School Closures Expose Flaws in Choice Plans

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To the Editor:

Earlier this year, I attended a hearing at City Hall in Philadelphia. William R. Hite Jr., the superintendent of the city's public school district, was under fire for a proposal that would shut down 30-odd schools. The plan would consolidate students into fewer buildings, targeting schools experiencing under-enrollment. Philadelphia was then the latest of several urban districts undergoing or considering extensive school closures. ("Fiscal Clouds Swirl Around Philadelphia Schools," Aug. 21, 2013)

I watched and listened as Mr. Hite responded to hostile questions and accusations—many from parents of students attending targeted schools. He stood behind the proposal, asserting it allowed students from shuttered schools to enroll in higher-performing schools. His pitch to move students into higher-achieving schools, however, did little to calm parents and others in attendance. Parents were primarily concerned about the safety implications of relocating students.

The superintendent's priorities were to raise achievement and control the district's budget. The proposal attempted to address both. Parents' priorities were the immediate well-being of their children. For many students, closures meant longer, more dangerous school routes. Additionally, some would be forced to attend the schools of rival neighborhood gangs. Parents feared for their children's safety.

Safety is a simple and understandable concern, yet it's frequently undermined in policymaking. Education policy in the United States is beholden to a powerful school choice movement, one backed by both parties and deep-pocketed foundations. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, a student whose school fails to make adequate yearly progress for consecutive years can transfer schools. The provision's architects hoped underperforming schools would be compelled to improve or else lose students.

We've learned, however, that fewer than 5 percent of eligible students actually transfer.

Parents choose to keep their children in neighborhood schools, safe and close to home. As much as advocates of school choice would like to see children leave their underperforming neighborhood schools, a majority of parents, for safety and other reasons, will see that their children don't.

David Bamat
Education Development Center
Waltham, Mass.

Vol. 33, Issue 01, Page 28

Published in Print: August 21, 2013, as School Closures Expose Flaws in Choice Plans
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