Contrary views of education collide in Chicago (By Wendy Lecker)

Writing in the Stamford Advocate, education advocate and commentator Wendy Lecker writes, Chicago is this nation’s third largest city, and among its most segregated. Recently, several unrelated reports were released about education policy in Chicago that, together, provide a vivid picture of the divergent views policymakers of have of public education; depending on who is served.

As reported by researchers at Roosevelt University, between 2009-2015, Chicago permanently closed 125 neighborhood schools, ostensibly because of low enrollment or poor performance.

The standard Chicago used for low enrollment was 30 students to one elementary classroom — an excessively large class size, especially for disadvantaged children.

The school closures occurred disproportionately in neighborhoods serving African-American, Latino and economically disadvantaged students. Professors Jin Lee and Christopher Lubienski found that Chicago’s school closures had a markedly negative effect on accessibility to educational opportunities for these vulnerable populations. Students had to travel longer distances to new schools; often through more dangerous areas.

School closures harm entire communities. As Georgia State Law Professor Courtney Anderson found, where neighborhood schools were a hub for community activities, vacant schools become magnets for illegal activity. Moreover, buildings in disuse pose health and environmental dangers to the community. Vacant buildings depress the value of homes and businesses around them, increase insurance premiums and insurance policy cancellations. In addition, the school district must pay for maintenance of vacant buildings.

Although Chicago claimed to close schools to save money, the savings were minimal — at great cost to the communities affected.

At the same time Chicago leaders closed 125 neighborhood schools, they opened 41 selective public schools and 108 charter schools; more than they closed. Chicago charter schools underserve English Language Learners and students with disabilities, and have suspension and expulsion rates ten times greater than Chicago’s public schools. Even more astounding, despite the self-selecting and exclusive nature of charters, researcher Myron Orfield found that Chicago’s public schools outperform charters on standardized test passing and growth rates in both reading and math, and high school graduation rates.

The Roosevelt University researchers found that the expansion of Chicago charter schools devastated the public school budget, contributing to massive cuts of basic educational resources in Chicago’s public schools. Moreover, many of these new charters have remained open despite falling below the “ideal enrollment” standard used to close neighborhood public schools.

The education policies of Chicago’s leaders force its poor children and children of color to attend under-resourced schools, often at a great distance from their neighborhoods, on a pretext of under-enrollment and poor performance. Officials fail to consider the devastating effects school closures have on educational opportunities or on the health of entire communities.

Chicago promised to use the proceeds of the sales of vacant schools to improve those neighborhoods. Yet, city leaders instead used those funds for school capital projects. A WBEZ investigation found that Chicago’s new school construction and additions disproportionately benefit schools that serve white, middle class students, even though white students are far less likely to suffer overcrowded schools than Latino students, whose schools do not see the benefit of capital spending.

Often, costly new capital projects are near under-enrolled schools serving children of color. Rather than integrate the schools, or improve conditions in impoverished schools, officials spend money intended for poor neighborhoods on perpetuating racial and economic segregation.

Chicago officials claim they cannot force white students into schools with predominately poor and minority students, for fear that white affluent families will flee public schools.

Poor families and families of color can be forced to attend under-resourced public schools, often at a dangerous distance from their homes, or perhaps low-performing “no excuses” charter schools. However, the district will invest in neighborhood schools to appease white affluent families.

These divergent views of public education, investment for the white and wealthy, and “accountability” for the poor and minority, are not limited to Chicago. A recent Atlantic Magazine article chronicled the severe underfunding of East Hartford schools, where schools have to choose between a reading interventionist and an AP course, and they must photocopy textbooks because they don’t have enough. Connecticut’s wealthy towns need not make such stark choices. Nor do they have charter schools foisted upon them. Our affluent children can attend well-appointed public schools in their neighborhoods.

Segregated, unequal schools are the product of conscious policies. These policies result from a divisive vision of what some children deserve versus others. As, the philosopher John Dewey once admonished, “what the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that the community must want for all its children”— not just its white and wealthy ones.

You can read and comment on the piece at: http://www.stamfordadvocate.com/news/article/Wendy-Lecker-Contrary-views-of-education-collide-11259928.php