Report

Closing Public Schools in Philadelphia: Lessons from Six Urban Districts

With nearly one-third of its seats sitting empty, 70,000 in all, the School District of Philadelphia plans to close multiple buildings over the next two years. In doing so, Philadelphia will be following in the footsteps of cities throughout the Northeast and Midwest.

The factors prompting the closings, in Philadelphia as in the other cities, include a dwindling population of school-age children, mounting budget pressures, deteriorating facilities, poor academic performance, and the growth of charter schools and other alternatives that have lessened the demand for traditional public-school education.

Closing Public Schools in Philadelphia: Lessons from Six Urban Districts looks at six cities that have engaged in large-scale public school closings in the past decade—Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City, Mo., Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and Washington—to better understand what is in store for Philadelphia.

Closing School Graphic - Fig 1

The analysis produced the following conclusions:

  • 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. Longer-term savings are difficult to project. In Philadelphia, school officials have downplayed expectations about the immediate impact on the district's bottom line, saying that the amount will be largely dependent on sales of unused buildings.
  • Selling or leasing surplus school buildings, many of which are located in declining neighbor-hoods, tends to be extremely difficult. No district has reaped anything like a windfall from such transactions. As of the summer of 2011, at least 200 school properties stood vacant in the six cities studied—including 92 in Detroit alone—with most having been empty for several years. If left unused for long, the buildings can become eyesores that cast a pall over neighborhoods and attract vandalism and other illicit activity.
  • The long-term effect of school closings on student performance appears to be minimal. While there is limited research on the subject, academic studies suggest that student achievement often falls during the final months of a closing school's existence. But such damage generally turns out to be short-lived. And some students wind up going to higher-performing schools and doing better there.
  • The political fallout often is significant. In Washington, public discontent over the process contributed to the ouster of a mayor and a schools chancellor. In Chicago, it led to the enactment of a state law governing all future closings in the city.

No matter how well school closings are executed, and no matter how much more the surviving schools may have to offer, some parents and community leaders are likely to be upset over the shuttering of a particular school or the new options on offer for the displaced students. This study found several approaches that have worked better than others in generating public acceptance for the closings and the resulting changes in the school system.

The likelihood of public acceptance, though not necessarily enthusiasm, went up when school officials:

  • presented the case for downsizing as early in the process as possible;
  • hired outside experts to help guide the process;
  • established clear, quantifiable criteria for deciding which schools to close;
  • showed a willingness to make some adjustments in the announced list of targeted schools when faced with compelling arguments; and
  • made the decision on the entire plan with a single vote rather than separate votes on each school.

Closing School Graphic - Fig 2