(Click through the map to see just how much was spent on incarceration vs. education in communities impacted by school closures.)
Torrance Shorter stands in the rain outside of Martin A. Ryerson Elementary School one recent afternoon in a last-ditch effort to keep the grammar school from being merged with the nearby Laura S. Ward Elementary School next fall.
As parents pick up their children, he slips fliers through car windows and encourages them to come out to a meeting that he’s helping to organize. He stuffs more fliers into kids’ hands. “Tell your momma to come to the meeting this afternoon,” he says to one pre-teenage boy as they locked eyes. “Right when you get home,” he adds as the boy walks off.
Shorter knows many Ryerson parents and grandparents. He and his wife live just across the street in the same house that he grew up in. “This is the grade school I graduated from,” the 6-foot-tall out-of-work cook says. Now, four of his own children attend the Humboldt Park school and he serves on its Local School Council.
Ryerson is one of 54 elementary schools across the city that is slated to close next fall. CPS officials estimate that doing so would save the district $43 million each year during the next decade. By consolidating schools, CPS CEO Barbara Byrd Bennett has pledged to pour more money into the new schools that will replace the shuttered ones.
But in many of the consolidated schools, the additional resources are likely to pale in comparison with what’s spent incarcerating people from the same neighborhoods, a Chicago Reporter analysis of more than a decade of Cook County criminal courts sentencing data found.
Take Ryerson, for example. It’s located in a census tract where the cost of incarcerating its residents will top $80 million, a Reporter analysis of felony sentences handed down in Cook County’s criminal courts during the past 12 years.
The majority of those corrections costs will be covered by state and county taxes. That’s more than twice the $48 million, in federal, state and city tax dollars, spent on educating students at Ryerson during that time, the Reporter and our sister publication Catalyst found in a joint analysis of CPS budgets and records maintained by the Cook County Clerk of the Circuit Court.
Add the incarceration costs for the census tracts where students from the other 53 closing schools live and the cost of those sentences amount to $2.7 billion, which is more than the $2.2 billion cost of maintaining the schools that are closing.
“One thing that virtually everyone would agree on is that they would rather have the opportunity to spend on education … than the necessity, or perceived necessity, to spend on corrections,” says Robert Coombs, a spokesman for the Justice Center at the Council of State Governments. For nearly a decade, the national nonprofit has studied how states can increase public safety while lowering incarceration costs so tax dollars can be reinvested in public programs like health care or education.
“It’s important to look at all of the money that’s being spent,” Coombs added. But he’s cautious about comparing the costs between school and prison spending because “People who are making those decisions are not always talking about spending the same money.”
CPS spokesman Dave Miranda says the way the school district operates is that “the state and city tell us how much money we’ll get and we have to make it work.”
Just about everyone who lives around Ryerson is tight on money, and Shorter says that the grade school has never been an exception. “Every year we have to hustle and pray to get football and basketball going,” he says.
He and other parents have sold snow cones, raffled off a 32-inch television and even gone “begging” for donations along West Chicago Avenue to help create activities that keep students busy after school. The problem, he says, is that few people have money to give. “Sometimes we say, ‘Hey, let us get a quarter--or $2.’”
Crime dominates the conversation as Shorter and I walk around Ryerson and nearby Humboldt Park blocks, where his kids and many of their classmates live. As we pass the teachers’ parking lot, he notes that a fence was recently put up, “not because they were stealing cars but because they were stealing parts off cars.” As he points out a series of trash cans and vacant houses that are known drug-stash spots, a stray German shepherd runs past through the alley and into a vacant lot.
Shorter has worked with police for years to identify problem spots in hopes of reducing crime. The neighborhood wasn’t always like this, Shorter adds. “As a kid, [parents] told you, ‘Don’t step on anyone’s grass. Don’t go into anyone’s house when we don’t know them.’”
“Now, the more we try to make it better, the bad element keeps it getting worse,” he says.
When I ask Shorter what he thinks about the incarceration spending, his response is swift. “Now think if you would have put some of that [incarceration] money in the school building at first,” he says.
At 39, he’s still seeing people that he grew up with struggle to get ahead because of past felony convictions. “I’ve seen too many young black men go from the schoolhouse to the jailhouse.”
Despite the neighborhood’s challenges, one thing that it has going for it, in Shorter’s eyes, is Ryerson. In 2011, it was one of Chicago’s higher performing schools, according to CPS performance data. Conditions started to unravel last year when the principal was promoted up the ranks within CPS, more than a handful of teachers quit and the YMCA afterschool program pulled out. “The school was gutted” by the time a new principal came in, Shorter says.
Despite the upheaval, he adds, “These kids come in everyday and perform their butts off."
In his eyes, the bigger problem with local education is that, while Ryerson has done its part to shape students, most will filter into Orr Academy High School, a low-performing school with a chronic dropout problem, which is roughly a half-mile away from the grade school.
“I don’t want my kids to go to Orr, but I can’t afford the alternative,” Shorter says. A son who’s about to graduate from Ryerson earned one of the coveted seats at Whitney Young High School next year, but the more than $2 it would cost each day to take two buses to get to the school, which is a little less than 5 miles away, is just too expensive. Charter school fees are too steep as well. “I told my son if something changes, Lord willing, he’ll go.” For now, “we just can’t afford it,” he says.
As Shorter and I walk back to the school, he bumps into his eldest son, an 18-year-old Orr senior, who stopped by to check in with his dad on his way home.
Shorter tells me that he’s seen too many of the boys that his son’s growing up with end up at the Cook County Jail before even making adulthood. “Some of them multiple times.”
Shorter’s fear is that by closing Ryerson young people will become more angry and disgruntled. “And eventually, they’re going to act out, and you’re going to lock them up.”
“You’re not just turning one school over to another school,” he added. “You’re hurting a whole community.”
--Sarah Karp of Catalyst-Chicago helped research this article.