The School Reform Commission in Philadelphia is about to decide whether to go ahead with an unprecedented and controversial plan to close 29 public schools. (There were more schools on the list but activists got about 10 removed).  To understand what is at stake for affected students and educators in Philadelphia — and in other cities where closing schools has become a popular reform tactic — here’s testimony that Kate Shaw, executive director of Research for Action, recently gave to the education committee of the Philadelphia City Council. Research for Action is a non-profit education research organization that analyzes reforms at the local, state, and national levels to promote effective, sustainable, and equitable policies.

Shaw’s testimony:

….The subject at hand—large-scale school closings—is one of the most challenging policy questions that can confront education leaders. You know that the well-being of our communities is inextricably linked with local schools, so the discussions surrounding their closing are not just operational or financial, but also deeply personal and highly-charged. To be clear, RFA [Research for Action] does not have an organizational stance on the district’s proposal.


Our role is to provide rigorous, objective research to ensure that the conversation taking shape is guided by evidence to the greatest extent possible. Ultimately, every parent and schoolchild deserves assurance that decisions stemming from the district’s plan are carefully vetted and consider the experience of other districts nationwide that have dealt with large-scale closings.


With the time available, I will briefly summarize what research and the experience of other major districts tells us about the potential impact of the closing plan on Philadelphia and its families and students.


I. School closings in the national context


The district’s plan to close 37 buildings—one-sixth of its total complement—is unprecedented in Philadelphia’s history. An extensive review of the research in this area found few comparably ambitious closing plans completed in a single year. The work associated with transitioning 17,000 students and hundreds of staff within a three-month period while sustaining educational programs and services would be a truly dramatic undertaking.


While the scope of Philadelphia’s plan is extraordinary, mass closings have become a clear trend in urban education. Over the past decade, 70 large or mid-sized cities closed schools—averaging 11 buildings per district—including:


Washington, D.C., which closed 23 schools in 2008; and


Pittsburgh, which shuttered 22 buildings in 2006, the largest single-year set of closures in a city that has halved facilities since 1997. Indeed, Pittsburgh’s closings exceeded even Philadelphia’s plan, with one in four schools affected.


The trend shows no signs of slowing: Washington, D.C. officials are currently considering another 15 closures. New York City, which closed more than 140 schools since 2002, recently announced plans to shut 17 more beginning next year. Chicago officials have weighed the potential closure of 100 schools according to a recent Chicago Tribune report.
A number of factors are contributing to the rise in school closures, including significant changes in urban school system demographics, federal and state education policy, and stagnant or even declining resources for public education in the wake of the recession. All of these factors are in play in Philadelphia in the following forms:


• Federal and state policy decisions increasingly emphasize school closings as an accountability measure, and provide incentives to shutter buildings that lag on achievement indicators, including standardized test results. With 87 Philadelphia schools failing to meet state achievement targets for at least four consecutive years, these policies have particular resonance here.


• Meanwhile, funding from Harrisburg has declined by approximately $300 million in recent years, both in terms of base subsidy and key categorical programs.


• The city’s charter school enrollment has increased 150 percent since 2003.6 Philadelphia’s 84 charter schools account for more than half of the state’s total and current estimates show the footprint becoming larger. The district projects a 37 percent increase in costs associated with charter schools over the next five years, bringing the total charter cost to more than $800 million.


Having provided background, I’d like to move on to three rationales offered by the district for its plan—achieving cost
savings, expanding academic opportunities, and improving building utilization and facility quality—and summarize what research and the experience of other districts can tell us.
II. The impact of school closings


A. Financial Impact of Closings on Districts


First, to the economic imperative surrounding under-utilized buildings and the savings that may be found through right-sizing. To be clear, school closings, broadly, do save money. The majority of savings are derived from personnel reductions such as principals and assistants, clerical staff, and food service and custodial employees. The largest savings occur when closings are combined with extensive faculty layoffs, but these do not commonly accompany closings. It is important to note that Philadelphia’s plan does not envision such reductions in force.


Large-scale school closings are a relatively new policy prescription—one explanation for the paucity in rigorous research on long-term savings. Looking at recent closings in major cities nationwide, a 2011 Pew analysis of six districts found average annual savings in the short-term were under $1 million per school including:


• $14.7 million when Pittsburgh closed 22 buildings; and
• $16.7 million in annual savings from D.C.’s 23-school reduction; and
• Estimated savings of between $500,000 and $800,000 per site for Chicago’s still-developing plan.


These savings, however, are offset to some degree by expenses such as maintaining vacant building sites, moving property, and transitioning and supporting students. Closings may also lead to unexpected costs. For example, D.C. officials initially reported approximately $10 million in implementation expenses associated with its 2008 closings.


Yet a 2012 report by the District of Columbia Auditor reported costs exceeding $40 million due to higher costs in the areas of transportation, moving and relocation, demolition, and the significant devaluation in several of the closed buildings.


