"School reform" is one of those phrases that everybody, it seems, can get behind. Progressives like it because, hey, it's reform, and progressives like reform. Conservatives like it because "school reform" implies that government and unions are doing a bad job running the schools, and conservatives are generally skeptical of government control and certainly no fans of unions.
The only people who, occasionally, seem to express doubts about school reform are the schools, teachers, and communities who have to deal with it.
This is certainly the case with the latest, sweeping round of school reform in Chicago. In March, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that the city was going to close 61 school buildings, affecting some 30,000 students, the vast majority of them between kindergarten and 8th grade. The move is necessary, the city argues, in order to deal with a massive budget crunch; the district is supposed to face a $1 billion deficit next year. But the city has also argued that moving students from poorly performing schools to better-performing schools will have educational benefits for everybody.
All of the city's claims are dubious at best — from the number of schools being closed, to the number of students affected, to whether the closings will actually save money, to the formula CPS uses to decide which schools are under-utilized and ripe for closing. But the argument that the changes will benefit students in poorly performing schools seems especially hard to credit when you look closely at any of the schools actually affected, or at the way the changes have been implemented.
Crispus Attucks, for example, is a southside elementary school that is being phased out over two years. When I researched the school in the course of writing a profile for the Every Chicago Public School Is My School website, I found that Attucks has one of the largest homeless populations in the city: An astonishing 48% of its student body is homeless. Given the chaotic nature of life outside of school for these kids, you'd think that CPS would want to provide a stable school environment. Instead, Attucks has been repeatedly targeted for closure and disruption. In 2004, it was a receiving school for the shuttered Raymond Elementary. In 2008, the then-building was abandoned with virtually no community input or information sessions, and the school was moved 12 blocks south. Many of the students who made that move will now be shifting again to Beethoven Elementary, a school that itself has a large homeless population. How all of this can possibly be in the interest of Attucks's students is unclear.