The “Open Seats” of Chicago Public Schools

Since the teachers strike ended it is obvious that the Chicago Public Schools appointed Board of Education and Mayor Emmanuel are gearing up to close a large number of public schools.  Their rhetoric is that public schools have large numbers of under utilized buildings, meaning that there are not enough students for all the available seats in public schools across the city.

The claim by the Mayor and Board of Education is there are 600,000 seats and only 400,000 students. On December 1st CPS is legally required to announce any plans for closing schools. When CPS announces the expected school closing list a large number of schools will be closed (expect 80-120 schools) students will have new teachers, principals, and building staff. The community will lose institutions that are central parts of the neighborhood. CPS has been closing schools for the past ten years and the date shows no real improvement is made by closing schools, in fact the research shows that when a school is closed it further destabilizes a community. CPS’ primary justification for closing schools is based on standardized test scores (even though again research shows test scores not an accurate measure of intelligence)

In fact there is already an official hit list of 80 schools that UNO charter school leader Juan Rangel (who also served on Mayor Emanuel’s education team) wants to close. Rangel wants these 80 public schools to be turned over into privately run charter schools. Turning public schools into charter schools would benefit Mr. Rangel as well as the other charter school network heads, because they could get more public and private funds, which increases their already large salaries.

So even though CPS claims there are 200,000 “empty seats” CPS and the Mayor now want to reopen many of the closed public schools as new charter schools If there really was 200,000 empty seats wouldn’t the logic be that we do not need to open any more schools? Yet our Mayor in all his genius wants to open even more charter schools even though research shows charters do NOT perform better than public schools.

One other important point that the Mayor and Board of Education are failing to mention in this case is the projected $1 billion CPS budget deficit. The mayor was so quick to mention the budget deficit during the teachers strike, yet now when he wants to open possibly 100 charter schools the budget deficit is not mentioned.

On top of that the charter schools in CPS actually have open seats in their own buildings. Charter schools because they get public and private money are able to spend money on advertising and PR campaigns. So many of us are familiar with the rhetoric that charter schools have a lottery system and very long wait lists to get into them…well this is not actually true. The proof? The day before the CPS teachers strike happened the various charter school leaders got together and held a press conference where they announced their were open seats in their schools (remember it was about a month into their school calendar) in fact “that 1/3 of the city’s charter schools had open seats”.

So lets be clear one month into school 1/3 of all charter schools had open seats. Yet CPS wants to close under utilized public schools and open the exact same buildings with more under utilized not as effective charter schools?

As a teacher, a parent, and a citizen of Chicago this “plan” does not make sense.

Charters perform no better than public schools, 1/3 of all charter schools are under enrolled, there is a projected budget deficit…. so what is really going on? What is behind the Mayors plan to close public schools? Is he doing it for the kids like he claims? The overwhelming evidence says no.  Demand truth from the Mayor, Demand an elected school board, Demand that your alderman ask for transparency around the issue of school closings.

There is money in this city. The budget is a political document not a financial one. The budget is all about priorities and it is time we make the Mayor and the appointed Board of Education understand ours, because as a teachers and parents our priorities are about the kids.

Schools of Choice?

School Choice or Voucher Programs are again gaining appeal among politicians and the media. The idea seems logical enough, parents/kids should be able to choose the “best” school. The money connected to that student (which would normally go to their neighborhood school) would follow the student to their choice of school.  This would occur whether their choice school was public, charter or private, and variables such as attendance boundaries would not matter.

The very definition of School Choice means some students will be able to go to the school of their choice, while the other students will be left behind. The idea of School Choice is another top down policy brought in from the business sector. Essentially, the premise is that competition will make all teachers and schools “work harder”.  The belief in school choice means that schools under this policy would have to compete for students (read money – under this plan students become walking dollar signs) and that all schools would get better.

As someone who has dedicated my life to working in education, I can tell you that schools are already working very hard to get better.  Improvements in education are needed, but the School Choice/Voucher Program is not an improvement.   It is a program designed to maintain or actually increase the disparity in education.   Some students will gain access to schools with new technologies, books, libraries, a full rich curriculum, and services and supports needed to give students an amazing education.   Other students will continue to have schools with no library, broken computers, and a severe lack of resources and supports needed to truly improve the quality of life for every student.

Schools in disadvantaged communities will stay disadvantaged, because they will not be able to “compete” for students. Parents who have the time and knowledge about how school choice would work would be able to get their student into a school of their choice as long as that school wasn’t full. Parents who either lack sufficient time, knowledge, or political leverage to get their student into a “better” school will be labeled as “bad” parents who have made poor choices for their children. It will allow the system to continue to blame parents as well as teachers for the short comings of the school system, city, and state.

School Choice will also make schools financially unable to have smaller class sizes. Since each student is a walking $ sign, larger classes mean more money.  Having smaller class sizes (25 max in high school, 20 max in elementary) is significant because class size and teacher experience are the only two factors proven to increase student educational growth.

Voucher programs will continue to provide unequal education.  Some students will have access to schools in “good” neighborhoods, while other  students will be left in “bad” neighborhoods. Voucher programs will also negatively impact students of color more than their white counterparts. Through our country’s policies there has been a much easier path to success for white students than students of color. The School Choice/Voucher program would in no way reverse this historical disparity.

Voucher programs claim they will reduce the achievement gap in our country.  They will, in fact, widen this gap. A small number of students from disadvantaged neighborhoods will no doubt find schools of their “choice”, but this is not because of a voucher policy.  This is because these same students, based on their elementary school grades and test scores, would be able to attend magnet schools anyway.

The logistics of making every school a “choice” school is untenable.  Why would a white parent from the north side choose to send their student to a school in Englewood regardless of how good the school is? How quickly will the seats fill up at Northside College Prep, Whitney Young, Walter Payton etc. compared to Robeson, Harper, and Hope? Parents who have the clout and where with all will not send their kids to schools in Austin or Lawndale.  While parents whose students attend schools in Woodlawn and Auburn-Gresham will find that there is no space at the schools they want to send their kids to so they will return back to their original school or a school nearby. Through all this rhetoric of choice and vouchers the real issues plaguing education, our society, and country will still remain. School choice does not address the root causes of poverty, violence, racism, and oppression. Vouchers will not magically make the neighborhoods our students live in safe.

There is no magic solution or new idea that will drastically change education.   All that is needed is commitment to the premise that we are “all created equal” and then fully fund education accordingly. A budget is not a financial document, but a political one. A budget is about priorities and choices. Although the claim of budget deficits is repeated over and over there are significant funds available to be used to truly make our schools equitable for all.  The question becomes: are the policy makers actually interested in doing that?