Equity and transparency elusive

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Editor Veronica Anderson

Editor Veronica Anderson

You don’t have to go far to find someone, some group, some leader who is skeptical or openly critical of Mayor Daley’s plan to close a slew of the city’s low-performing public schools and open 100 new ones. Ever since Renaissance 2010 was announced three years ago, it’s been dissected, analyzed and, always, challenged.

As well it should be. This newsmagazine has reported on the more troubling aspects of the districtwide effort, notably how it has affected children who were displaced when their elementary schools were closed. Fewer than 2 percent of them transferred immediately to new Renaissance schools. The vast majority (84 percent) were enrolled, instead, in traditional schools with below-average test scores.

Other charges leveled against the plan: Not enough union teachers. Public schools are being privatized. Community control is being undermined and local school councils will eventually be eliminated. New schools get more funding and resources than traditional public schools do.

Maybe these have merit, maybe not. Who knows? The first three are matters more related to philosophy and politics than what happens to children. And until now, no one has done a detailed comparison of funding and resources.

However, an analysis by Catalyst Chicago sheds light on how the district commits and spends its capital projects dollars and whether new schools and charters are getting more than a fair share.

As critics have long suspected, new Renaissance schools are at the head of the line for facility repairs and renovations, and a disproportionate share of current renovation work is happening in schools that now house only 4 percent of all students. Meanwhile, new schools have had more renovation work completed or funded than traditional schools: 62 percent vs. 45 percent. And perhaps most telling, the district needs to spend twice as much to finish work at traditional schools: $1.21 for every $1 already spent compared to just 61 cents at new schools.

District officials say that of course these schools are getting priority. They’re often empty and it’s easier and safer to complete construction work when they’re vacant. “We consciously prioritize these schools to get them to an acceptable level for reopening,” says outgoing Chief Administrative Officer David Vitale.

Does this mean that school buildings that are “unacceptable” for Renaissance schools are just fine for children who are, or were, already enrolled in them? Are these buildings safe or, at least, suitable for a productive and healthy learning environment? No doubt most parents would answer both questions with a resounding, “No.”

Decisions like these may make sense on paper, but they breed resentment and suspicions in schools and communities. Instead of pining for a $100 million capital windfall if and when state lawmakers do something about school funding, the district would better serve the public, and itself politically, by coming clean about why some schools get upgrades or new buildings and others, presumably just as needy, do not.

“It’s extremely difficult for the average [person] to get a big picture of what’s going on,” says Jacqueline Leavy, who for years lobbied for the district to produce a comprehensive capital spending plan.

Otherwise, the public will know that good old City Hall patronage is alive and well at Chicago Public Schools.