Philadelphia’s state-appointed School Reform Commission last month approved the closure of 23 district buildings—an unprecedented action for our region that is expected to affect roughly 14,000 students and hundreds of staff members. In New York City, which has already closed nearly 140 schools over the past decade, another 23 closures are on the horizon. The District of Columbia is bracing for as many as 15 closures after shuttering two dozen sites in 2008. The Chicago public school system—the nation’s third-largest district—recently announced plans to close 54 schools and consolidate 11 more before the 2013-14 school year begins.
Nationwide, the implications of these policies are difficult to comprehend. Yet federal and state policies that incentivize closures, continued growth in the charter school sector, and the lingering effects of the national recession are driving more districts to embrace school closure as a reform strategy and to move aggressively to downsize on a broad scale.
The rationale for these plans centers on two major assumptions that remain unproven.
First, proponents argue that savings from closures can help fill cavernous budget gaps. Second, closure of chronically low-performing schools is increasingly seen as a path to higher academic achievement.
Examining the goal of closing budget deficits, research shows that the majority of short-term cost savings achieved through closings occurs not through shuttering buildings but from furloughing staff—which is not typically an element in these plans. Calculating actual savings is also complicated by the transition costs that accompany closings: relocating staff members, transferring students, and maintaining vacant parcels. For example, the 2008 closures in Washington ultimately cost that city’s system approximately $40 million—roughly four times what the district was expected to save. While increased savings might accrue over time, research has not yet provided robust documentation of those benefits.
... Research shows that the majority of short-term cost savings achieved through closings occurs not through shuttering buildings but from furloughing staff.”
Meeting the goal of improving student achievement via closures is even more tenuous. Studies of closures in Chicago and Pittsburgh suggest that academic performance is likely to decrease, at least in the short term, when students are transferred from closing schools. Indeed, students fare better academically only when they are transferred to higher-performing schools. Yet the supply of seats in high-performing schools is often limited, and even when they are available, increases in academic performance are modest.
For example, an analysis of Philadelphia’s plan by our organization, Research for Action, reveals a mixed bag for students leaving closing schools: Based on current adequate-yearly-progress status, 40 percent of proposed receiving schools perform better than those recommended for closure; 35 percent are similar; and 25 percent perform worse. Our analysis reveals that the very best-performing schools—those most likely to help students transition without losing academic ground—currently have enrollments at or near capacity.
As researchers, we urged Philadelphia officials to proceed cautiously with recommended closings and to be diligent in working to provide every affected student with the chance to attend a higher-performing, better-equipped school. But as former policymakers, we know the pressures surrounding closings will only intensify.
The wisdom of this trend is debatable. But if closings are to continue as a policy prescription for our most challenged school districts, there needs to be equal commitment to act on the issues that can ameliorate adverse impacts and slow a wrenching trend that challenges communities, strains the capacity of already-overworked central offices, and disrupts the work of teachers and students.
First, states must craft coherent policies regarding the oversight, accountability, and growth of charter schools. Charter schools are rarely included in school closing plans. In too many states, lax oversight and rapid, unchecked charter growth mean that even the most ambitious plans to balance district facilities and student populations are quickly rendered moot.
Second, district leaders and state policymakers should commit themselves to ensuring that every student affected by transfers has the chance to attend a better-performing school equipped with supports to ease the process. That’s a monumental challenge, as we’re seeing in Philadelphia, but closing schools and sending students to a worse-performing school isn’t just bad policy; it’s a basic breach of trust.
Third, a transition to a higher-performing school is of little value to a student who faces a long and dangerous trek to school, or to a family that faces significant hurdles in finding safe and reliable transportation. Coupling school policy discussions with attention to safe passages, community policing, and public investments in transit are critical steps.
In every corner of education policy, we face challenging questions—school closings chief among them. Before proceeding with a policy that by definition will disrupt the lives of teachers, students, and families, decisionmakers need to attend to the factors that will ease those burdens.
A version of this article appeared in the April 17, 2013 edition of Education Week as Proceed With Caution