortunately, the children who are most likely to be affected are the ones who can least afford the disruptions. 

While there is no panacea for what ails CPS, proper planning could go a long way. The Illinois Legislature should create an Illinois Educational Facilities Planning Board to regulate the development and expansion of schools in the State of Illinois. Before any school is built, school districts should be able to demonstrate: one) financial ability to complete the proposed construction or expansion project; two) the capacity to operate the school and make contributions to teacher pension funds or other retirement plans; three) market demand, as evidenced by demographic trends; the number and types of schools; available seats and educational goals; and objectives of the district.

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