(This is the second of two posts – part one  looks at questions for the Commission on School Utilization including enrollment numbers and savings from closing schools.)
Mayor Emanuel, CPS chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett and utilization commission chair Frank Clark have taken the position that “right-sizing” the district has nothing to do with the district’s expansion of charter schools.
One has to do with declining enrollment and snowballing deficits, the other with choice and quality, according to this view.
The argument would work better if CPS’s enrollment and utilization numbers held up; if school closings actually saved significant amounts of money; and if charters consistently offered quality rather than undermining most parents’ first choice – a quality neighborhood school.
Even then, though, it’s hard to separate the proliferation of charters from enrollment declines at neighborhood schools.
[Based on revelations in Tuesday’s Tribune , the separation of school closings and charter expansions is purely strategic; when officials say they are unrelated, they are lying.]
A hundred new schools
In the past decade, as CPS lost 30,000 students, it’s opened more than 100 new schools with space for nearly 50,000 additional students, according to a new report from CTU .
While CPS closed scores of schools during that period, the number of schools in the district went from 580 to over 680.
“To the extent excess capacity exists, the main driver is the district’s aggressive charter proliferation campaign,” according to the report. “The current ‘utilization crisis’ has been manufactured largely to justify the replacement of neighborhood schools by privatized charters.”
Throughout Renaissance 2010, “there was no facilities plan” and facilities decisions were “ad hoc and haphazard,” according to CTU’s report. Adding to the confusion was the practice of approving charter schools without specifying their location, and some charters’ practice of repeatedly relocating their schools.
“CPS has opened charters haphazardly, without considering how they affect nearby schools,” according to a Sun Times editorial .
As Catalyst points out , new charter schools have been concentrated in the community areas with the largest number of schools listed as “underutilized” by CPS. North Lawndale, with the most schools now rated as underutilized, has gotten more charter schools than any other community.
In general, those schools aren’t outperforming neighborhood schools, according to Valerie Leonard of the Lawndale Alliance.
A new round of failure
While school closings and new charter schools have been concentrated in low-income African American communities, these students are actually better served by neighborhood schools, according to CTU, citing reading score gains 10 percent higher in traditional schools than in charters in such areas.
Meanwhile students in closing schools have suffered mobility-related academic setbacks, faced transportation and security issues, and landed in worse-performing schools – while achievement rates in receiving schools have been adversely impacted.
It looks like the very students whom CPS has failed for a generation – whose schools have been systematically neglected and underresourced – are once again being failed.
“CPS has to look at the damage they’ve caused to children and communities and be honest about it.” said Rod Wilson, education organizer for KOCO , whose members recently sat in at Emanuel’s office demanding a moratorium on school closings. “First they have to correct what they’ve already done, then they can start correcting the rest.”
“A school is a community institution, it’s not just a unit of production where you can close one and open another,” said Wilson. “They’re just providing children to charter schools that are creaming and pushing children out.”
Meanwhile, as the utilization commission was holding community hearings on school closings, CPS was approving four more charters – on top of nine approved earlier this year.
At a recent commission hearing, many speakers – including the education chair of the local NAACP — noted that school closings have been concentrated in the black community. Many spoke of “our schools” to distinguish them from charters, asking why “our schools” are being targeted.
Now it turns out, according to CTU , that the utilization commission is sharing office space with three pro-charter advocacy groups including New Schools Chicago. (In the members’ biographies on the commission’s website , chairman Clark is identified as a founder of the Rowe-Clark Math and Science Academy but – perhaps in order to build “trust” – the fact that it’s a charter school and part of the Noble Street network is omitted.)
Room for partners
At the commission hearing last Monday at St. Sabina’s, 19th ward Ald. Matt O’Shea testified against closing Esmond School, noting that its 40 percent utilization rate would go up if its1972 addition were closed. The 40-year-old addition is in disrepair, O’Shea said, while the original 1891 building is “in pretty good shape.”
How many of the 140 schools listed as eligible for closure due to underenrollment, O’Shea asked, have annexes that could be closed? Before the commission starts recommending wholesale school closures, it should look at closing secondary buildings, he said.
Austin schools activist Dwayne Truss of Progressive Action Coalition  for Education makes the same point. “A lot of schools out here have one or two additional buildlings,” he said.
Indeed, hundreds of CPS schools have had annexes added in recent years. Many of these buildings would be perfect to house a range of the administration’s initiatives, such as early education and community college programming.
Extra space in schools could be productively used to support the newly-announced reinvigoration of the district’s highly successful Child-Parent Centers, or to replicate successful programs like school-based health clinics or community schools, which bring in community partners to offer after-school enrichment for children and ESL, GED, and computer classes for adults.
