Although the US is in the middle of an economic recovery, the recovery is not yet showing up in the budgets of many large urban school districts. Many, like Chicago and Philadelphia, are struggling mightily, and the recent 5% across-the-board sequestration cuts in federal budgets have made the situation more difficult.
In Chicago, the financial pinch has resulted in a $1 billion budget deficit, and to close it the district has laid off more than 2,000 teachers and closed 50 schools around the city. Most of those have been in primarily low-income, minority neighborhoods that also have high crime rates. Fifty school closures might not seem like much, but this means that students in some of the least safe areas of Chicago could be forced to walk longer or less-familiar routes to get to class every morning. The city has tried to police specific routes for kids going to school, but safety remains an issue.
The city has created 600 “safe passage” routes manned by adults and meant to try to ensure the safety of students crossing gang territories. But in recent weeks at least two people have been killed on those paths. One incident saw four injured and one dead after a shooting in front of a church. Another saw a 54-year-old man shot on the safe passage route that leads to Drake Elementary in Bronzeville.
Lillian Allen, a mother of two students at Drake, said the violence was “nerve-racking”.
Another student, Kayla Stoball, will need to cross two gang territories on her four-block daily walk. Previously, she attended Morgan Elementary School located across the street – but Morgan was one of the schools closed this year.
According to Neil Munshi of the Financial Times, district officials blame the new pension obligations for most of the city’s budget woes. The pension payments are set to go up by more than $404 million this year.
But other urban districts are suffering for a different reason. In Detroit, for example, the drastic drop in the student population is chiefly to blame. The city issued $92 million of one-year bonds this year to cover operating costs, and its public school enrollment has declined by 40% since 2010 because the city is hemorrhaging residents and due to the popularity of charter schools.
“When you’re trying to dig out from the recession, you get hit with this deep cut from Congress and you’re basically forced to cut on bone. There’s no fat to cut any more,” said Marc Egan, a lobbyist for the National Education Association, the US’s largest teachers’ union.
But the problem runs deeper. Amid lower birth rates and the increased popularity of publicly funded independent schools, numbers at urban public schools across the US have been falling.