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Mass school closings: Why the numbers don’t add up

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

Like most of the public, I’ve been baffled by the District’s latest rationale for closing down an unprecedented number of schools in a single year. In observing the school hearings, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a quote by Maya Angelou: “There’s a world of difference between truth and facts. Facts can obscure the truth.”

That statement couldn’t ring more true when looking at the District’s proposal to close down one in six Philadelphia schools, including 9 in the 19121 and 19132 zip codes. The plan will disrupt the lives of 17,000 children – more than 10 percent of its population – for questionable savings that amount to barely 1 percent of the District budget.

The District has not shown any lessons it has learned from other cities that have closed public schools with often negative impact on finances and student achievement.

The District comes to the table with a chosen set of facts: utilization, capacity, facilities condition index, and so on. Based on these numbers, the District says it’s shrinking. But is it?

It’s worth remembering that in the spring, the School Reform Commission authorized an unprecedented expansion of more than 5,000 charter seats at a projected cost of $139 million over five years – at a time when Chief Recovery Officer Tom Knudsen threatened that schools may not even open in September. Among the expansions was a 1,400-student high school for Performing Arts Charter, even though the District already has four performing arts high schools drawing from a citywide population. Charters with school performance index figures that ranked among the worst in the District received five-year renewals and expansions. Of the 26 charters up for renewal, the SRC voted to close just three, and two are appealing.

Whatever your opinion of charters, there’s no question the District has failed to explain its inconsistent approach of allowing charter expansion without regard to expense or academic quality while insisting on draconian and widespread sacrifice among District schools. Many of the District schools targeted for closure outperform charters that the SRC renewed and expanded last spring.

The numbers don’t add up on the $28 million in savings the District says it will garner. District officials have not fully disclosed the transition costs and other expenses associated with closing schools. This is of grave concern given what we know about school-closing expenses.

In Chicago, an internal document showed how school administrators failed to inform the public of associated transition costs for closing and consolidating a proposed 95 public schools. Administrators had contended that the school closings would save $140 million to $675 million over 10 years. However, the document showed that District officials estimated they could lose a huge portion of those savings because of an “upfront cash investment” of $155 million to $450 million in personnel, transportation and safety costs. In Washington, D.C., 23 public school closures ended up costing the District over $40 million.

How can our District state that the closings will save enough money to make it worth the chaos when it hasn’t shown its accounting for all the expenses?

Finally, the District has failed to demonstrate the most important factor in closing and consolidating schools – that we end up with a school system in better shape than the one we’re trying to repair. Studies have shown school closings have little impact on student achievement. Over the last decade, Chicago has closed down nearly 100 public schools. A 2009 study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research showed many students simply moved from one underperforming school to another; 80 percent of displaced elementary students ended up in schools that were below average in academic performance.

According to researchers, one of the most significant factors in student achievement during a school-closings process is the quality of the receiving school. A recent Research for Action study showed that most of Philadelphia’s best schools are already at capacity and are unlikely to take on more students. Moreover, we haven’t heard anything substantive from District officials about the concrete investments in the receiving schools on the list.

Nowhere is this situation made more apparent than the students who were wrongly promised a better education when FitzSimons and Rhodes High School closed last year. Last June, many were transferred to Strawberry Mansion, a school struggling with climate and academics.

Strawberry Mansion is on this year’s school closures list and the District has proposed transferring students to Ben Franklin, another struggling comprehensive high school. Some of these students will have attended three schools in three years through no fault of their own. A portion of them may not even make the transition.

There are too many offenses to count among the list of proposed school closings. Schools like Abigail Vare and George Washington elementaries – racially diverse and successful – made the list. So did McCloskey Elementary, which has steady enrollment, a stable staff, PSSA test scores above the District average, and a principal who’s a recent Lindenbaum Improvement in Education Award winner. Now the students will head to Edmonds, a school that’s nearly a mile away, with no transportation entitlement.

The District’s school-closings proposal is a stunning failure, not just of math, but also of the vision of public education. The questionable assumptions about charter expansion and school closings are a central reason that Parents United for Public Education filed a complaint in December with the Board of Ethics about the controversial use of a consultant who was not employed by the District, yet who had unprecedented access to District leadership to lobby around issues like school closings and charter expansion. It’s no surprise to us that the donors who helped pay for the consultant, like the Philadelphia School Partnership, have been among the most vocal advocates for mass school closings as well as massive charter expansion.

It’s our hope that the SRC and the new leadership under Superintendent Hite will reconsider an approach that has failed to answer many questions and concerns. The last thing this leadership needs is to associate the rhetoric around school closings to that of the comedian Stephen Colbert: “I can’t prove it but I can say it.”

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer. A longer version of this article appeared at the Notebook on Dec. 20, 2012.

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