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Defending the CPS closings

Adam Newman | Tuesday, September 17, 2013

A massive uproar and subsequent controversy resulted from the closing of 50 schools by the administration of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. With the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) running a massive $1 billion budget deficit, Emanuel has made unpopular but necessary changes for the City of Chicago.
 The Chicago Public Schools have lost much of its student population over past decades. This has led the CPS, with a capacity of 500,000 students, to only have enrollment of 400,000. What is even more shocking is that currently 140 of its 681 schools have more than 50 percent of their seats empty. With every extra seat costing money, there is a high amount of waste in the education system that could go to pay down the deficit and be reinvested in CPS students.   
Many people believe the CPS school closing will lead to worse student performance. However, research on the impact of earlier waves of Chicago school closings conducted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and the University of Chicago produced contrary findings. Researchers found that when students left a school, whether due to a school closing or a voluntary leave, their performance was depressed for a year but then continued on the expected trajectory. Students in schools that received a high number of displaced students did not show any harm, either.
It is probable, but not certain, that the changes led to better student performance. The same researchers suggest that students who relocate to a high-performing school will improve their performance. However, the “consolidated” schools that will take in displaced students are only marginally better than the closed schools. The hope is that smart investments made by the city in addition to other reforms made by the Emanuel administration will improve student performance.
Many accusations have been made against Emanuel for racism, as most of the closed schools are in African-American neighborhoods. In a country whose past is filled with atrocious practices of racism, such as slavery, segregation and lynching, the charges of racism against Emanuel are inappropriate. The massive drop in the African-American population is the driving reason behind the school closings. Examining census data, the African-American population in Chicago declined by 17 percent over the past decade. It is important to remember that 91 percent of the CPS students come from minority families, so any school closings would likely affect minorities. If the northern (and more white) areas of Chicago had seen decreased enrollment to the extent that the south and west sides have seen there would have been school closings there as well.
 While many parents and teachers have passionately opposed Emanuel’s reforms, most do not offer a plan to close the $1 billion deficit faced by CPS schools, or if they have one, they do not highlight it (as it is much easier to tear down someone else’s plan than advocate for your own).
To its credit, the Chicago Teacher’s Union has offered a way to cover some of the deficit by raising $700 billion in taxes over 10 years. Unfortunately, this plan ignores the current fiscal situation faced by Chicago taxpayers. Chicago has one of the highest tax burdens of any city and Illinois has one of the highest tax burdens of any state. This burden will only rise as Chicago and Illinois begin to pay for unfunded pension and health care liabilities. (The City of Chicago’s pension payments this year skyrocketed from $196 million to $612 million, and Illinois currently has the nation’s most unfunded liabilities at $133 billion.) While tax increases will have to be a part of the solution, taxes should only be raised after a conscious effort to streamline government. This is neither a liberal nor a conservative idea – it is common sense.
There is no doubt that everyone wants good schools in Chicago, but people still tend to oppose solutions because of a natural aversion to change. It is understandable why teachers and staff would oppose cuts that could lead to job losses and why parents oppose closing schools close to their homes. However, in opposing these changes, they support a Chicago Public School system that is broken, wasteful and badly in need of reform. Some Chicagoans’ lack of willingness to accept Emanuel’s reforms reflects the saying in politics that “everyone wants to go to heaven, but no one wants to die to go there.”

Adam Newman is a senior studying political science. He can be reached at anewman3@nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not
necessarily those of The Observer.