The Price of School Closings

Figure 1: The Opportunity to Learn Campaign produced this info graphic, illustrating the theme of school closures in the country. Visit their site for alternative policy to use in lieu of closures.

When a school closes in a city, we know it means students traveling further to more crowded, under-resourced classrooms. Who are these students enrolling in a new school this fall? On average, they are black, Latino, and regardless of race, are even more likely to come from a family whose annual income is below the poverty line.  In Chicago, our shifting population and Chicago Public School (CPS) closures means a change in school for almost 50,000 children this September – the largest school closure by an urban city in history.


Through pioneering innovative strategies to achieve balanced integration in this city of neighborhoods, Chicago still has areas with a high level of housing segregation. Neighborhoods and its schools can be composed of students of mostly one race.

As we see from the Opportunity to Learn Campaign info graphic above, black children are currently 43% of CPS classrooms, and 88% of students whose schools are closing. Low-income children of all races make up 94% of the children effected  in these closures.

As African Americans move into the suburbs, out of traditional neighborhoods, the population of these neighborhoods decline. So by this theory, the closures are disproportionally effecting black children because black children attend CPS schools and their families are moving to new neighborhoods at disproportionate rates compared to white children. Overall, there are less children of all races in the city, with the population of 5- to 14-year-olds decreasing about 22 percent since 2000.

Make demographic sense? Sure.

Even if children’s school closures are supported by population data, the fact remains that 50,000 children will have the challenge of a new school and a choice not made by them or their parents.

Systematic racism is sometimes the byproduct not of direct hatred but of outdated policy that reinforces segregation; lack of reevaluation that perpetrates discrimination. Schools are anchor institutions – they unify groups, providing communities with structure and consistency, allowing for social events, volunteer opportunities, a pillar that stands the test of time, remaining in the community as businesses and residents ebb and flow through the neighborhood. The impact of their closures on a community cannot be measured strictly by a bottom line.

Especially not a bottom line not able to be quantified. CPS says the closures will mean savings in the budget- though no finite numbers are agreed on, as renovation costs, teacher lay-off savings, and building resale value are all in flux.

CPS cites the reason for the closings – a decline in attendance at those schools, the population decrease, and under-performance. The mention of under-performance immediately begs the question of underfunded. Mayor Emanuel’s office has stated that the closures will mean more efficient and stronger academic programs.

Where do we go from here?

When schools close, families usually have few options other than the public school absorbing their closing public school. Some students whose schools are closing are put into a lottery, and if selected are enrolled in that school – generally a higher-performing school than their former classroom.  For the children who aren’t pulled in that lottery, they make a further walk or bus ride to another school. That’s a lot of pressure on a kid from a low-income family who probably hasn’t even started algebra yet. A new school not only means an emotional and psychological change in their lives, but the walk to school can now look different; longer on a cold Chicago February morning, past  a vacant building, or across gang lines. The city has responded with the safe passage program, designed to recruit community members and crossing guards along the new routes to school.

Hopefully the schools of the future will improve and support the students throughout their whole journey of their education.

By Christina Scordia, Housing and Communications Research Assistant