School Closure: Is the Issue Underutilization or Punishment?

We have been watching a wave of school closures in Chicago and Philadelphia and other big cities.  Officials justify the need for school closures by pointing to “underutilized” buildings and cost savings.

Here are two pieces that question the conventional rationale for school closure. The Opportunity to Learn Campaign just released a new info-graphic Debunking the Myths of School Closures.  “You can’t improve schools by closing them,” declares this resource, as it provides data to demonstrate that: “Most students won’t go to better schools.”  “Closures won’t save the district big bucks.” “These aren’t empty schools.” “Closures do have a big impact on everyone.”

Writing for Catalyst-Chicago, Sara Karp investigates the black-box of the Chicago school district budget, where she is unable to document claims of budget savings, this time from purported cuts to central office expenditures.  Karp reports that one part of the central office budget has exploded from $5 million in 2011 to $88 million in 2013: the Office of Portfolio that authorizes and manages new schools.

Chicago is a major practitioner of the “portfolio school reform” theory being actively promoted by the Gates Foundation and its partner, the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington.  This is the idea that a district should manage its schools like a business portfolio with constant churn as high-scoring schools are rewarded and so-called “failing” schools are closed.

One must always ask whether the district prepared the school for “failure” by moving out students, teachers, and important programs to prepare for the closure.  And one must be sure to remember that school closure is one of the so-called turnaround models being prescribed by the U.S Department of Education for low-scoring schools.  Because standardized test scores are, more than anything, a wealth indicator, we see a mass of school closures these days in communities where poverty is concentrated.

Our society’s most urgent national educational priority must be to invest in improving the public schools in our urban communities rather than punishing them, punishing their teachers, closing the schools or privatizing them.

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