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Pew study: School closings bring pain, but not much money

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

by Benjamin Herold

for the Notebook and WHYY/NewsWorks

UPDATED 10-21: Comment from the District.

Widespread school closings often fail to generate expected savings or meaningful student achievement gains, but can contribute to significant community upheaval and neighborhood blight.

Those findings are part of a new study of closings in six major cities released Wednesday by the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Philadelphia Research Initiative (PRI).

“This is not a panacea to cure all the ills of a school district,” said Larry Eichel, the project director of PRI. “Based on what we’ve seen in other cities, I think it’s hard to say that school closings have transformed school districts.”

The PRI report summarizes the lessons to be learned from six urban districts that have closed at least 20 schools over the past decade: Chicago; Detroit; Kansas City, Mo.; Milwaukee; Pittsburgh; and Washington, DC.

Philadelphia is expected to soon follow suit. Sometime in the next few weeks, District officials are expected to publicly recommend that dozens of schools be closed or consolidated.

District officials were not available for comment on PRI’s findings.

"I don’t think there was anything in the report that surprised us," said Danielle Floyd, the District’s deputy for strategic initiatives. "One of the things we were careful to do was not to say that the reason we need to rightsize is for budget purposes."

In compiling a list of steps that helped generate “public acceptance, though not necessarily enthusiasm” in other districts, PRI spoke primarily to district officials and consultants, rather than parents or community groups.

One of six “consensus” approaches they heard was to make one decision on a package of changes rather than voting on school-by-school recommendations.

As with the other large urban districts that PRI studied, the primary goal in Philadelphia is to increase efficiency by reducing excess capacity in school buildings that are often half empty. Officials say they hope to shed over 40,000 “empty seats,” including 12,000 in facilities that are currently not in use.

“Presumably, if you have the same number of students in fewer buildings, you ought to be able to give students a richer experience,” said Eichel. “That’s the concept.”

But the actual experiences of other urban districts have not been nearly that straightforward.

In Milwaukee, for example, officials expected to save $10 million annually by closing 20 schools. So far, however, they have actually saved far less – about $6.6 million per year. Across the six studied districts, the average annual savings were well under $1 million per school.

“It’s real money, but it’s not game-changing kind of money,” said Eichel, who said the costs of maintaining closed buildings combined with the expense of relocating students often offset those savings that are realized.

In addition, there is little hard evidence that closing schools and reassigning students has demonstrably impacted long-term student achievement, for better or for worse.

The most comprehensive study on this to date was conducted by the Consortium on Chicago School Research, which examined the impact of school closings on Chicago students between 2001 and 2006.

“The performance of students in [Chicago] schools slated for closing fell after the closure announcement and remained low for the rest of the school year,” reads the PRI report. “One year later, though, after having transferred to new schools, those students were doing about as well as they had before their school lives were disrupted.”

A small percentage of displaced Chicago students ended up in better schools and began performing at a higher level than previously.

While the benefits of widespread school closings were often hard to measure and less than hoped for, the negative consequences, such as exacerbating neighborhood blight, were more consistent.

In Detroit, for example, 59 schools were closed between 2009 and 2010. By August of 2011, a total of 92 school properties, including some that had been unused for more than a decade, were still listed for sale.

Across the six cities, there are currently more than 200 school buildings sitting idle.

“The buildings that you close are going to tend to be in struggling neighborhoods,” said Eichel. As a result, he said, they can be hard to sell and can quickly become a magnet for illicit activity.

Last summer, the SRC approved a new "Adaptive Reuse" policy, which they hope will speed the disposition of surplus property and help prevent against such scenarios. And District officials point to some recent successes in selling unused buildings such as the former John Wanamaker and Durham schools.

"Over the past six years, we’ve gotten around $26 million in property sales," said Floyd. "We’ve had a little bit of success."

But the possibility of school closings exacerbating neighborhood blight is a “real concern,” said Eichel.

Also a concern is the upheaval that school closings can cause in surrounding communities.

So far, said Eichel, Philadelphia is utilizing some of the approaches that have helped minimize public opposition in other cities. District officials, for example, started early in their efforts to convince the public that downsizing is needed, and they have sought to publicly establish the criteria that will guide their decision-making.

None of the districts studied by PRI, however, sought to actively engage parents and community members in developing recommendations for specific schools. District officials locally have not tried that approach either, playing their cards close to the vest when it comes to discussing particular schools and buildings.

Mary Filardo, the executive director of the 21st Century Schools Fund and a national expert on school closings, says that this could lead to officials missing out on key information.

"The reason you include the public is because they have real local knowledge and it will mean you’ll have better decisions," said Filardo.

Once District officials finally do announce a list of targeted schools, there will be a state-mandated three-month window for public hearings, a period Eichel described as “typical.” Then, the SRC is expected to vote on the recommendations sometime in February.

One key decision apparently yet to be made is whether the commissioners will vote on each closing recommendation individually, or if they will be considered as a package in a single vote.

“Doing it school by school obviously gives the community attached to that school more of a sense of having their say,” said Eichel.

But officials in other cities almost all recommended taking the “package” approach, in part to help limit opportunities for political interference.

Eichel said he expects elected officials to be vocal about school closings, especially those who represent areas like North Central and Southwest Philadelphia, both of which could be hard hit because of declining populations.

“If you’re an elected official representing those areas, that’s going to be tough to deal with,” said Eichel. “It’s going to be hard for your constituents to accept.”

No matter how the details play out, concluded Eichel, the coming months are going to be a “big deal” for Philadelphia.

“The tough part of this process lies ahead,” he said.

Listen to Benjamin Herold’s report for WHYY.

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