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Chicago's proposed school closings called unfair to city's poorest students

Citing a budget deficit and declining enrollment, Chicago proposed Thursday that 61 public schools be closed. Teachers and parents warn that the poorest students will be affected the most.

By Staff writer / March 21, 2013

Parents protest outside the home of Chicago's Board of Education President David Vitale’s house Thursday, March 21, in Chicago. Teachers say the city of Chicago has begun informing teachers, principals and local officials about which public schools it intends to close.

Charles Rex Arbogast / AP

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Chicago

In what would be the largest public school closing in US history, Chicago officials are proposing to shutter 61 schools, 9 percent of the 681 schools citywide.

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The proposed move is being blasted both by the teachers union and parent groups, who charge that the city is misleading the public regarding the decline in population in certain neighborhoods where it seeks consolidation. They say the decision will ultimately harm the poorest of the city’s children by forcing them to commute farther away from their homes and learn in overcrowded classrooms.

The district has never before closed more than 11 schools in a single year.

“No doubt this is going to be deeply disruptive,” says Steve Tozer, a professor of education and director of the Center for Urban Education Leadership at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel says the decision’s reasoning is financial. The Chicago Public Schools (CPS) system, which is the third largest in the nation and operates under the control of City Hall, faces a $1 billion budget deficit in the new fiscal year and that each closed school will save the district between $500,000 and $800,000.

“Our students cannot wait for us to put off these difficult decisions any longer…. This problem is not unique to Chicago, and like school systems where enrollment has dropped, we must make tough choices,” he said in a statement released Wednesday.

However, advocacy groups, the union, and academics agree that the metric the city is using to establish a need for consolidation is not accurate, and that the decline in enrollment is not as harsh as it insists. Last fall, for example, CPS officials ranked 330 schools as underutilized because of enrollment declines. Between 2000-2013, the city says it lost 145,000 students.

However, the school district’s own data show that enrollment in traditional schools dropped by far less, just 75,680 students, even as charter school enrollment skyrocketed. Including the charters, the data show, total CPS enrollment over the last 14 years fell by 28,289 students, or 7 percent.

An analysis of US Census data suggests that, while the population of children aged 5-19 dropped by 18 percent, the proportion of Chicago school-aged children enrolled in CPS has actually increased between 2000-2010, from 69 percent to 80 percent.

Jeanne Marie Olson, a CPS parent who launched Schoolcuts.org, a website that mines data to compare different schools within the city, says that population drops are not as severe as the city suggests and its argument is a “red herring” for its push for more charter schools, some of which are newly open in the same neighborhoods in which the city is expected to shutter traditional schools. Indeed, CPS officials announced last year plans to open at least 17 more new charter schools by next fall.

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