Study of School Closings in Six Cities Provides Lessons for Philadelphia

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Study of School Closings in Six Cities Provides Lessons for Philadelphia

With the School District of Philadelphia preparing to unveil its plans to close numerous schools, The Pew Charitable Trusts' Philadelphia Research Initiative released a new report, Closing Public Schools in Philadelphia: Lessons from Six Urban Districts, which looks at the results of similar efforts in those other major cities.

To put what awaits Philadelphia in perspective, the study examines the experiences of Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City, Mo., Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., each of which has shuttered more than 20 schools in the last several years. It highlights the aspects of those experiences that have led to increased public acceptance for school closings.

The report finds that the operational savings achieved by multiple school closings, at least in the short run, tend to be relatively small in the context of a big-city school budget, well under $1 million per school. In Philadelphia, district officials have downplayed talk of a substantial financial impact, saying that the amount will depend largely on sales of closed buildings. 

In the districts studied, the task of putting the closed buildings to productive use, either through sale or lease, often has proved extremely difficult. At least 200 school buildings stand vacant in the six cities, including 92 in Detroit alone.

While there is limited research on the effects of large-school closings on students, academic studies that have been conducted show that the negative impact on student performance is minimal. Student achievement often falls during the final months of a closing school's existence but recovers within a year. And some students wind up going to higher-performing schools and doing better there.

“It's reassuring to know that students don't seem to suffer academically from school closings,” said Larry Eichel, project director of the Philadelphia Research Initiative. “But for the families involved, as well as the school district and the entire community, our report shows there is nothing easy about closing large numbers of schools.”

The report also finds that the political fallout of closing schools has varied among the cities. In Washington, public discontent over the process contributed to the ouster of a mayor and a schools chancellor. In Chicago, it led to enactment of a state law governing all future closings in the city. But in Kansas City, there was little public discontent evident even after the district closed half of the city's public schools in two years.

Faced with 70,000 empty seats, one-third of its entire capacity, the Philadelphia school district plans to close multiple buildings over the next two years. A list of proposed closings is expected to be announced this fall with a final vote by the School Reform Commission slated for early in 2012.

The primary drivers behind the closures in Philadelphia and the other cities studied include falling enrollment, deteriorating or outdated facilities and tight budgets. The enrollment declines are due to two basic elements: drops in the number of school-age children and the increased availability and popularity of alternatives to district schools, including charter schools.

The report analyzes the approaches to closings taken in the six other cities. It finds that 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.

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