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Editorial: The problem with school-closing plan

New Schools CEO BarbarByrd-Bennett speaks City Club Chicago lunch Maggiano's Banquets 111 W. GrAve. Monday Nov.26 2012. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

New Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett speaks at the City Club of Chicago lunch at Maggiano's Banquets, 111 W. Grand Ave., Monday, Nov.26, 2012. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: December 29, 2012 6:18AM

A five-year moratorium on Chicago school closures proposed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel sure sounds good — as long as you don’t think too hard about it.

Because when you do it, most of what sounds good quickly falls away.

At the urging of Emanuel, Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett on Monday proposed the moratorium on closing if and only if state lawmakers this week agree to extend CPS’ deadline for releasing its 2013 closure list. It would move from Dec. 1 to March 31.

The moratorium would kick in after CPS carried out a plan “to right-size” a district with 500,000 seats for 400,000 children. In other words, CPS would likely shutter and consolidate a large number of under-used schools this summer and then swear off closings based on enrollment for five years.

Legislators should grant the extension; it’s sorely needed to give an independent commission appointed by Byrd-Bennett time to hear from affected communities before it recommends which schools to close. The measure passed out of House and Senate committees on Tuesday. A vote on the House floor is possible Wednesday.

But CPS should drop the false hope embedded in a moratorium. We don’t see it offering the “long-term stability” promised.

♦ There is no way CPS can humanely right-size its district, closing dozens of schools, in just a few months. We don’t know exactly how many schools would be closed — the commission will offer a recommendation and CPS will have the final say — but based on CPS’ figures that nearly 140 schools are half empty, it undoubtedly would be many.

Even under the best circumstances, CPS rarely pulls off a complex task well. We’re talking about relocating thousands of children and teachers, finding new schools for them, ensuring their safety and well-being. The odds of that happening successfully in a matter of months is extremely low.

And these aren’t your run-of-the-mill kids. Most of the under-used schools are in poor neighborhoods, where there are few high-performing schools to welcome relocated students. CPS is trying to separate its under-used schools problem from its failing schools problem. They can’t be separated. There is too much overlap.

Instead of shuffling kids from one weak school to another, CPS must simultaneously improve the receiving schools. Fixing neighborhood schools is Byrd-Bennett’s passion. She tells us plans are in the works to build new critical supports for them. But it cannot be done in a matter of months.

♦ More instability is on the horizon, moratorium or not. Byrd-Bennett is pledging only to refrain from “facility closures.” Other dramatic actions for failing schools will continue — actions that are absolutely necessary but which also generate tremendous insecurity. Byrd-Bennett tells us this could include turnarounds, converting schools to charters or replicating successful neighborhood schools. “We can and will take action in our low-performing schools,” she told us.

There is great appeal in charging through this painful period of closures quickly. But the notion of quickly ripping off the Band Aid and ending the pain is fantasy. CPS must close schools — it’s the right financial decision — but it must be done properly.

There are no good or easy choices here, but we propose a more humane alternative. Instead of closings in a matter of months, CPS should take until summer 2014 to close its under-used schools.

That still would put school closings on a faster track, but give the school system time to lay out a plan to improve the receiving schools, to fully digest the recommendations of its school utilization commission and to make sure any charter openings truly improve options for kids without exacerbating the city’s under-enrollment problem.

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