The Policy Shop: The crisis facing Chicago Public Schools

The Policy Shop: The crisis facing Chicago Public Schools

This edition of The Policy Shop is brought to you by Policy Analyst Hannah Schmid.

Chicago Public Schools math and reading scores are some of the worst in the country. But there’s a little-known subset of schools that are suffering more than others.

Empty, failing, forgotten. It’s hard to believe, but Chicago Public Schools is home to a high school with just 34 students – one where, as of last year, no 11th graders were proficient in reading or math on the SAT. That school, Frederick A. Douglass Academy High School, has a capacity of 888 students.

By comparison, less than two miles away, Oak Park River Forest High School scores far outshine Douglass, with 58% of students proficient in reading and 51% proficient in math, though those are still not scores to hold up as the standard bearers. Oak Park River Forest has over 3,000 students.

The Douglass experience must be lonely for those 34 students. That there are other schools in CPS where students have a similar experience means Douglass kids aren’t alone. And that’s a problem.

5% of CPS schools are overcrowded. 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 the Illinois State Board of Education 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.

Half full. About 322,000 Chicago Public Schools students are set to return Aug. 21, with many students entering buildings less than half full.

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.

CTU is blocking reforms. Schools and students in the district are suffering, but the Chicago Teachers Union doesn’t want anything to change.

The union’s leadership 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.

Now, CTU wants to eliminate the only school choice program in Illinois, which encourages donations for low-income students to attend private schools that better fit their needs.

Something’s gotta give. Today, just 33% of Chicagoans are satisfied with public education in the city. Chicago families need more options, whether that means allowing charter schools to occupy underutilized school facilities or expanding school choice so families can find schools that better serve their kids. Creative, choice-oriented solutions are the only way to save Chicago’s school system.

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