Illinois Researchers: School Closures Compound the Problems of Urban Segregation

Christopher Lubienski, a professor of education policy at the University of Illinois and Jin Lee, a Ph.D. candidate in his department. have published an important paper, The Impact of School Closure on Equity of Access in Chicago in the Journal of Education and Urban Society, where it is available only to subscribers.  However, a short summary, Children in Disadvantaged Neighborhoods Are More Likely to See Their Local Schools Close, by Lubienski and Lee has been published in a blog at the London School of Economics.

School closures, justified as one of the turnarounds prescribed as a punishment by the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act and the Obama administration’s School Improvement Grant program, are among the most troubling manifestations of the test-and-punish school “reforms” with which our society has recently been experimenting. Although the metric used for judging school quality is a school’s aggregate performance on the annual federally mandated standardized test, researchers continue to find that standardized tests correlate more closely with the average income of the families whose children attend the school than the quality of the school—its teachers and its programs. Researchers have also shown that, after their school closes, students cannot always move to a higher scoring school and that school closures remove important neighborhood institutional anchors.

Lubienski and Lee’s new study again confirms that there should be serious concern about school closure as a “turnaround” policy.  And their study questions the rationale too often provided by school districts when they close a school—that the school suffered from under-enrollment:

“Public schools in the U.S. are increasingly being shut down when they have been identified as underperforming on the basis of test scores and graduation rates.  The traditional approach to school closure has been to reduce financial losses caused by empty classrooms and under-enrolled schools…. Indeed, this classic approach to maximizing efficiency is now evident in school closure policies in larger cities which are experiencing out-migration and depopulation. But now it has been combined with the idea of punishing apparent organizational underperformance… In new research, we examine the possibility that school closings shape inequitable access to schools particularly for children in less advantaged neighborhoods…  (O)ur study… raises the likelihood that students in segregated communities have less access to neighboring schools.”  The study focuses on the closure by Chicago Public Schools of 50 schools in the spring of 2013—8 percent of the district’s schools.

In a series of maps, Lubienski and Lee show that in Chicago, “the policy produced a notable change in access in areas with a high density of both African American and Latino American children.  This suggests that school closures may be depriving students in particular areas of the opportunity to attend more convenient neighboring schools.”  Noting that parents and community activists have filed civil rights complaints against school closures not only in Chicago but also in New Orleans and Newark, Lubienski and Lee explain, “Here, the emerging question is how space-neutral school closings undermine spatial equality of educational opportunities.”

While school district officials tend to present school closures as the result of under-enrollment, the characteristics of particular neighborhoods attach additional meanings to a district’s decision: “In contrast to perspectives that cast geography as produced by natural and neutral causes, we see differences in demographic and socioeconomic characteristics affecting decisions, such as where to reside, or how to get to school.  Subdivided geographies determine and furthermore reproduce locational advantages and disadvantages…”

The researchers conclude that in the context of a mass of factors that segregate poor children of color, school closures have become a part of the structural racism in America’s big cities. “(T)here are urban ‘ghettos’ created by the geographic isolation of at-risk populations in inner cities. These sections of large cities have a long list of problems and threats, such as poor job markets, high rates of crime, and deficient access to public services…. For urban school districts that plan to close schools in an attempt to save money, schools located in poor areas are often the first targets to be eliminated or consolidated.  Consequently, this process leads to the loss of community schools for children who already reside in less advantaged neighborhoods. Current school closures, which tend to neglect underlying spatial contexts in urban cores, expose children in racially segregated and highly insecure communities to a double trap by lowering their ease of access to schools.”

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