The Chicago board of education voted last week to close 49 elementary schools and one high school over two years to address a budget shortfall of one billion dollars. This decision has been hailed either as a bold step in reforming Chicago’s maligned public schools, or as a counterproductive act that blindly hurts the city’s most disadvantaged and vulnerable.

Mass school closures are hardly new, but this tranche is the largest in US history. In the past decade, 70 cities have closed schools, for an average of 11 per school district. Since 2005, Detroit has closed 130 schools, including 40 just in 2010. Earlier this year, 15 schools in Washington DC were slated to close, after 23 were shuttered in 2008.

Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is the third largest US school district, with 403 000 students enrolled in a system with capacity for 500 000. The affected schools are in primarily African-American and Hispanic neighbourhoods on Chicago’s poorer west and south sides. Some of these neighbourhoods are blighted. Adding boarded-up, vacant school buildings to the mix is seen as toxic to public safety.

Supporters of the closures include, most prominently, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. They contend that declining population has led to city schools being undersubscribed and underutilised. Closing schools, they say, will permit better resource allocation and they promise the resulting savings will be returned to the public school system. They note that displaced students will move to higher performing schools with upgraded facilities like libraries and air conditioning. CPS has offered to ensure safe passage of students to school, working with police and the local communities.

Opponents of the announced closings include parents of affected students and the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) under newly re-elected president Karen Lewis. Opponents maintain that the people most impacted were insufficiently consulted and that it would be better to try to improve the schools rather than shut them down. They say the school closings will be extremely disruptive for their communities. They worry about safety, with children now having to walk longer distances to and from school through gang-riddled neighbourhoods. There is also concern about the enlarged class sizes that will result from merging displaced students into other schools.

The CTU has filed two federal lawsuits, claiming the measures are racist and that African-Americans have been singled out. Proponents of the closings say they are targeting failing schools that coincidentally affect minorities.

Declining enrolment in the public school system across the United States, including in Chicago, is mirrored in the growth of charter schools. Charter schools are publicly funded but independently run. Charter schools also have latitude in enrolment, whereas public schools are legally bound to accept all. Another notable difference is that charter schools are mainly non-union.

The increasing encroachment of public charter schools into lower class, often minority, neighbourhoods is enthusiastically welcomed in these communities. Parents are keen to enrol their children into these schools — despite the fervent opposition of public school teacher unions.

The clash between City Hall and the CTU is part of the story behind the Chicago school closings. Mayor Emanuel and the CTU’s Lewis already locked horns in September 2012 when the CTU went on strike to secure better pay and conditions. Emanuel had earlier lengthened the school day by 20% without increasing teacher pay; the CTU strike was the response.

The closing of “underutilised” schools is thus the next chapter. Emanuel wants to reduce the number of union-protected, sub-par teachers in the teaching pool, while Lewis maintains the CTU is standing up for school children. Emanuel is up for re-election in 2015 and Lewis says her goal is to unseat him, partly by organising those in the community upset by the school closings. Emanuel says he will “absorb the political consequence so our children have a better future”.

The clash in Chicago reflects both the struggle over education reform, as well as the future of unions within the usually pro-union Democratic Party. Emanuel, formerly President Barack Obama’s chief of staff, aspires to a greater leadership role in the party.

School choice is the new panacea in US education reform, with many viewing school choice and competition between schools — including traditional public, charter, religious and even affordable private schools — as the best way forward. The recent emphasis on standardised testing has placed the focus firmly on low-performing public schools. Many conclude these schools should be closed, with alternatives being provided. Others suggest that yet more funds should be spent on improving the public school system to address chronic under-performance.

The United States does not presently provide equal opportunities in education. Local property taxes fund public schools, so the health of public schools correlates directly with the value of local real estate. Schools in wealthier areas are better funded. Children have been locked into a public school that reflects a neighbourhood’s relative affluence. Charter schools are now adding an element of choice, even in low-income areas.


  • Micheline Tusenius is a South African, presently but temporarily living in Washington DC, with her American husband and their two children. They last lived in Johannesburg in 2010, but visit South Africa often. Visit Micheline's blog, Watching in Washington, here.


Micheline Tusenius

Micheline Tusenius is a South African, presently but temporarily living in Washington DC, with her American husband and their two children. They last lived in Johannesburg in 2010, but visit South Africa...

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