The Chicago School Closings

The biggest story this week in the world of American education came from Chicago, Illinois, where the mayor announced the impending closure of fifty four public schools. It has been the focus of much debate in the public forum, and may have big political ramifications. Like most political issues, these school closings are a very emotional subject to most parties involved, and it’s hard to get a view of the issue without it being saturated in “spin.”

Budget problems are forcing the closure of 54 Chicago school, photo by gingerbydesign

Budget problems are forcing the closure of 54 Chicago schools, photo by gingerbydesign

So what’s really going on here?

Mayor Rahm Emmanuel is facing a huge budget deficit, and the school closures would save a large amount of money for the city. The numbers give a compelling argument. There are just over four hundred thousand students in the public school system, but there are enough schools for five hundred thousand students. Almost twenty percent more space than needed.

By closing these fifty four schools, the city projects it will save almost one billion dollars over the next ten years (including operating costs). This money can be used to improve other schools, offer other community services, or pay for city projects. Many of the closed schools will be in neighborhoods that have seen major drops in population.

But there is another side to the argument. Local residents and teachers unions are fighting these closures.

The school closures will mostly affect neighborhoods with high crime rates, gang activity, and much higher percentage of at risk youth. These neighborhoods have enough troubles, and the closing will mean that the local students will have to commute to another neighborhood. Logistically this may present a problem, if the student doesn’t have a bike or a car or other means of transport. More troubling, if the student has to commute from one gang’s territory into another gang’s territory, there may be the physical risk of their own safety.

What’s more, if the empty school building isn’t used for another purpose and is allowed to stay empty it may become home to vagrants, truants, or a criminal element.

The point has been made that a school is an important, positive place in a neighborhood, a hub of society and culture, and that the removal of schools will help to “erode” the integrity of a neighborhood. Since many of the places in question are plagued with problems already, these closures will make things worse for local residents.

So what can be done? The figures involved are staggering, and it makes good fiscal sense to close the schools. But the moral argument is also compelling. As Americans, I think we all want everyone to have access to a good education. One program the city has announced is called Safe Passage, which will provide safe transport to school for students in high risk neighborhoods. This is a good start.

There are no easy answers in a complicated situation like this.

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