Chicago School Closings: A Modern Day Case for King Solomon

Barbara Byrd-Bennett, Rahm Emanuel

When more than one person lays claim to having the best interests of disputed students, who has the greater interest? In Chicago, there’s a lot of child-splitting going on, and wisdom is not exactly the operating word of the day. For nearly a week, the city of Chicago has been in an uproar because of news that some Chicago public schools will be closing. The question is why is this drastic measure happening?

​Chicago has received national attention for its decision to close over 50 schools in its Chicago Public Schools system. This is said to be one of the largest mass school closings in history. Most of the closing schools are in minority neighborhoods, and all are said to be suffering from low enrollment.

​According to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, “For too long, too many of our children have been trapped in underutilized, underresourced schools.”

​Community activists have spoken out against Mayor Emanuel’s plan, and have pointed out that the bulk of closings are in minority neighborhoods that cannot afford to lose the educational, social, health, welfare and safety resources that schools provide these communities. The perceived racial context of the closings is often mentioned. Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, taking time off from the high road, has inserted herself in the matter by saying “Let’s not pretend that when you close schools on the South and West sides, the children affected aren’t black. Let’s not pretend that’s not racist.” Community activists have been explicit in indentifying comparative gang, violence and gentrification threats between communities that are losing schools and those that are not losing schools.

​When asked about activists speaking out against him and his plans, Mayor Emanuel indicated that safety will be first on the agenda. “There are investments and the Chicago Police Department was intimately a part of this review about increased resources both in the schools as a safety perspective and cameras around the school from a safety perspective.”

Responding to concerns, Mayor Emanuel has consistently identified the leadership of CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and her team in the various initiatives that relate to the closings. While announcing his plan to install Learning Gardens in 50 of the “welcoming schools” that will be receiving new students from closed schools, the Mayor stated that “Barbara and her team are (working) to ensure that all of our city’s students, no matter where they live, have access to the resources they need to thrive.” In addition to the announced Learning Gardens, the Mayor said that investments in the “welcoming schools” will include “air conditioning in every classroom, a library in every school, Safe Passage for every school to provide increased security for students on their way to and from school, iPads for all students in grades 3-8, new and upgraded technology supports including expanded Internet bandwidth and computer, engineering, media and science labs.”

As CEO for Chicago Public Schools, Byrd-Bennett lauded the Learning Gardens program, saying that “(f)or too long children in certain parts of Chicago have been cheated out of the resources they need to succeed because the are in underutilized, underresourced schools, and by consolidating these schools we can focus on safely getting every child into a better performing school close to their home. With respect to the “welcoming schools”, Byrd-Bennett added that they “will have the things that parents, teachers and CPS agree students need to ensure that every child in every neighborhood in Chicago has access to a high quality education that prepares them to succeed in life.”

Measuring the success of educational, social, health, welfare and safety issues in Chicago and its many neighborhoods that are effected by school closings through targeted initiatives should be a function of objective metrics and a sense for community satisfaction and contentment. This is about more than just the investments mentioned for the “welcoming schools”. For many years these closing schools have been about far more than just utilization rates, comparative resource receipts and an education curriculum. These schools were also – from a profoundly neighborhood-based perspective – about two meals a day, safe harbors, support for working parents, child care providers, special needs resources, neighborhood touchstones, social connectivity, and hallmarks of community infrastructure. (The extreme improbability of calling Snow Days is somewhat illustrative of many of the issues involved.) In this collective regard, students may not have been quite so cheated or trapped as the Mayor and Byrd-Bennett proclaim.

While all sides to this debate assert a superior interest in the children, community activists seem to doubt the objective merit and purpose of the Mayor’s intentions. However, communities with schools identified for closure may have little choice but to adopt a wait-and-see approach, as the Mayor’s die has been cast.

This is an extraordinarily complicated matter in which there are many thousands of stakeholders. The Mayor and Byrd-Bennett believe that the closures are absolutely necessary in the face of CPS’ perpetual and extreme budgetary condition. Of course, the intellectually lazy route is to pander to the competitive claim over who cares most about the children. Clearly something must be done to put our public education system on solid footing for current and future generations of Chicagoans. Education is one of the foundational tenets of a society’s health and welfare goals. Yet those who influence outcomes seem to be focusing their time, energy and resources on parsing words that do not get us closer to a community concensus that might allow for consideration and acceptance of a kind of grand plan for CPS. Rather, the order of the day seems to be to foment divisiveness, to cast stones, to split children. Who is standing up for wisdom?

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