As schools work to stem COVID-related learning loss, they are also about to walk over a cliff—really, two cliffs—that could make matters worse. The “financial cliff” created by the drop-off of federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds is reasonably well known. The “enrollment cliff” is less well-known and underestimated. Falling off both cliffs at once means that school closures are looming—and education leaders need to limit the damage by keeping open high-performing schools.
Let us explain the enrollment cliff first. Many are familiar with the drops in enrollment in traditional public schools induced by COVID. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. As a nation, we are amid a decadelong, steep decline in birthrates. Thebelow shows fertility is now at its lowest rate in many decades—and probably the lowest nonwartime rate in recorded history.
When birthrates decline, we see a drop in kindergarten enrollment five years later that tracks from one school grade to the next. Whether immigration will counteract this remains to be seen. Immigration rates dropped sharply during the 2015 to 2019 span and remained low in 2021, but the future of immigration policy is unclear. Either way, though, school enrollments are likely going to continue declining for at least several more years.
When school enrollments decline, school closures are quick to follow. In a study we published through the National Center for Research on Education Access and Choice, we found that about 1 percent of traditional public schools—some 1,300—close in a typical year (with higher percentages for charter and private schools). A main factor driving closure decisions, we found, is low enrollment. Education leaders avoid school closures at almost any cost, but sometimes their enrollment-driven budgets cannot bear the expense of all low-enrollment schools remaining open. And closing based on low enrollment creates disruption for the fewest people.
We must work hard to keep the most successful schools open.
But what about school quality as a deciding factor? A study from the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans (that involved Harris) showed that when schools are closed or taken over based on low achievement growth, students in the affected schools do at least as well or better in the long run because they end up in better schools. The set of school options available to future students is also improved.
You’ll notice that we said that closure in the New Orleans study was based on lack of achievement growth. Achievement growth is the best measure of how well schools help students learn. State accountability systems, unfortunately, still focus almost entirely on score levels. But school districts can make growth calculations themselves if need be. As a general rule, school leaders should never close a school with average or better growth. Doing so will only reduce future student learning for everyone.
Another advantage of focusing on student growth in the closure process is that the approach makes it less likely that schools serving low-income students or people of color will be disproportionately targeted. We saw this in the REACH research mentioned above. Student test-score levels are tightly correlated with these demographic features, but student-growth measures are not. So, when closures are necessary, doing it based on growth is also more equitable.
An official of one large school system recently told us that her district would focus on factors like enrollment size and building location—with no plan to consider school quality at all in the closure process. This is a mistake. We understand why factors like building age and low enrollments—fundamentally financial factors—have to be part of the conversation, but when all is said and done, a plan falls short if it saves money but doesn’t serve students in the best way possible given the financial constraints.
We have to remember that schools are organizations that are difficult to create and maintain. If a district has a great team in a failing building, it’s essential to keep that team together. One way to do that when closing schools is to move whole teams from one building to another to keep them—and their success—intact.
To be absolutely clear, we are not arguing to close schools. That should always be a last resort. We are saying this: In the face of the twin cliffs, financial and enrollment, when education leaders believe they have to close schools, they should do so carefully. Smart steps can mitigate the harm.
We have a long way to go to help students catch up post-pandemic and we can’t afford to make the problem worse by following faulty precedents and closing successful schools.