B. Academic Impacts
The experiences of other districts also point to challenges in expanding high-quality educational opportunities while managing wide-scale closure. Like Philadelphia, declining enrollment and budget deficits drove Pittsburgh’s 2006 effort to close nearly two dozen schools. District officials used academic achievement indicators to determine which schools to close, setting a goal of placing students in comparably-performing or higher-performing schools, or schools with enhanced programs. This focus on higher-performing schools is central given research from two major closing efforts:


• A study of closings’ impact in Chicago found few long-term positive or negative effects for transferring students, but somewhat larger gains for the six percent of displaced students sent to schools with high average achievement levels.


• Research on the effects of mass closings in an unnamed district found small, persistently negative effects on displaced students. These negative effects were ameliorated when students were sent to better achieving schools. The authors note: From a policy standpoint, this suggests that if a district needs to close schools because of fiscal challenges or overcapacity, then closing low-performing schools and transferring students to higher performing schools can minimize adverse effects. However, our analysis does not necessarily support school closures as a means for improving student achievement.


Philadelphia’s plan proposes to transfer 17,000 students into 51 existing schools while creating four new K-8 schools. RFA’s analysis compares the performance of both sets of schools—proposed closing and proposed receiving—based on two sets of related academic criteria:


1. Building-level performance on the state’s reading and math assessments during the 2011-12 school year ONLY; and


2. The building’s Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) rating, which accounts for PSSA scores as well as factors such as attendance and graduation rate.


At the outset, it is important to note that while Philadelphia’s public schools have made headway over the past decade, critical and widespread achievement challenges remain. PSSA data is available for 35 schools on the closing list, and 58 of 60 possible transfer assignments. From our analysis on the criteria above, we can report the following:


• Performance as measured by the 2011-12 PSSA is statistically similar—within one standard deviation from each other compared to the district mean—between proposed closing and receiving schools in 67 percent of the proposed transfers. Specifically, math scores in closing schools are similar to the scores in 39 transfer assignments; reading scores are similar in 46 assignments.


• A number of receiving schools perform better than the schools that are closing: 17 transfer assignments lead to schools that posted considerably higher math scores; 11 transfer schools posted notably higher scores in reading.


• There are three assignments in which students could be sent to schools that perform considerably worse in one subject area under the current proposal.


In terms of AYP results:
• Two receiving schools made AYP in 2011-12;
• 40 schools – 18 closing and 22 receiving – fell into some category of correction action; and
• Nineteen proposed receiving schools are in Correction Action II, the most serious corrective cycle.


Every school but one on the closing list ranks among the bottom 15 percent in PSSA performance statewide for the last two years; 80 percent of receiving schools meet the same threshold.


C. Facility Impacts
The district’s plan also seeks to address low utilization rates in many buildings across the city, and attendant facilities and upkeep challenges.


On the question of utilization, the district hopes to reach an 85 percent rate of students to available seats, from a current city-wide rate of 71 percent. Our analysis shows that the proposed closures plan would improve utilization by 10 percent district-wide, and eliminate approximately 24,000 excess seats. Two regions—the West and Northwest—will still be significantly under-utilized, with rates of 66 percent (up from 57) and 70 percent (up from 65), respectively. The 35 schools recommended for closure collectively post an average current utilization rate of 51 percent.


In terms of building conditions as rated by the Facilities Condition Index†, the district will experience a slight improvement (.38 versus .39)—a measure that signifies “average” building conditions. Again, though, regional discrepancies arise with the Northeast and South-Central portions of the city posting the weakest facilities scores.


III. Conclusion


The decision to shutter schools is typically driven by enrollment or financial concerns, or some combination of these two. Philadelphia indeed faces short- and long-term fiscal and structural pressures, and school closure is widely seen as a necessary but insufficient step to tame them. But a review of the experience of other districts suggests that the short-term savings are hard-won and somewhat modest in the context of gaping deficits. The most significant savings are often realized through mass layoffs that are not envisioned in the district’s plan.


Research suggests school closings may hinder, and rarely help, students’ academic progress. Our analysis of Philadelphia’s closing and receiving schools reveals that in at least some cases, students may be transferred to lower or comparably-performing schools based on standardized achievement data and AYP determinations. A caveat here is that the measure of any school building goes far beyond student test scores and accountability determinations, and other factors—such as indicators of parental and community engagement and student safety—should be considered as well.


Thirdly, a key goal of the school closure plan is to raise the level of building utilization district wide, enroll students in better facilities, and to reduce excess capacity. Our review shows ambiguous results based on projections, with utilization moving steadily towards the district’s 85 percent goal and a one-point (.38 vs. .39) improvement in the district-wide School Facilities Index.


Ultimately, there are no easy choices before the district. But one thing is clear from research on other districts that closed schools: students who transfer to lower-performing schools do not fare well academically, at least in the short term. We appreciate the chance to join today’s discussion. Going forward, we’ll continue to do our best to provide stakeholders with information based on sound research in the hopes of finding the best solution to an extremely difficult challenge….