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Kaya Henderson
Brad Barket/PictureGroup/AP
Kaya Henderson

School’s out

Education | Two major cities battle over saving their school systems by closing schools

Issue: "2012 Daniels of the Year," Dec. 15, 2012

Chicago and Washington, D.C., officials are attempting to prepare parents and teachers for school closings. Both have lost thousands of students in the past decade, a national trend for urban districts: Chicago is down about 6 percent (25,270 students) and the District of Columbia 35 percent (27,681 students). 

Unions are fighting school closings, even when districts face astonishing budget deficits: “If you close our schools, there will be no peace in the city,” promised Chicago Teachers Union vice president Jesse Sharkey.

Closures will also be difficult in Washington: After she closed 23 mostly low-performing schools, voters ousted former Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s boss for a union-backed mayor. But new Chancellor Kaya Henderson insists the capital wastes money on half-empty schools. In a hearing, city council members objected to closing schools in their wards but agreed closure savings should go toward improving academics. 

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Both cities desperately need that. Half of Chicago and 40 percent of D.C. students drop out. Four in five fourth-graders in both districts can barely read, and students have flocked to charter schools—but school districts rarely let charters use their buildings.

—Joy Pullmann is the editor of School Reform News

Musical chairs

Jenny Takeda
Associated Press/Photo by Benjamin Brink/ The Oregonian
Jenny Takeda

After a half day of math training, Beaverton, Ore., high-school history teacher Jessica Keskitalo is teaching seventh-grade math this year. She is one of 365 teachers shifted by seniority to fill in for laid-off teachers cut by the Beaverton district. 

Oregon requires districts to lay off teachers with the least experience first, instead of assessing expertise and classroom needs. Beaverton has moved teachers from social studies to science, singing to math, French to science, and so on.

Beaverton estimates that it placed about 160 teachers in “significantly different positions.” Keskitalo, 35, has never taught math, and has taught middle school during only one month of student teaching. Teachers and principals had no say over the transfers. 

Beaverton transferred district librarian Jenny Takeda into a third-grade classroom one week before the Oregon Association of School Libraries named her Librarian of the Year. She chose to substitute teach while rethinking her career. According to the National Council on Teacher Quality, “the overwhelming majority of school districts use seniority as the only determinant of teacher layoff decisions.” —J.P.

Fox in the henhouse

An opponent of school vouchers and public charter schools will now manage Indiana’s expanding portfolio of both. Last month Indiana voters kicked out nationally recognized school reformer Tony Bennett and put in his place, as Indiana’s state superintendent of education, union official Glenda Ritz.

In the past two years, Indiana has instituted the biggest statewide voucher program, teacher evaluations tied to student test scores, and new grade-by-grade tests and curriculum requirements shared by 46 states.

Although Ritz can’t change the laws, she can change how the state implements them. Indiana’s school grades, for example, depend partly on student test scores—but Ritz dislikes evaluating schools. Outgoing Governor Mitch Daniels, though, noted that Ritz will report to a “pro-reform” board of education that Daniels appointed.

Bennett lost, some say, because Ritz’s union targeted Bennett with cheap, effective Facebook and Twitter posts. Others blame Bennett’s aggressive style, perfected as a high-school basketball coach. Tea Party activists opposed Bennett’s unwavering support of the Common Core—K-12 standards and tests that nearly every state has adopted since the Obama administration required them in return for federal grants and legal waivers. —J.P. 

Joy Pullmann
Joy Pullmann

Joy is managing editor of School Reform News. She lives with her husband and two small children in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

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