One-third of Chicago Public Schools are less than half full

One-third of Chicago Public Schools are less than half full

Chicago Public Schools has a school utilization problem. Over 34% are less than half full, 57% are underutilized, and 5% are overcrowded. Just 35% are at ideal capacity. The Chicago Teachers Union is preventing solutions.

About 322,000 Chicago Public Schools students are set to return Aug. 21. One-third of the school buildings students will enter are less than half full.

Nearly empty school buildings eat resources that should go towards students’ educations. Those educations are lacking when just 14% of CPS 3rd through 8th grade students from low-income families met proficiency standards in reading and 9% in math. School capacity appears to matter, with the most underused schools showing abysmal scores compared to the most overcrowded schools all recording higher scores.

Blame the Chicago Teachers Union.

CTU seems preoccupied with social agendas, supporting moratoriums on schools closures or charter expansions and eliminating Illinois’ only school choice program rather than with meeting the district’s challenges.

In the 2022-2023 school year, one-third of CPS schools were less than half full. More than half of schools were labeled “underutilized.”

Space utilization in CPS is measured annually by the district and reports on school buildings operated by CPS, excluding charter schools operated in their own buildings and alternative schools. An elementary school’s ideal capacity is 77% of its maximum capacity and a high school’s is 80%.

Only 180 Chicago public schools used their space efficiently in the 2022-2023 school year while 290 schools were underutilized and 25 schools were overcrowded.

Least utilized

One-third of CPS schools were at less than 50% of their space utilization capacity during the 2022-2023 school year and the district labeled 290 schools – or 57% – underutilized.

Among the least utilized schools, the five most empty are at less than 11% capacity and at most 8% of their students are proficient in reading and 4% in math.

The least-utilized school in CPS is Frederick Douglass Academy High School, which listed an ideal capacity of 888 students but only enrolled 34 students in the 2022-2023 school year. The school used just 4% of its space, which includes a swimming pool. Nearly three-quarters of those enrolled students were chronically absent.

No students in the 11th grade at Douglass met grade-level standards in the reading or math portions of the SAT, according to the most recent test data from spring 2022 released by the Illinois State Board of Education. The school’s website shows 19 graduating seniors in 2022.

On average, 11th grade students at Douglass scored nearly 80 points below the district average in reading and 85 points lower in math. CPS already registers lower average SAT scores than statewide. That means Douglass students scored over 100 points lower in reading compared to the state average and 110 points lower in math.


Nearly 5% of CPS schools were overcrowded in the 2022-2023 school year, meaning they reached greater than 110% of their ideal capacity.

Among the most overcrowded schools, the five worst were at 138% or more of their capacity and at most 32% of their students were proficient in reading and 35% in math.

The most overcrowded school in CPS is Amundsen High School. Its ideal capacity is 960 students, yet it enrolled 1,478 students in the 2022-2023 school year, reaching 154% of its utilization capacity.

The most recent test data from ISBE shows 32% of Amundsen students were proficient in reading and 31% in math, higher than the district average. The average SAT reading score for Amundsen 11th grade students in spring 2022 was 494 and 481.8 in math, about 30 points higher than the district average reading score and 33 points higher than the math. Both the reading and math average SAT scores for Amundsen 11th grade students were higher than the state average.

Chicago Teachers Union blocks options for students at underutilized schools

Schools and students in the district are suffering, yet CTU seems to have hardly taken notice.

CTU has not shied from putting students out of class while they went on strike over union leaders’ expensive demands. But they oppose letting students out of under-used schools by pushing moratoriums on public school closures, many of which doom students to low-performing academic atmospheres.

CTU also bargained a moratorium on charter school expansion into its past two contracts, further limiting options for students at under-enrolled and low-performing schools to exercise choice to find better educational opportunities outside of traditional neighborhood schools.

When 50 virtually empty Chicago schools were closed a decade ago, it became a rallying cry for the militant branch of CTU called the Caucus of Rank and File Educators. But many of the closed schools would not be empty if CTU leadership had not forced former Mayor Rahm Emanuel to block public charter schools from using those campuses.

Low-income Chicago students have limited options to find a better school to fit their needs. Now, CTU wants to eliminate the only school choice program in Illinois.

The Invest in Kids Scholarship Tax Credit Program is set to expire at the end of 2023. If lawmakers let it die, over 9,600 students attending private schools on scholarships will lose their funding.

“If Invest in Kids sunsets, we would probably move out of state,” said Gail Clark, whose son is a recipient of an Invest in Kids scholarship. “The scholarship is the only thing that has kept us here for the last six years.”

Support for school choice is on the rise in Illinois, with 64% of Illinoisans supporting it, up from 62% in April. And 63% support the Invest in Kids tax credit scholarship program, with bipartisan appeal.

Chicago should better use its resources to educate students rather than let CTU force near-empty buildings to remain open. Until then, Invest in Kids is critical to the only education issue that really matters: helping kids learn and succeed.

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