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Behind the School Closure Epidemic

by MICHELLE RENEE MATISONS and SETH SANDRONSKY

Will there be a time when the term “school to prison pipeline” becomes “the home to prison pipeline” or the “home to military pipeline” because there are simply no more schools to speak of? If you interpret the public school closure epidemic sweeping U.S. cities as a deliberate attack on primarily poor black, Latino, and immigrant communities, then you already understand more than many politicians, judges, CEOs, and education policy apologists/analysts will concede. It’s surprising not more people are talking about the widespread impact of mass school closure; not a single education item made it onto Project Censored’s annual list of most censored news stories for 2013. School closures did receive mainstream media coverage recently on MSNBC. Melissa Harris-Perry’s webpage recently featured an article by Trymaine Lee that provides stunning statistics regarding school closures in poor/black neighborhoods. In Chicago “88% of the students affected by the school closures are African-American. The numbers are just as glaring in Philadelphia, where 81% are black. In both cities more than 93% of the affected students come from poor families.”

While being a wildly popular solution for both political parties, school closure (“rightsizing”) is a very dangerous plan when you consider the social impact of restructuring. So far, available studies indicate that mass school closure is failing as a quick academic and financial fix. Given the evidence of failure—why the ongoing school closure trend? The authors consider the culture/class wars (which include gender-class based attacks against predominantly female teachers’ unions and race-class based attacks on communities of color) as a main motivating factor in mass school closure. (We are reminded of the War on Drugs, which also has nonsensical social outcomes and highly sinister backroom motives.) Since the education rightsizing issue impacts many groups, it promises to be an important site of social struggle. Why is it rightsizing time and how can we fight against it?

How can it be that we live in a political climate where school closure is accepted by many as a strategy for improving educational opportunities? (“Honey, they are going to teach the kids better by shutting lots of schools down.”) Can you imagine an argument whereby more hungry people will be fed if more grocery stores and restaurants are closed? How do we intervene in this nonsensical climate to keep our schools open?

There are two main types of arguments against school closures. The first is an economic argument, because their numbers have not shown the great returns promised (a lot of hassle for the savings and many hidden costs.) The second argument against school closures is much more powerful: it’s a moral argument for students’ (and teachers’) rights, and against the culture/ class wars fueled by corporate education companies, the charter movement, and complicit politicians.

The Economic Arguments

In addition to demographic shifts, and the proliferation of charter schools (which are less publicly accountable and do not have to honor employee collective bargaining), budget deficits are the main publicly stated motivation behind school closings. According to the Pennsylvania Clearinghouse for Education Research’s March 2013 “Issues Brief on School Closings Policy”, (PACER), “…70 large or mid-sized cities have closed schools—averaging 11 buildings per closure.” Washington, D.C., New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Oakland, Portland, and Richmond are included in this group—and there was a recent announcement of massive restructuring in New Jersey.

The PACER policy brief acknowledges three indicators for school closure decisions: low utilization, building conditions, and academic performance. When comparing Chicago, D.C., New York City, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia—we see that all three indicators were usually cited reasons for closure. The PACER brief notes that large scale school closings are a relatively new phenomenon and therefore more research is needed about long term savings. A 2011 Pew Research Center study cites the average closed public school building saves ~$1 million. You can save more money by rightsizing personnel—especially through teacher and essential staff layoffs—but these large scale layoff efforts do not always accompany school closures.

There are hidden costs to rightsizing (a term that seems so certain of itself, one can barely accept how wrong this all is). For example, a 2012 report by the District of Columbia Auditor recognizes original projected costs of $10 million for mass school closures actually exceeded $40 million “…due to higher outlays for transportation, moving and relocation, demolition, and the significant devaluation of several closed buildings.” The “significant devaluation” is key here. It’s difficult to sell old school buildings. When you close schools you close the hearts of neighborhoods and communities, so what moves into that old abandoned building in that much less trafficked neighborhood? A new nightclub serving apple martinis with the old blackboards on the walls and playground equipment outside for nostalgia sake? No. Charter schools are most likely to move into old public schools, establishing a sinister relationship between the statistical coincidence of public school closure and charter school fever.

Restructuring requires a contradictory ethos of pessimism (closure) and entrepreneurial optimism (charters). This ethos was initially introduced by G.W. Bush’s plan to quickly close those pesky public schools down en masse. Nationwide, charter school attendance has tripled since 2000 in the exact cities where we see school closures—and charters are also a major cause of demographic changes that rightsizers like to cite when arguing for more school shutdowns. (What’s amusing is how policy briefs innocently cite the proliferation of charter schools as a reason for public school closure: as if charters simply fell out of the sky and people just had to start attending them!) The coordinated attack on the poor through multiple privatization avenues (charters, vouchers) concept hasn’t quite reached the think tanks conducting statistical analyses of education rightsizing’s impact.

