Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s recently released guidance for reopening Illinois schools casts a new light on how school buildings are used and raises, once again, Chicago’s controversial history of school closures. The need to socially distance when schools are expected to reopen in the fall means that student-to-classroom ratios once denigrated as fiscally profligate or slack may be necessary for ensuring a school’s safe and healthy functioning. 

Recall that in 2013, the Chicago Board of Education closed 49 public schools, arguing that these schools were “underutilized.” At a time of growing deficits and declining enrollments, administrators determined that older schools were inefficient, outsized, and built with the massing and ornamentation of a bygone era. School districts across the country developed methods of calculating utilization so that the unique design of each school building could be inventoried and abstracted, compared to others, and ranked.

Following the closures, fellow political economy scholars Stephanie Farmer and Mary Donoghue and I carried out a statistical analysis to see if we could reconstruct the rationale for them. Our research confirmed that these utilization targets were statistically significant but that they were also highly problematic. They took into account neither the spatial needs of special education nor pedagogical arguments for smaller class sizes. And as it turns out, underutilization is one of those superficially race-neutral metrics that has, in fact, racialized origins and implications. The redevelopment of public housing, predatory charter schools, disinvestment in all public goods and services (other than policing) in low-income neighborhoods of color, and housing insecurity all led to depopulation in majority Black neighborhoods. Older school buildings in such neighborhoods were starved for capital. They were least likely to have been retrofitted and modernized in recent years, our analysis found.

Majority Black neighborhoods experienced the lion’s share of school closures, with students from closed schools forced to trek complicated routes to get to distant receiving schools. Parents in neighborhoods where hospitals and bus lines also shut down had reason to wonder if “underutilization” wasn’t a dupe, just another way of saying that the services and infrastructures serving people of color were disposable. 

Enter COVID-19. So-called “underutilized” schools may be at an advantage as they can be redesigned to achieve the social distancing health and safety standards needed everywhere but particularly in Black neighborhoods disproportionately impacted by the virus. Meanwhile those schools considered more efficient from a fiscal point of view — with larger enrollments and smaller classrooms — may be desperately looking for overflow space, resorting to teaching students in shifts, or migrating classes online. The virus has exposed how utilization is neither a quality intrinsic to nor a failure of a building, but is instead the result of changing health standards, teaching philosophies, and funding streams.

After the 2013 closures, the City of Chicago tasked a committee of real estate professionals and civic leaders to help sell the schools to the highest bidders, privileging private purchases over alternative public uses. Because of the polarization of land values in a racially and economically segregated city like Chicago,schools located in high-income areas were converted into market-rate condominiums and apartments. The majority, though, were located in low-income, majority Black neighborhoods where take-up by developers has been slow.

If these mothballed schools can be repurposed and put back into use in ways that meet current health standards, they could give the school district a little breathing room. Unfortunately, though, in those areas where the school buildings have already been sold, CPS may have to shell out extra time and money to purchase or lease additional space if its K-12 instructional needs extend beyond available facilities. Rapidly changing standards for space usage show how government agencies like CPS that own property, even so-called “surplus” property, may be in a better position to plan for the present moment and for the post-pandemic future. The private sector is often praised or rewarded when they “bank” property for future uses, so why not the public? We only see in retrospect how giving up public property means giving up the power and leverage to respond quickly and effectively to change.

Rachel Weber is a professor in the department of urban planning and policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago where she teaches and conducts research in the fields of economic development, public...

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