“Across the country, school districts are increasing utilization of their buildings by extending access to non-school users,” according to a report on joint use by the 21st Century School Fund . Public agencies and nonprofit partners are offering program that extend schools’ curricular goals, address social, emotional, and health barriers to success in school, and help families provide more educational support at home.
In a school district struggling to meet parents’ demands for arts programming with a longer day, or to provide enough social workers and other support staff to deal with problems like truancy, extra space could make possible partnerships with the city’s many arts and social service agencies.
Indeed, it’s in the low-income communities with some of the higher rates of underutilization that these needs are greatest.
There are many challenges to managing such partnerships, according to the report, but some districts are succeeding at it. Among the possible benefits: “When school buildings are underutilized, a paying joint-use arrangement with either public or prviate partners can make continued operation of the school building fiscally possible.”
The large number of annexes in school buildings also demonstrates the need for long-range planning, said CTU researcher Sarah Hainds. In some cases, because it takes years to for approval and construction of such projects, additional buildings intended to ease overcrowding opened after school enrollments started going down, she said.
That’s because school facilities decisions in Chicago are made ad hoc and in response to political pressure, not based on any kind of plan, she said.
Earlier this year CPS officials said  they hoped for early release of a ten-year facilities master plan, whichwas due in January under 2011 school facilities reform legislation. But when Byrd-Bennett came in, she said the district needed more time, and a bill extending the deadline for announcing school actions also extended the deadline for the ten-year plan.
A master plan “would give us an opportunity to look at population projections, housing development, long-term factors” that will impact enrollment down the road, said Cecile Carroll of Blocks Together , chair of the master plan subcommittee of the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force . “But these are things CPS doesn’t want us talking about before they close schools,” she said.
Instead, CPS wants to shut 100 schools based solely on this year’s census and enrollment figures.
“I can’t believe they want to close all these schools without any kind of plan,” said Hainds.
Carroll suspects that doing ten-year projections would show that large-scale school closings are ill-advised. And she worries that CPS sees the ten-year plan as merely a means to “right-size” the district without “a forward-looking strategy for sustaining and improving neighborhood schools.”
CPS wanted to put the draft plan’s deadline back to October, but the final bill gives them until May 1. That means – if CPS meets its legal obligation — some kind of long-term plan will be on the table after school actions are announced but before the board can vote on them.
Carroll said there’s little transparency around the planning process, indeed little indication that it is underway. For one thing, outreach to principals and LSCs – whose input with educational visions and long-term facility assessments for their schools is required by the facilities law – hasn’t taken place.
Time to wait?
Grassroots activists maintain the CPS should put school actions on hold until it’s developed a long-range facilities plan. CTU has called for a year-long moratorium; KOCO has called for two years.
The Sun Times has called  for waiting a year to “right-size” the district, based largely on eminently practical considerations: “There is no way CPS can humanely right-size its district, closing dozens of schools in just a few months….
“Even under the best circumstances, CPS rarely pulls off a complex task well. We’re talking about relocating thousands of children and teachers, finding new schools for them, ensuring their safety and well-being. The odds of that happening successfully in a matter of months are extremely low.”
In addition, the district is required to hold three hearings for each school action it proposes – that would be 300 hearings for 100 closings in little over a month — and school board members are expected to consider that testimony. And the deadline for schools that require applications – a major reason the legislature pushed the deadline for school action announcements to December last year – has come and gone.
Will the commission consider the option, widely backed among informed observers, of waiting for a long-range plan before implementing whole-sale school closures? Or are they just expected to collect community input, ignore it, and deliver a list of schools to axe? Is this an “independent commission,” or is this a done deal?
There’s a larger picture: school closings are happening in urban school districts across the country. According to Diane Ravitch , districts like New York’s are “repeating the pattern that was established in Chicago.”
The idea of closing schools to improve education was also embodied in the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind law, which mandated sanctions for low test scores.
The original rationale for closing schools came from the business world: the way to improve education, it was argued, is to subject eductors to rewards and punishment based on standardized tests. That logic hasn’t been validated by Chicago’s experience.
And while this year there’s a brand new rationale, presented with all the theatrics of an imminent crisis, the policy is the same.
Behind school closings, Ravitch writes , is “the dynamic of privatization: as public schools close, privately-managed charters open, accelerating the destruction of neighborhoods and public education.”
At WBEZ , Becky Vevea points out that if the district closes 100 neighborhood schools and opens 60 charters, the proportion of privately-operated charters in the system will double — to more than a quarter of CPS schools – dramatically reshaping the district.
Is this a decision the public gets to weigh in on?