As this story in the Wall Street Journal shows, over 1,000 public schools closed last year, involving some 280,000 students.

This is supposedly the result of competition. But it seems clear that in some districts, like DC, Chicago, and NYC, the leaders of the public schools are supporting the other team. How can you have competition when the home team has leaders cheering for and helping the other side?

Why doesn’t KIPP accept the KIPP Challenge and take over all of DC?



WASHINGTON—At Davis Elementary in this city’s mostly poor southeast section, 178 students are spread out in a 69-year-old building meant to hold 450.

Three miles away, the new, $30 million KIPP charter school teems with 1,050 children. Toddlers crawl over a state-of-the-art jungle gym and older students fill brightly decorated classrooms. A waiting list holds 2,000 names.

Many students who live within the Davis boundaries instead attend the charter school, one of 125 nationwide run by KIPP, a nonprofit. The exodus helped land Davis on a list of 20 schools targeted for closure next school year.

Closing underused schools, however painful, will let the district shift resources to “improve the quality of education we provide to our students,” Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson said at a recent city council hearing packed with parents, teachers and students pleading for schools to be kept open.

Similar scenes are playing out in places such as Tucson, Ariz., Chicago and Philadelphia, where school systems are rolling out plans to close underenrolled and underperforming facilities. The efforts are driven by a drop in the school-age population, the Obama administration’s push to shut poor-performing schools and competition from charters, the publicly funded schools run by independent groups.

During the 2010-11 school year, school districts nationwide closed 1,069 traditional public schools, uprooting nearly 280,000 students, according to data compiled for The Wall Street Journal by the National Center for Education Statistics, the primary federal entity for national school data. That was up from 717 closings affecting 193,000 students in 2000-01, according to the data, which don’t include specialized schools, such as those for special-education students.

Even charters aren’t immune. In 2010-11, 128 charter schools were closed, compared with 44 in 2000-01, the data show. This past week, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, a nonprofit group that represents government and other entities that approve charter-school applications, called on its members to close hundreds of poor-performing charters and urged new state laws to improve accountability. The group said at least 900 of the nation’s 6,000 charters, which also receive private donations, post test scores that land them in the bottom 15% of all schools in their states.

“We did not start this movement to create more bad schools,” said Greg Richmond, president of the group. “We want smarter charter-school growth and stronger accountability.”

Proponents of school choice say closing low-performing and underenrolled campuses is a natural outgrowth of heathy competition, while many teacher unions argue that struggling schools often need more resources to fairly compete. Meanwhile, many parents fear that closures will mean students end up in schools that are farther away or worse academically.

Tubrook Livingston, who has a child at Davis Elementary and heads its Parent Teacher Association, said he recognizes the school is underenrolled and low-performing, but he wants it kept open. “Unless they have a better place for our kids…I don’t see any reason to close it,” he said.

In Chicago, rumors that the city intended to close as many as 100 schools laid the foundation for the two-week teachers strike in September and sparked rallies protesting the closings and prompted protests citywide. Facing a Saturday deadline, city officials lobbied state legislators last week to allow a delay in identifying schools targeted for closure. State lawmakers granted the extension and the governor signed the bill Friday. Chicago schools officials have said they will implement a five-year moratorium on closings after next year’s schools closings.

In Washington, enrollment in district-run schools has dropped to about 42,000 this year from about 61,000 in 2002, due partly to the city’s dwindling school-age population and the growing popularity of charter schools. About 40% of D.C. public-school students now attend charters.

Research is scant on the academic impact of school closings. But two studies—one in Chicago and one in an unnamed district in the Northeast—found that, in general, students displaced by closures do no better, and sometimes worse, in other traditional schools, in large part because they transfer to similarly low-performing campuses nearby.

Closing schools doesn’t necessarily yield a financial windfall, because teachers often are shuffled to other schools and vacant school buildings are tough to unload, according to a 2011 study by Pew Charitable Trusts’ Philadelphia Research Initiative. “There is nothing easy about closing schools and it is extremely difficult to find productive uses for the buildings,” said Emily Dowdall, a senior researcher at Pew.

Still, underused schools like Davis, which has students from preschool through fifth grade, can be expensive to operate. Davis Elementary spends about $13,225 a pupil, with about 32% going toward classroom teachers, and the rest funding such things as instructional aides, office staff and custodians. Nearby Langdon Elementary, with more than twice as many students, spends $9,900 a pupil, with 55% going to classroom teachers.

“We get that we are small and it’s not cost effective to run a small school, but we have a good thing going here and our students are making great progress,” said Davis’s principal, Maisha Riddlesprigger.

Since 2009, the portion of Davis students who tested proficient in reading doubled to 34%, while math proficiency jumped to 35% from 22%. At the nearby KIPP school, 59% are proficient in reading and 75% in math.

Nichole Young lives a few blocks from Davis but sends her 4-year-old son to KIPP. “I don’t have anything against Davis,” said Ms. Young, who teaches 12th grade English in a Maryland public school. “But we visited KIPP and observed the children in classes and they seemed so happy to be learning and that won me over.”

Write to Stephanie Banchero at

A version of this article appeared December 3, 2012, on page A3 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Schools Ring Closing Bell.