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Closing Failing Schools

Education marketeers argue that closing persistently underperforming schools is necessary in order to provide students with the education they are entitled to. The strategy has great intuitive appeal to taxpayers who are fed up with efforts to turn these schools around. But this approach promises far more than it can deliver for reasons that are poorly understood.

Chicago, home of the nation's third largest school district, stands out as the best example. Even before No Child Left Behind became law in 2002, the Windy City had a long history of school closings. It's particularly important to bear this fact in mind because 21 schools have recently been identified for closing or restructuring ("Plan to Close or Restructure 21 Schools Draws Quick Reaction, Most of It Negative," The New York Times, Dec. 3).

A year after Education Secretary William Bennett charged in 1987 that the Chicago school system was the worst in the nation, the state Legislature mandated that the central administration cede responsibility to elected local school councils. These councils hired principals and were granted limited budget authority. The councils worked well in about one-third of schools, satisfactorily in a third and poorly in another third ("Can Our Schools Run on Duncan?" In These Times, Aug. 23, 2010). In 1995, however, the Legislature gave Chicago's mayor direct responsibility for the schools. Mayor Richard Daley promptly moved power back to the central administration.

Daley first appointed superintendents who were called CEOs, in the belief that schools should be run like businesses. Then in 2001, he named Arne Duncan the CEO of Chicago schools. His appointment led to the implementation of Renaissance 2010, which resulted in the closing of poorly performing schools. For a detailed account, I recommend School Reform in Chicago (Harvard Education Press, 2004) edited by Alexander Russo.

But studies by SRI International and the Chicago Consortium on School Research concluded that Renaissance 2010 schools only occasionally outperformed demographically similar schools. Despite the evidence, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is determined to push forward with school closings in line with legislation signed in August by Gov. Pat Quinn. Already more than 400 persons have voiced their opposition to the closing of the schools, which are located on the South and West Sides of Chicago (" 'Teach -in' preps parents, union members for fight to stop school closings," Chicago Tribune, Dec. 4).

The District of Columbia also shuttered many neighborhood schools because of poor performance during the regime of Mayor Adrian Fenty and Chancellor Michelle Rhee. Parents were given three options: transfer to another traditional school, choose a charter school or receive a voucher to attend a private school. The trouble was that there weren't always enough openings in schools in the best neighborhoods. Even if there were, not all parents had available transportation. As a result, students were shuffled from one school to another, creating resentment by parents ("Why School Choice Fails," The New York Times, Dec. 4).

New York City has closed more than 90 schools since 2002 when Mayor Michael Bloomberg was given control of the system. The buildings were turned into small themed schools and charters, which in many cases performed better than their predecessors. But it's hard to know if their improvement was the result of the transfer of the most difficult students to large high schools elsewhere in the city. What is known is the anger of parents. When the Panel for Educational Policy voted in late January to close 10 high schools and open a new charter school on the Upper West Side, a crowd of nearly 2,000 screamed their disapproval ("Panel Votes to Close 10 City High Schools," The New York Times, Feb. 1).

I expect to see more failing schools closed across the country as the educational marketplace movement accelerates. But don't count on widespread parental support. The reactions to date indicate that parents would much prefer to see their neighborhood schools improved.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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