Closing schools: Good Reasons and Bad Reasons

Current reformy rhetoric dictates that we MUST CLOSE FAILING SCHOOLS! That we must close those schools that are dropout factories or have persistently low achievement levels on state assessments. And, that we must, in the process, fire all of the staff in those schools that have caused these dismal conditions year after year, by thinking only of themselves, their tenure, their pensions and their wages – which are clearly too high for workers of their meager cognitive ability.

Take these simple bold steps and things will get better! Surely they will.

But, the bottom line is that you can’t just close down the poorest schools in any city school system and simply replace them with less poor ones – problem solved! That is, unless the larger strategy is actually about closing down entire neighborhoods, allowing them to become blighted, then seeking investors to step in and gentrify the area, replacing the old population with a new, less poor one! Problem solved. Or alternatively, if one relies on the off chance of a large scale natural disaster disproportionately displacing the poorest families to a large urban district in a neighboring state. But I digress.

A major unintended consequence of this ill-conceived reform movement is that it is distracting local school administrators and boards of education from closing and/or reorganizing schools for the right reasons by focusing all of the attention on closing schools for the wrong ones. In fact, even when school officials might wish to consider closing schools for logical reasons, they now seem compelled to say instead that they are proposing specific actions because the schools are “failing!” Not because they are too small to operate at efficient scale, that local demographic shift warrants reconsidering attendance boundaries, or that a facility is simply unsafe, or an unhealthy environment.

In really blunt terms, the current reformy rhetoric is forcing leaders to make stupid arguments for school closures where otherwise legitimate ones might actually exist!

There are legitimate reasons, cost saving reasons and other, to close schools and reorganize the delivery of educational services across organizational units and geographic locations within a district. Often, when I’m pushed to suggest the types of steps districts might take to achieve cost savings, the first issue I turn to is school organization/optimization.  Closing schools is not necessarily a bad thing. Closing schools for the wrong reasons and under the wrong pretexts is a bad thing. Reorganizing schools may lead to staffing reductions. These are cost cutting realities in a labor intensive industry. The fact is that you can’t really cut much from costs without cutting labor costs.  When enrollments decline significantly over time, fewer teachers are needed to get the job done and the staff may need to be reorganized.

But closing schools based on test scores, and pretending that we are somehow appropriately dismissing the staff that “caused” those low test scores is – well – just dumb.

Now let’s talk about some of the more legitimate reasons that a district might choose to close/reorganize schools.

First, let’s define “cost” and “cost cutting.” Cost is the minimum amount that needs to be spent to      achieve any given level of outcomes. It’s certainly possible to spend more than the minimum hypothetical – perfect world – cost of achieving any given level of outcomes. In fact, it’s pretty much a given that spending on outcomes occurs in less than perfect conditions, including unevenly growing and declining enrollments and unevenly distributed facilities capacity, quality and efficiency. Ultimately, the goal is to figure out how to reduce those barriers – less than perfect conditions – in order to get closer to that hypothetical minimum cost of achieving a given level of outcomes. In other words, the goal in times of budget cuts it to figure out how to spend less, but not compromise outcomes.

Here’s a short list of legitimate reasons a district might choose to close schools.

Economies of Scale

Operating unnecessarily small schools within a district creates inappropriate inequities. Providing more resources per pupil in one school necessarily means less in others. If those differences are based on legitimate differences in costs and student needs, that’s fine. It’s a difference that advances rather than erodes equity. But, sustaining inefficiently small schools at the expense of others within a large, population dense school district doesn’t meet those criteria. So, it’s in the best interest of the district as a whole to find ways to optimize the distribution of enrollments across schools within districts. To make sure, for example, that there aren’t elementary schools in one part of town with only 100 or so students, and in another part of town with 1,200 students. That there aren’t high schools with 300 to 400 students drawing  resources from high schools with 1,500 students. This can be really tricky to accomplish. But even moving toward optimal, while not reaching it is better than nothing. The literature on economies of scale suggests that elementary schools of 300 to 500 students and high schools of 600 to 900 students seem to produce optimal outcomes, and these sizes are consistent with literature that suggests that districts with 2000 to 4000 pupils seem to minimize costs of producing outcomes.

