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School Shutdowns Trigger Growing Backlash

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

The Notebook has a content sharing arrangement with Education Week, where this article originally appeared.

In five cities, groups wage war on school shutdowns

by Jaclyn Zubrzycki

As school closures are increasingly used as a remedy to budget woes and a solution to failing schools in many cities, debates are intensifying about their effect on student performance and well-being, on district finances, and on communities and the processes districts use to choose which schools will be shuttered.

Student and parent groups in Chicago, the District of Columbia, New York, Newark, N.J., and Philadelphia gathered in Washington late last month to call for a moratorium on school closings and filed separate complaints with the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights. In those complaints, the groups allege that in previous rounds of school closings, their districts have not been transparent and have been influenced by outside interests, such as charter school operators. They also argue that the closings have had a harmful and disparate impact on minority students and communities. Each of the districts has predicted new closures for the coming school year.

"This has become the strategy of first instance, not of last resort," said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, which has affiliates in the cities cited in the complaints.

"Instead of stabilizing neighborhoods, instead of fixing schools, instead of doing what parents want, schools are closed, people are fired, and what replaces them in the main is no better than what’s come before."

But district officials say their school closing decisions are often necessary, driven by a pressing need to improve schools quickly, close budget gaps in the face of shrinking public revenues, or respond to federal or philanthropic education opportunities.

"Our school closures in Newark were driven by a fierce sense of urgency to create more high-quality options in the most underserved areas of our city," said Renee Harper, a spokeswoman for the 39,000-student district, expressing an argument often heard for closing schools.

Concerns about disrupting students’ education and neighborhoods’ structures make school closures a perpetually difficult political and emotional issue, but recent rounds of closings are particularly fraught. The growing number of students enrolled in charter schools instead of traditional public schools in struggling districts has led to some—though not most—of the underenrollment that spawns closings and has prompted accusations from the affected communities of schemes to privatize public schools.

The impact of closures on teachers and communities was a concern in the much-publicized teachers’ strike in the 404,000-student Chicago district last month. And there is a growing sense in the communities affected that previous rounds of closings—nearly 150 in New York City, which currently operates about 1,700 schools and more than 80 in the 600-school Chicago system, in the past decade—have not always led to the promised goals for disadvantaged students.

Even when closing schools is a financial or demographic necessity, "there are good and bad ways to do school closure," said Marguerite Roza, an associate professor of education finance policy at the University of Washington in Seattle. Done well, she said, closures can result in a more efficient use of resources, which benefits students in the long run.

But other experts say the negatives outweigh the positives, especially when closings are intended as a school improvement effort rather than a budget fix. "School closings have often been disastrous," said Pauline Lipman, a professor of educational policy studies at the University of Illinois in Chicago who has studied closings there.

More Concerns

The advent of the federally funded School Improvement Grant, or SIG, program in 2009, brought school closings into the spotlight as one of four turnaround strategies districts could use to revive struggling schools. Only 18 of the more than 3,700 closures from 2009 to 2011 were financed through SIG, according to the federal Education Department, but the program’s emphasis on dramatically restructuring traditional public schools is apparent in many districts that are pushing ahead with large-scale closures.

The 146,000-student Philadelphia district predicts that it will close between 29 and 57 schools next year, according to Danielle J. Floyd, the head of the district’s facilities-master-plan program, and those closings will be more informed by academic performance than previous rounds of closures. In New York City, which has 1.1 million students, the revelation this month that more than 150 schools posted mediocre scores on state tests led to speculation that the district might close many schools.

Erin Hughes, a spokeswoman for the district, sent Education Week a list of 36 elementary and middle schools that have so far been identified as struggling and are in "early engagement" conversations involving closures with the district.

Disparate Impact

The civil rights complaints lodged against the districts charge that the schools slated to close have often not been given the resources they need to thrive.

Lack of resources is, of course, often a reason for closing the schools in the first place. In the Charlotte-Mecklenburg system in North Carolina, for instance, the closing of eight schools before the start of the 2011-12 school year resulted from serious budget woes in the wake of the Great Recession, which hit the city’s large finance sector particularly hard, said Eric Davis, a member of the district’s school board and the chairman during the closures. The closings were determined to be the least-painful option for the 141,000-student district, he said.

But the complaints allege that such cuts disproportionately affect minority neighborhoods, and that many of the schools that are closed are first set up to fail. In New York, for instance, "those schools are actually overloaded with challenging kids in the period before the department decides to close them," said Norm Fruchter, a policy analyst at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

The New York City complaint alleges, for instance, that the closed schools had particularly large numbers of difficult-to-teach students, and that some of those schools saw dramatic increases in the number of English-language learners, special needs, and free-and-reduced-price-lunch-eligible students.

The district denies charges that the enrollment disparities are evidence it has sabotaged schools.

And the closings themselves tend to have a disparate impact on minority students. In the 44,000-student District of Columbia schools, for instance, "closures [predicted for the next school year] would disrupt the education of almost 13,000 students, of whom 90 would be white," says the complaint. The school district’s student population is 72 percent African-American and 10 percent white.

Financial Savings?

Research on the impact of closing struggling schools is mixed.

As far as academic gains, "the effects of the policy really rest on having a good supply of better-performing schools where these kids can go," said Marisa de la Torre, the associate director of professional development at the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research.

In Oakland, Calif., a recent round of closures was deemed largely successful by district spokesman Troy Flint, who said the 37,000-student district moved every displaced student to a better-performing school. But Ms. de la Torre’s study of closures in Chicago from 2002 to 2005 showed that only 6 percent of students from closed schools wound up in high-performing schools, and the performance of the remaining displaced students dropped after closings were announced, but did not notably change the year after the closing.

Beyond the academic impact, there are cultural and safety concerns. In Chicago and Detroit, the University of Chicago’s Ms. Lipman said, closures or turnarounds are often linked with gentrification. For instance, a neighborhood school may be shuttered and replaced by a selective-enrollment school or a charter school whose lottery results in a different—and perhaps, more-affluent—population. She said the displaced students may end up traveling long distances to their new school, often through areas where students don’t feel safe.

And "the money saved as the result of closing schools, at least in the short run, has been relatively small in the context of big-city school district budgets, with the largest savings achieved when closings were combined with large-scale layoffs," according to a report released last fall by Philadelphia Research Initiative, part of the Philadelphia-based Pew Charitable Trusts. The researchers analyzed closings in several districts after Philadelphia said it would be closing many schools.

The least controversial closings seem to take place in districts like Denver, which strove to have transparent and regular processes evaluating where schools should open and close so that closings were less political, said the University of Washington’s Ms. Roza.

Jitu Brown, an education organizer with the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, in Chicago, which organized the students who filed the complaint, said that transparency and communication were lacking in his city. "My question is, ‘Where’s the accountability for a policy that destabilizes schools and communities and has been shown not to help?’ "

In any case, closing schools is acknowledged to be a difficult task by all involved. "Ideally, no one would want to go down that path," said Mr. Flint, the Oakland spokesman, "but sometimes you have to endure some pain as part of a restructuring process to create something better and more sustainable."

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