Monday Marks 10 Years Since Controversial Vote to Close 50 Chicago Public Schools

Video: Video: Joining “Chicago Tonight” to discuss the 10-year anniversary of the school closings on May 22, 2023, are Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th Ward) and Carlos Azcoitia, a former member of the Chicago Board of Education. (Produced by Andrea Guthmann)

On a March 2013 episode of “PBS Newshour,” then-Chicago Board of Education Vice President Jesse Ruiz voiced frustration that Chicago Public Schools had repeatedly shut down more and more school buildings each year.

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“We’ve been doing this a little bit at a time for the last decade,” he said at the time. “We’re frankly weary of having (to) go through this every single year in Chicago, every spring is school closing season. We want to be done with this business now, get it done with, rightsize the district. It’s frankly something that should have been done, that has been a problem that’s been a decade-long in the making.”

Two months later, he and five other board members voted to shut down 50 of Chicago's public schools — predominantly on the South and West sides — in the largest mass school closure in U.S. history.

Monday marks the 10-year anniversary of that historic and controversial decision.

At the time, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and district officials said the closures were necessary due to falling enrollment numbers and a $1 billion budget shortfall.

Critics, however, blasted the move, saying it would destabilize neighborhoods and disproportionately affect students of color, who would be forced from their existing schools to go to different buildings elsewhere in the city.

“We believe that our city is under siege right now,” Brandon Johnson — then a teacher and Chicago Teachers Union organizer, now the mayor of Chicago — reportedly said at the time. “Students are recognizing this process as racist.”

Parents, students and teachers protested extensively for days ahead of the May 22 board meeting where the six board members voted unanimously to close each school — 50 total schools located in 46 different buildings — one-by-one.

During that same 2013 “Newshour” episode, then-CTU President Karen Lewis slammed the district’s plans, saying that while CPS had promised to find other uses for the shuttered school buildings, it hadn’t disclosed how it intended to do so.

“I love how (Ruiz) says ‘Well we’re gonna repurpose these buildings,’” she said. “Those are all ‘perhaps.’ I hope everybody knows that. There’s no plan for this.”

A new analysis from the Chicago Sun-Times and WBEZ found that 10 years after the closures, fewer than half of those closed buildings — 20 out of 46 — are actually back in use as offices, housing or private schools, while some others remain vacant.

And despite officials’ hopes that the closures would stem the district’s declining enrollment, a decade later, the number of students attending CPS schools has fallen by nearly 80,000 students as of the start of the 2022-23 school year.

With 322,000 students enrolled this school year, CPS fell from being the third largest district in the U.S. down to fourth place, now behind Los Angeles, New York and Miami-Dade.

District officials said in 2013 that about 30,000 students would be affected by the closures.

In a 2018 study, the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research wrote that although “cost savings was the primary stated reason for closing schools, city and district officials saw this as an opportunity to move students into higher-rated schools and provide them with better academic opportunities.”

“Our findings show that the reality of school closures was much more complex than policymakers anticipated,” the report stated, “academic outcomes were neutral at best, and negative in some instances.”

(University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research)(University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research)

But that study found kids both from the shuttered schools and nearby “welcoming” schools, which took on many of the displaced students, saw negative effects on test scores.

The study found students from closed schools experienced a long-term negative impact on their math test scores, along with short-term effects for reading test scores, and displaced students’ core GPA was lower than expected by 0.1 points.

“Reading test scores rose back to expected levels the second year post-closings for students from closed schools, but their test scores did not improve at a higher pace than students in similar schools,” researchers stated in the study. “However, the gap in math test scores remained for four years post-closings, the last year in our analyses.”

During his recent mayoral campaign, Brandon Johnson spoke out against closing additional schools moving forward, saying he believes this can be avoided if the city works to expand sustainable community schools and affordable housing.

In an interview prior to his election, Johnson cited the 2013 closings as once reason why he decided to get into politics.

“We are a decade removed from with the greatest closure of Black and Latinx schools in Chicago’s history,” he wrote on his campaign site ahead of the election. “If we can build sustainable community schools alongside quality affordable housing, we will reverse the trend.”

Contact Matt Masterson: @ByMattMasterson[email protected] | (773) 509-5431

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