Facility efficiency

Some school facilities are simply more efficient to operate than others. They have more efficient mechanical/HVAC systems, are better insulated, have fewer deferred maintenance issues, potentially longer overall projected useful life.   Some facilities simply have more efficient space for accommodating the kinds of programs and services that need to be delivered. Evaluating the costs and benefits of maintaining and upgrading the current stock of facilities and whether children can be more efficiently distributed across “better” spaces with lower operations and maintenance costs is something any/all school districts should be engaged in on an ongoing basis.

Transportation efficiency

As population distribution shifts across spaces within a district, and while considering other reasons for reorganizing and redistributing students across schools – usually via changes to school attendance zones, but potentially with choice programs as well – evaluation of transportation efficiency should also be on the table.  In a district with dramatically declining enrollment or geographically shifting enrollment, school closings may be inevitable. In fact, a district may find itself closing some schools and selling off land, while opening others in different locations (less likely in more densely populated urban centers, but common in sprawling exurbia).

Health & Safety Concerns

This one is (or at least should be) a no brainer. Kids shouldn’t be housed in unsafe or unhealthy facilities.  That in mind, districts should engage in cost-benefit analyses to evaluate/compare the costs of improving the problem facilities/spaces versus other reorganization options.  Closing unsafe, unhealthy schools and appropriately distributing students among “better” spaces is obviously a legitimate reason for school closing.

Socioeconomic integration/balancing

A final reason why a district might close and/or reorganize schools to improve performance while maintaining (or cutting) spending, is to achieve better peer group balance across schools. Of course, this only works when the district is a) heterogeneous enough to be able to create better balanced peer groups and b) geographically small enough to not incur substantial transportation costs when implementing such a policy. A substantial body of research indicates that concentrated poverty and for that matter racial composition (racial isolation) in schools can affect the costs of achieving a given outcome target. Optimizing peer group composition across schools while considering interaction with other cost drivers (transportation) makes sense.  Of course, the U.S. Supreme Court has placed some constraints on the role of race in re-assignment policies, But options remain available.

Improving peer group balance, optimizing school sizes, optimizing bus routes, making best use of most operationally efficient and educationally efficient learning spaces all can help districts both reduce costs and improve outcomes.

AND ABSOLUTELY NONE OF THIS HAS ANYTHING TO DO WITH CLOSING FAILING SCHOOLS.  Why, because there’s little or no evidence that closing “failing” schools improves either productivity or efficiency.

It’s not that sexy. It’s not reformy. It’s just good management decision making to get the most bang-for-the-buck. And it’s all stuff that districts can and should be working on constantly.

Closing schools is never easy. Someone will always be irked, no matter what the reason for the closure. A neighborhood will feel that it has lost its identity. Alums will feel that a piece of their childhood has been taken away.  So if we’re going to go down this road, and fight the difficult political fights that school closing plans create, then we ought to be closing the schools for the right reasons, and not the wrong ones!


Published by schoolfinance101

Bruce Baker is an Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. From 1997 to 2008 he was a professor at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, KS. He is lead author with Preston Green (Penn State University) and Craig Richards (Teachers College, Columbia University) of Financing Education Systems, a graduate level textbook on school finance policy published by Merrill/Prentice-Hall. Professor Baker has written a multitude of peer reviewed research articles on state school finance policy, teacher labor markets, school leadership labor markets and higher education finance and policy. His recent work has focused on measuring cost variations associated with schooling contexts and student population characteristics, including ways to better design state school finance policies and local district allocation formulas (including Weighted Student Funding) for better meeting the needs of students. Baker, along with Preston Green of Penn State University are co-authors of the chapter on Conceptions of Equity in the recently released Handbook of Research Education Finance and Policy, and co-authors of the chapter on the Politics of Education Finance in the Handbook of Education Politics and Policy and co-authors of the chapter on School Finance in the Handbook of Education Policy of the American Educational Research Association. Professor Baker has also consulted for state legislatures, boards of education and other organizations on education policy and school finance issues and has testified in state school finance litigation in Kansas, Missouri and Arizona. He is a member of the Think Tank Review Panel, a group of academic researchers who conduct technical reviews of publicly released think tank reports on education policy issues.

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