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Debating the Ethics of School Closure

Note: This week's guest-blogger is Meira Levinson, Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE). Today, she co-authors with Jacob Fay, an advanced doctoral student at HGSE and an incoming Graduate Fellow at the Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard.

Urban mayors and school boards across the United States are shutting down significant numbers of district schools on grounds of underperformance or overcapacity. In 2012 alone, Chicago closed 49 schools. Philadelphia closed 23 schools, and 22 schools were shuttered in New York City. Detroit, Denver, Boston, Cleveland, and Providence, among other cities, have also recently closed schools or are threatening to do so in the near future. Although school closure (as well as opening of new schools) is not itself a new phenomenon, the increased rate of school closures—950-1200 schools per year across the U.S. in the late 1990s and early 2000s, up to 1500-2000 schools per year over the past decademay represent a "new normal" in education policy.

How should we think about the ethical dimensions of school closure? Proponents often argue that closing schools is an important tool for reallocating resources more efficiently, equitably, and fairly. Defending the massive elementary school closures, for example, then-CEO of Chicago Public Schools Barbara Byrd-Bennett argued, "For too long children in certain parts of Chicago have been cheated out of the resources they need to succeed in the classroom because they are in underutilized, under resourced schools. By consolidating these schools we can focus on transitioning every child into a better performing school close to their home." Similar justifications have been offered by mayors, school board leaders, and superintendents in many urban areas. This past fall, for example, Philadelphia superintendent William R. Hite, Jr., called the anticipated closure or conversion of 15 schools "'exciting' moves designed to increase equity in city schools."

By contrast, many students and parents oppose school closure on grounds of respect and civic recognition. As one mother put it in the wake of the closure of her West Harlem school, "The Roberto Clemente School was a school that represented us as a Hispanic community and as the striving community that we are." Comparing the resources offered to the new school that had taken over their building, she continued, "Today, it makes me sad to see the kind of supports that these new schools, that are occupying our spaces, are being offered....I ask myself: Why couldn't they have done this with our school?"

Such arguments came to a head during the 34-day hunger strike enacted by Chicago parents and activists this past fall to combat the closure of Walter Dyett High School. Contrasting their hunger strike in the overwhelmingly black Bronzeville neighborhood to the opening of a $21 million annex to Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Chicago's largely white and affluent Lincoln Park neighborhood, Jitu Brown asked "people to reflect on" the fact that "while black parents are starving on one side of town just to say, 'We want a high quality neighborhood school. We want Walter Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology High School.' On the other side of town, parents don't have to do sit-ins, they don't have to do protests, they just have to be."

To some extent, these contrasting assessments of school closure policies reflect speakers' different positions and perspectives (e.g. policymaker versus parent)as well as the complicated economic and racial politics of urban education reform. But they also represent contrasting ethical positionsthat is, claims about what values and principles should guide decisions whether to close a school.

In essence, we can see that Byrd-Bennett and Brown each offer a different moral calculus for such a decision. Brown and Bennett seem to agree about the importance of resource disparities tied to some Chicago neighborhoods and not others. Yet community activists like Brown invoke additional claims of injustice beyond resource distributionincluding disrespect toward and disenfranchisement of black familieswhereas Bennett seems to treat redistribution as constituting the only form of injustice, or possibly as simultaneously solving these other sources of injustice.

As school closure continues to be debated around the countryin particular, in cities and school districts that are often segregated by race and class and serve many families of colorwe believe that these ethical disagreements also deserve more open discussion. As we have been arguing all week, we are likely to make better decisions if we talk honestly with people from varying backgrounds and perspectives about the values and principles that underlie tough decisions in education policy and practice. It is rare that we will be able to settle on a perfectly just policy in a very imperfect world. So in the case of school closure disputes, we need to ask: which claims of injustice, by whom, require response? When claims of injustice conflict with each other, how should different claims be weighed, prioritized, or adjudicated? Given the decades-long histories of civic disrespect, misrecognition, and denial of resources to non-white communities in these cities, how can educational policy decisions be made that reduce rather than increase injustice?

--Meira Levinson and Jacob Fay 
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