When Michelle Rhee told D.C. school residents that she, as chancellor of public schools in the nation’s capital, was closing 23 under-enrolled schools, she promised that a lot of money would be saved that could be plowed back into academic programs in remaining schools. It didn’t happen; an audit years later found that the closings actually cost the city $40 million.
It remains to be seen how the most recent round of announced closings will shake out: Chicago just said it was closing 54 public schools this year in what seems to be the largest mass closing of schools in U.S. history; Philadelphia said it was closing more than 20 schools, and Washington D.C., 15 schools. School closings have become a tool of school reformers who say the action is needed either because the targeted schools have too few students or are failing academically — even while they support the opening of charter schools in the same neighborhoods. In Chicago’s case, both arguments for closing schools were made in recent years.
Yet promises made by school reformers who close schools — either because they are under-enrolled or labeled academically failing — are rarely kept, studies have shown. The money savings are most frequently less than promised or non-existent, and most students don’t do any better academically in their new schools, researchers who have looked at closings in cities around the country say.
This is not an argument that no schools should ever be closed. Communities change and school systems have to change, too. But in many, perhaps most cases, there are better alternatives than closing schools, ones that school reformers have so far been reluctant to do because they go well beyond the myopic view of teaching and learning as being driven by standardized tests.
There is a reason that a new study by Public Agenda and the Kettering Foundation shows that there is a divide “between leaders and parents on whether it is more important to preserve neighborhood public schools, even those that are struggling, or whether it is more important to give parents more choice.” Parents, it says, largely want their neighborhood schools improved rather than be closed, it says.
Given that school reformers are always talking about the importance of giving parents “school choice,” you’d think they’d listen to the people who want their neighborhood schools saved. One way is to actually start to address the real reasons that many kids don’t perform well in school: Their lives. Living in poverty has consequences. Living in an unstable family has consequences.
Why not turn under-enrolled schools into community schools? Such a school would offer students the physical, mental and emotional support they need, meals, and extracurricular activities. Parents could take classes, too, and the facility would be open during the weekend too, offering activities and classes that can keep young people engaged. Why not better integrate health services and education services in a way that can actually help students be better prepared to learn? That would not only help individual schools and families but preserve neighborhoods too. Is this the only answer? No. Is it part of the answer? Absolutely.
Decades of standardized-test based school reform hasn’t worked. It has made an unsatisfactory situation in urban public schools far worse. It’s time for a more humane approach. And given that school closings don’t usually save the promised amount
To those who insist there are bad teachers and bad principals who get in the way of students who want to learn, yes, there are bad teachers and bad principals, and no, they shouldn’t be allowed to keep their jobs. But to focus school reform on that issue, when the bigger problems are elsewhere and largely being ignored, is, frankly, shameful.