Equity & Diversity

Race Is a Big Factor in School Closures. What You Need to Know

By Evie Blad & Ileana Najarro — November 28, 2023 5 min read
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As districts consider closures to cope with budgetary declines, new research adds to concerns that schools with higher enrollments of Black students are more likely than other schools to be shut down.

“The big picture is that race plays a role in this process,” said Francis A. Pearman, an assistant professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education. “And if we intend to be thoughtful, intentional, to do right by the communities we serve, it’s important to address that head on.”

After analyzing federal data on enrollment and school closures between 2000 and 2018, Pearman and fellow researchers, including Danielle Greene, found that majority-Black schools were about three times as likely to close as schools with smaller enrollments of Black students, even when accounting for common reasons behind closures.

“If you take two schools that are equivalent in terms of achievement, are equivalent in terms of recent enrollment changes, are equivalent in socioeconomic statuses, but differ only in whether or not the school is majority Black, that majority Black school is still more likely to close,” Pearman said.

That finding, in a paper that is forthcoming in the Harvard Educational Review, builds on Pearman and his team’s previous research.

In California, the likelihood of a school’s closure increased with higher concentrations of Black students, they found in a separate working paper published in September by Policy Analysis for California Education, a nonpartisan research center. They found a similar, less pronounced pattern nationwide.

Concerns about inequality in school closure decisions

Choosing to close schools—and selecting which ones—are among the most emotional and politically fraught decisions school boards and district leaders make.

The new findings add to growing research concluding thatthose processes often lead to inequitable results.

Douglas Harris, director of The National Center for Research on Education Access and Choice, published research similar to Pearman’s in 2022, though he and his team also looked at charter and private school data. They found a similar pattern in which schools with more Black students were more likely to close.

Harris said various factors could play into this disparity, including how schools in certain neighborhoods have historically been maintained and funded.

“It could be about political power,” Harris said. “When you’re in the school board meeting, and that tough decision has to be made, Black families, neighborhoods may have less power in those decisions and that may be part of what’s happening,” Harris said.

Those concerns come as districts in states from Texas to Washington consider closing campuses to trim budgets in the next few years. District leaders have cited declining enrollment, the end of federal COVID-19 relief aid, and higher personnel costs as justifications for belt-tightening measures.

Testing common justifications for school closures

Enrollment and low academic achievement often top the list of rationales for determining which campuses to target for closure.

To test those justifications, Pearman and his fellow researchers compared schools with similar patterns of enrollment declines, academic performance, and neighborhood poverty. Even controlling for those factors, majority-Black schools were about 25 percent more likely to close than similarly situated schools with other demographic makeups, they found in their new, forthcoming research.

“Race is showing up as a strong predictor of which schools are closing, and conventional explanations that we have for closures can’t account for that disparity,” Pearman said. “Deliberate or not deliberate, it’s showing up, and we have to be really careful about the processes that govern closures to ensure that those processes themselves are equitable.”

Where school boards and district leaders find they must close schools for financial reasons, they need to make those decisions in a way that is in the best interest of students going forward, Harris added.

In analyzing data from New Orleans, Harris, and his fellow researchers found that after low-performing schools closed, their students ended up in better schools and ultimately had better outcomes, including graduating at higher rates compared to the schools that closed.

But Pearman acknowledged how losing schools in Black neighborhoods can be a blow to the local community. He found in prior research that when schools close in low-income Black communities, those neighborhoods are far more likely to gentrify as a result. The same pattern does not hold when schools close in low-income white communities.

The historical context underlying closings

While some might conclude from the research that school boards are acting in racially discriminatory ways when closing schools, Pearman said it reflects a longer history of race and community formation in this country.

“There are still vestiges of past racial discriminatory practices playing out in the construction of educational opportunity today,” he said.

Take the resistance to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision, which was driven by the desire to maintain the segregationist hold on the funding and policies that support and control public schools, said Leslie Fenwick, dean emerita and professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Howard University.

“It was white citizens, political leaders, governors, state legislatures, city councils revolting against the new law of the land. And in their revolt, they closed all the Black schools and fired and dismissed 100,000 Black principals and teachers,” Fenwick added.

The legacy of that resistance is still seen today.

“There has been no time in American history, where public schools serving Black students have been funded on par with public schools serving white students,” Fenwick added.

These systemic issues need to be addressed, Pearman said. For instance, communities that were previously redlined in the mid-20th century still face disinvestment today.

Moving forward, studies need to look at the root causes for why certain schools end up perpetuating the conditions that lead to closures, Harris said. For instance, district leaders typically close the oldest or the most dilapidated buildings. That should raise questions about why schools in certain neighborhoods tend to be more dilapidated than others.

“Now that we know the result isn’t going away when we control for all these other differences, some of which are correlated with race, then, let’s go to the next step and look at how those discrepancies came about to begin with,” he said.

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