The National Education Policy Center has published a thoughtful critique of the strategy of closing schools. This approach was encouraged by George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind and by Barack Obama’s Race to the Top. Typically, the local board (or mayor) claims that the district will save money or the students will surely move to a better school. But what if this is not the case. NEPC identifies Oakland, California, as the district planning to close several schools. But it is not alone. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed 50 schools in a single day, the largest school shutdown in U.S. history. Studies subsequently showed that the students did not benefit. School closures typically harm students of color more than white students. The same is true in Oakland.

NEPC writes:

Like others before it, the latest round of urban school closures disproportionately impacts people of color and students from low-income families. Yet there’s limited evidence that closures achieve their stated goals of saving money or improving academic outcomes.

It’s happening again.

Another urban school district, this time Oakland Unified in California, has voted to close schools that serve a disproportionate number of students of color from low-income families.

Two schools will close this year, and five more next year, according to the plan the school board approved last month. Black students comprise 23 percent of the Oakland school dis- trict but 43 percent of the students in the schools slated for closure.

Oakland is the latest in a growing collection of urban school districts that have decided in recent years to close schools that disproportionately enroll students of color and students from low-income families. Other examples include Chicago, which closed or radically recon- stituted roughly 200 schools between 2002 and 2018, St. Paul Minnesota, which approved six school closures in December, and Baltimore City, where board members decided in Jan- uary to shutter three schools.

Closures tend to differentially affect low-income communities and communities of color that are politically disempowered, and closures may work against the demand of local ac- tors for more investment in their local institutions,” according to an NEPC brief authored in 2017 by Gail Sunderman of the University of Maryland along with Erin Coghlan and Rick Mintrop of UC Berkeley.

In Oakland, community members and educators reacted to the closures with protests, marches and a hunger strike.

When urban school boards close campuses, they typically cite the schools’ poor academic performance or to the need to save money by shuttering buildings that are under enrolled

Yet it’s unclear that closures serve either goal.

In their policy brief, Sunderman, Coghlan, and Mintrop find limited evidence that student achievement improves as a result of school closures designed to improve academic performance.

“[S]chool closures as a strategy for remedying student achievement in low-performing schools is a high-risk/low-gain strategy that fails to hold promise with respect to either stu- dent achievement or non-cognitive well-being,” they wrote.

It causes political conflict and incurs hidden costs for both districts and local communities, especially low-income communities of color that are differentially affected by school closings. It stands to reason that in many instances, students, parents, local communities, district and state policymakers may be better off in- vesting in persistently low-performing schools rather than closing them.

Similarly, NEPC Fellow Ben Kirshner and his CU Boulder colleagues Matt Gaertner and Kristen Pozzoboni found several harms for the high school closure they closely studied. Writing in the journal, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, they identified declines in the displaced students’ academic performance after transferring to their new schools, and they found that these students had difficulty adjusting to their new schools after their old relationships were disrupted.

The Oakland closures have mainly been justified as saving money by closing under enrolled schools that can’t take advantage of the economies of scale available to larger schools. Similar arguments were made in Baltimore and St. Paul…

In Oakland, a combination of factors, including gentrification and pandemic-related enroll- ment declines, caused the student population to decline 11 percent over the past five years to just over 37,000. The school closures were touted as a way to address the district’s $90 million budget shortfall.

Yet in a commentary in The Mercury News, NEPC Fellow and CU Berkeley professor Janelle Scott pointed out that even the claimed fiscal savings are minimal. A consultant’s report estimates the Oakland closures could save as little as $4.1 million.

“These estimates don’t fully account for disillusioned families and school staff who will like- ly leave OUSD for private, charter and public schools, fatigued by the constant threat of closure and consolidation,” Scott wrote.

Please open the link and read the full report. Many schools have been closed since the passage of No Child Left Behind. Arne Duncan, among others, celebrated these closings, promising to replace the closed schools with even better ones. That didn’t happen.

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