School & District Management

Race Is a Strong Predictor of Which Schools Will Close Permanently, Study Shows

By Libby Stanford — May 26, 2022 4 min read
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A school’s percentage of students of color is a major predictor of whether or not it will close permanently, especially among charter and private schools, a new report from The National Center for Research on Education Access and Choice shows.

The report, which was released May 24, analyzed school restructuring and closure rates from 2014 to 2018. It looked at rates among public, private, and charter schools, determining the different factors that predicted closures and restructuring of schools.

While academic achievement and enrollment rates are often the most consistent predictors of school closures, the report found that the percentage of students of color attending the school is a significant predictor as well.

The report isn’t the first study to examine the connection between school closures and students of color. Prior research indicates that schools with higher percentages of students of color, especially Black students, are more likely to close than schools with less-diverse student bodies. Students whose schools close are often shuffled around and struggle to find consistency in their education.

A racial bias?

In looking at closures, the report’s researchers compared schools that fell within the 50th percentile of the national average percentage of students of color with schools that fell within the 84th percentile of that average.

Charter schools that went from the 50th percentile to the 84th percentile—meaning they saw an increase in the number of students of color—were 1.54 percentage points more likely to close than those that didn’t.

The likelihood of closure was 0.99 percentage points higher for private schools under the same scenario, but 0.21 percentage points higher for public schools.

The trend may be a reflection of bias among school board and charter authorizers or an indication that communities of color don’t have a voice in school closure decisions, said Douglas Harris, the center’s national director and one of the authors of the report.

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“It leads you to be concerned that those decisions are being made, not based on academic performance, not based on the financial aspects of the decision, but based on the voice or power those groups have or often lack in the decisionmaking process,” Harris said.

Gaps in test scores and other academic measures between students of color and their white classmates may be another reason why racial demographics are a predictor of school closures, Harris said. The report found that schools across all sectors are less likely to close if they increase enrollment, post high scores or rankings, or improve students’ academic growth.

It’s difficult to determine whether the schools with more students of color close because of achievement gaps or simply because of demographics, Harris said.

COVID’s impact on closures has yet to be measured

Overall, closure rates in public, private, and charter schools declined from 2014 to 2018, the report showed, but that trend may change when researchers evaluate school closures over the pandemic, Harris said.

Prior to the pandemic, the average annual closure rate for traditional public schools was 1.1 percent per year, according to the report. The rate for private schools was slightly higher at 2.9 percent, and charter schools saw the highest closure rate at 5.4 percent.

Charter schools likely saw the highest closure rate because they are a new model, Harris said. “Whenever you are starting something new, it’s more unstable,” he said.

Going forward, enrollment trends may be a factor. Average changes in enrollment throughout the different school sectors show that public schools saw around a 2 percent change in enrollment over the pandemic with many students opting for charter, private, and home school options, Harris said.

Harris doesn’t expect the pandemic to cause a major shift in closure rates, but increased interest in other school options could lead to more public school closures later down the line.

“There are some places where traditional public schools took a big hit in enrollment that over time will probably have an effect and trigger more closures,” he said.

Restructuring schools is another option

Harris hopes the report encourages school board members and charter authorizers to think more deeply about school closures and consider other options.

The report defined school closures as anytime a school building closes and students are moved to another building. The report presents restructuring, when a school remains open but is placed under new leadership or governance, as a less disruptive option to students.

“You don’t have to shutter a building to improve it,” Harris said. “There are all sorts of different ways to restructure schools.”

Harris wants to dig deeper into what’s happening in school board meetings that may lead to closures. The researchers also plan to look more deeply into private school closures as there is not a wealth of data available for private schools, Harris said.

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