Mass Public School Closings: Good Fiscal Policy or Racist Austerity Measures?
By: Dr. Denisha Jones
On Wednesday April 24, more than 100 hundred Chicago high school students boycotted the second day of their state standardized test to protest a plan that will close 54 schools in their city. Fed up with too much emphasis on standardized testing, students used their protest to fight back against the misuse of testing and to voice their concerns on the negative impact of school closings. Chicago is not the only city to push a mass public school closing initiative, Washington DC has announced plans to close 15 schools this year, and New York City has plans to close 17, in addition to the schools that have already been closed in the past 10 years. So what’s behind mass public school closings? Some argue that school closings are needed to save money as states are forced to deal with huge budget shortfalls. Opponents argue that school closings are another tool to dismantle public education by turning public schools over to private charter corporations and are especially harmful to African American students since most of the schools that are targeted for closing are in predominantly low-income and minority communities. So which is it: good fiscal policy or racist austerity measures?
School closings are not new, although the increase in the amount of schools being slated for closure in one year does appear to be alarming. An issue brief by Research for Action on school closings found the following trends in mass school closings: Washington DC closed 23 schools in 2008, New York has closed over 140 schools since 2002, and Chicago has closed more than 40 schools since 2000. Philadelphia has made an unprecedented move to close 39 schools that is now down to 29 because parents and community members were able to remove 10 schools from the list. Since 1997 Pittsburgh has gone from 97 schools to 54, with 22 schools being closed in 2006, the most by any other district. According to the brief, this trend shows no sign of slowing.
Research for Action identified the following criteria used to determine which buildings should be closed in five cities: low-utilization, building condition, and academic performance. Using one or more of these reasons, some states have decided that closing schools is good fiscal policy because it will save the state money. Federal policies have encouraged states to shut down low-performing schools as an accountability measure while state budgets have found less money to spend on education. Combined with declining enrollments due to changing demographics and the increase in charter schools, mass public schools closings are seen as common sense reform to the changing public education market.
The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) argues that these reasons are actually falsehoods being used to further the privatization of public education. In their report, The Black and White of Education in Chicago’s Public Schools: Class, Charters, and Chaos, they present counter arguments to the claims of underutilization and budget shortfalls. The report states, “Underutilization” is CPS’s (Chicago Public Schools) excuse to close and/or consolidate neighborhood schools in black communities and hand over facilities to unaccountable private operators.” It goes on to ask how underutilization can be an issue when CPS has plans to open 60 additional charter schools. Additionally the report argued that the way building and classroom utilization are measured is flawed, failing to take into account space for community organizations and educational programming that takes place in the buildings. They also argue that CPS creates underutilization in schools by changing the attendance boundaries to assign fewer students in the school and then use the fact that there are fewer students in the school to justify closing it. A graphic in their report shows the connection between charter schools and public school closings, as charter schools open public schools are closed. If there are enough students to justify the granting of new charters why are there not enough students to attend public schools? Some would argue that charter schools have more students because they are doing a better job at educating students than their public school counterparts, but the research does not support this. The same report by CTU found that CPS schools outrank charter schools on reading tests, even though the public schools serve more low-income, minority, and special needs children. But charters are still being pushed as the solution to “crisis in public education”, which makes some people wonder why charter schools are being pushed onto other people’s children if the research shows that they are not any better at educating children than a public school?
Budget shortfalls are the other reason why many districts decided to engage in mass public school closings. Since the recession in 2008 many state budgets have decreased the amount of per pupil spending, leaving schools with less money to educate more children. Closing schools has been touted as a solution to the fiscal problems. According to Action for Research, school closings only save money if they are accompanied by massive layoffs of school personnel but not all districts include layoffs in their plans to close schools. Other potential savings are offset by expenses for maintaining properties and shifting students and teachers to new schools. Authors of the issue offer the following example, “D.C. officials initially reported approximately $10 million in implementation expenses associated with its 2008 closings. Yet a 2012 report by the District of Columbia Auditor reported costs exceeding $40 million due to higher outlays for transportation, moving and relocation, demolition, and the significant devaluation of several closed buildings.” This unexpected rise in costs associated with school closings takes away from the promise of more money in the budget that is supposed to occur as a result of closing schools.
The CTU views the rise in charter schools as the real cause of the budget shortfall. They claim that between 2004 and 2012 spending on charter schools has gone up 624% while spending on teacher’s salary grew by 10.6%. What you need to remember is that charter schools are funded using tax payer dollars but are run increasingly by private corporations and to a lesser extent by nonprofit organizations. CTU argues that these private equity companies are attempting to transfer public dollars into to private hands that are not held accountable and are able to reap in huge profits at the expense of our children.
One of the major criticisms of mass public school closings is the disproportionate effect it has on students of color. This graphic shows that in Chicago, New York and Philadelphia, school closings disproportionately affect black and low-income children. In Chicago, some of the school closings would force children to travel to new schools through dangerous gang inflicted neighborhoods causing many parents and students to be concerned. Schools are needed in many low-income communities as a space for community development but often they are the first to be targeted for closure. This trend has led many to claim that mass school closing plans are indeed racist. Could you imagine the outrage, if CPS decided to close even one school in a wealthy suburban district?
Budget deficits are a real concern for schools and other entities that rely on taxpayer funding. Decline in funding for public education is a problem, but massive school closings will not necessarily solve this problem. States are in need of more revenue to ensure that public schools receive enough funding to provide a high quality education to students. Closing schools does not generate enough revenue to solve the budget shortfall but it does create a host of additional problems. If you are troubled by mass public school closings in your area there are things you can do to help. Michelle Strater Gunderson a veteran Chicago Public School teacher suggests that parents and teachers “Use their voice. Call, write, petition, and march. We have to look to our elders for vision on resistance.” She also encourages teachers to take back their unions. CTU is the only teachers union that has publicly challenged school reform policies. Although they lost their right to bargain, Michelle notes they can still take part in protecting public education. As a member of the CTU she describes why they decided to strike last year and why they are vigorously opposed to school closings: “Our biggest issues are an evaluation system that attaches teachers’ worth to student test scores. This, in effect, destroys our relationships with our children. They could become part of a business transaction rather than our students. We need to resist the narrowing of the curriculum throughout our city to “teaching to the test.” We are the first large teachers union to stand up against this, and we know that if we prevail it will affect classrooms throughout our country.”
Teaches need to use their unions to fight back against policies that they know are harmful to students and detrimental to education. The fight to save public education will require the support of everyone including the unions, to make sure the voices of teachers, parents, and students are heard.