The big economic picture is also ignored when we talk about rightsizing. School closures are rising after the real estate crash that sent the economy into its deepest downturn since the depression of the 1930s. As tax revenues plummeted, local and state governments, unable to run budget deficits like Uncle Sam, pursued policies of austerity, or spending cuts, to public services such as education. Government spending increases the volume of dollars in circulation, and boosts the buying power of businesses and consumers. Reducing government outlays slows economic activity. Thus, we see weak demand for goods and services, and for businesses to hire new workers, further harming the tax revenues that local and state governments rely upon. So far research shows sound economic arguments favoring school closures are harder to come by—and it’s costing some districts way more than they initially projected.

The Moral Arguments

Beyond economics, both sides of the school closure debate rely on a moral argument. Education rightsizers try to convince the public they are looking out for our nation’s youth by removing them from underperforming and dilapidated schools. Public school supporters are countering the rightsizers’ corporate propaganda with their own moral vision of mutual aid and community collaboration: neighborhoods should fight the scourge of poverty by investing resources in underperforming schools and maintaining strong teachers’ union support. Quite different visions—and guess who’s winning?

It’s not a shock to hear higher performing schools have fewer available seats when other schools get shut down. In Philadelphia, there’s the highest statistical correlation between seat availability and academic performance: the rigorous schools are filled to the brim. So students are not guaranteed a better education when they are moved to a new school—contrary to the stated moral intentions of the rightsizers. (Hence the discrimination lawsuits against rightsizing school districts.)

Also, there are adverse changes in social, cultural, emotional, and family lives that have not been studied enough. These impacts are summarized in a Calder Center (National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research) working paper entitled “A Leg Up or a Boot Out? Student Achievement and Mobility under School Restructuring.” This paper briefly summarizes some of the negative effects school restructuring has on the more difficult to quantify subjective level of everyday experience.

The first effect is how restructuring affects school climate. Schools may develop a stressful or pessimistic climate once they know they are being targeted for closure. (One should take time to marvel at how a low school grade –“This school’s a C”—probably lowers morale and thus proves unproductive to the educational empowerment enterprise.) Next we have the fact that there are no strongly established associations between student relocation and academic achievement yet. The Calder Center working paper states that academic performance generally drops in the immediate year following relocation, but the good news is it rebounds the second year. But, if a student is relocated once they are more likely to switch schools more often than those who aren’t ever relocated.

When a student has to attend a new school farther away, she can experience all kinds of emotional and social changes involving her peer group, teachers, and adjusting to a new campus culture. We don’t need longitudinal studies to reveal that she may experience emotional difficulty when she suddenly has to move elementary schools. It also may be more difficult for her family to change their schedules to ensure regular attendance at her new school. Transportation availability and cost, a need to move homes, and parents’ work schedules play into the convenience (or lack thereof) in a new school arrangement. Perhaps this is why the Calder Center study also reports a drop in attendance for students attending new schools under the restructuring/closure regime.

Fighting the Rightsizers

Right now, unions and parents’/citizens’ groups are seeking to stop school closures in the courts, but this is an uphill battle. In October, a District of Columbia District Court judge ruled against plaintiff claims in a lawsuit seeking to stop school closures because they discriminate against disabled students, poor students, and students of color. The judge wrote that plaintiffs were unable to prove intentional discrimination in their claim. However, the plaintiffs have a strong argument based on how the district handled underutilized white affluent schools in the 70s. The schools were not closed, but instead revitalized. The judge maintained that some discovery can still occur on the basis of discrimination, so the D.C. lawsuit is not over yet.

In south Sacramento, seven public elementary schools recently closed. The students at the closed schools were predominantly nonwhite, low-income, and had limited English proficiency, said Jonathan Tran, an organizer with Hmong Innovating Politics (https://www.facebook.com/HIPSacramento). This group of adults in their 20s collected parents’ depositions and filed a federal lawsuit opposing the Sacramento City Unified School District’s selection process to close the seven schools. A federal judge heard the case. She listened to the preliminary injunction and wrote a report, ruling in the district’s favor. The SCUSD’s policy proceeded under Superintendent Jonathan Raymond– a graduate of the Broad Education Foundation. This reform group’s playbook for closing public schools is here.

They might have their playbook, but we can write our own. Stay tuned to find out if families and community groups will be successful at keeping schools open. Or will it remain rightsizing time all the time until there’s only a “no schools to nowhere pipeline”?

Michelle Renee Matisons, Ph.D. is an independent scholar doing education research in the Florida panhandle. She can be reached at michrenee@gmail.com. Seth Sandronsky is a journalist in Sacramento. Email sethsandronsky@gmail.com.

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