Vallas: The truth about the 2013 school closures the Chicago Teachers Union doesn’t want you to hear
In 2013, Chicago closed 50 nearly empty schools. Since then, the CTU has barred charters and other schools from using these empty buildings to provide schooling options for local students. After railing against these school closures, CTU leadership locked students out of full-time, in-person learning for 17 months during 2020-21.
For Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson to connect the public safety struggles of today to closing 50 virtually empty schools over a decade ago is particularly disingenuous, especially considering his peers at the Chicago Teachers Union kept students out of classes for 17 months.
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 inhabiting those campuses. This, even though charters were willing to pay rent and enroll the few community students who had attended the schools when they were closed. There are 114 public charter schools in the Chicago Public Schools district that are effectively barred from renting any of the closed schools. They also face unfair financial obstacles to even sharing any of the dozens of largely empty buildings.
Charter schools educate more than 54,000 children in the CPS district. In CPS, 1 in 4 high school students and 1 in 10 elementary students attend public, nonprofit charter schools. More than 98% of the attendees are students of color and 86% receive free or reduced lunch. Severely limiting their ability to access taxpayer-funded public buildings is a blatant form of discrimination. It constitutes educational redlining.
The CTU should also be made to account for their opposition to expanding public charter schools to include “alternative schools,” such as university-run schools for dropouts, which are authorized by the state and could have restored many of the closed schools to productive use. The CTU opposed legislation which would have authorized the state to award charters to such alternative public schools. Chicago had an at-risk population of over 46,000 young adults ages 16-24 who are out of school and are currently unemployed in 2021, the University of Illinois-Chicago Great Cities Institute reports. Most are in this predicament because of the CTU-driven failure of the very school system that now offers little in the way of programs to help them recover.
Criticizing Emanuel over closing near-empty schools is particularly hypocritical given the catastrophic consequences of closing school campuses after COVID-19 struck. CTU leadership was the force behind Chicago’s indefensible, catastrophically long shutdown of its schools, ostensibly because of COVID-19. That shutdown lasted long after guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, plus the experiences of parochial and other private schools, demonstrated in-person learning was safe.
School closings had a direct impact on student academic performance as state test scores, already abysmal pre-pandemic, plummeted after 2019. In 2022, only 11% of Black students read at grade level and nearly 6% were proficient in math. Only 17% of Latino students were reading at grade level and 11% were proficient in math. Meanwhile University of Chicago Crime Lab analysis points to significant increases in crimes against and being committed by school-age youth. From 2019-2021, shooting victimizations for children 17 years and younger increased by more by 50%. More than 90% of the youth victims were not enrolled in school at the time.
The union’s behavior during COVID was part of its claimed “new gospel” of strike power that spread across the country after CTU’s 2012 strike. That gospel was developed and implemented by the militant Caucus of Rank and File Educators, who came to power in 2010. Since then, the CTU has gone out on strike twice and illegally walked out three times. Two years ago the union illegally walked out on students over COVID-19 protocols, giving parents just hours to scramble for a back-up plan after the union decided late one night not to show up for in-person classes the next morning.
CTU-forced school closures did not just impact teachers, children and parents. Their policies will have decades-long impacts on every aspect of the city. While middle-class and affluent families may opt for charter and private schools as a solution, the poorest and most vulnerable children, overwhelmingly Black and Latino, will remain hostages in a failing system. The children who never catch up will grow into developmentally stunted, undereducated adults who will struggle to participate in the labor force and be plagued by low-paying jobs, increased government dependency, social dysfunction and a disproportionate risk of joining a new generation of criminals who prey upon communities, including their own. The quality of life throughout the city will continue to decay.
Yes, Mayor Johnson, school closures did have a devastating impact on Chicago’s children and their families. But it was the CTU leadership’s forced shutdown of the system for 17 months that devastated lives, the full damage of which will never be repaired.