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Unintended Consequences of Shuttering Schools

The repercussions from closing persistently failing schools are about to be felt by tiny Premont, Texas, which is located about 150 miles south of San Antonio. The town of 2,700 is bracing for the shuttering of the Premont Independent School District by the Texas Education Agency because of poor academics and a high truancy rate ("Texas district cancels sports in hopes of improving grades," Fox News, Jan. 21).

In a last ditch attempt to avoid what seems to be inevitable, officials are eliminating sports this spring and next fall to save enough money to keep the district's schools open. Although school districts across Texas are dealing with about $4 billion in state-aid cuts, rural districts are particularly vulnerable because they have limited local tax bases. That's why the situation in Premont serves as an invaluable case study.

Like so many rural school districts, Premont's enrollment is shrinking. It presently has 570 students compared with about 800 five years ago. Poverty is rampant, and truancy is high. The average daily attendance is 88 percent versus a statewide average of 96 percent. Parents are not sufficiently involved in their children's education. The plant is outdated and in disrepair.

All of the above factors combine to make the PISD a prime candidate for closure in the eyes of reformers. They argue that students are not receiving the education they deserve. Therefore, the district should be annexed into another district because there's no sense in continuing to fund a district that has been unable to turn itself around despite repeated warnings. (Five other school districts in Texas have been closed in the past 15 years.)

I understand the appeal of this argument. But it's important to follow it through to its logical conclusion. In Premont, as in so many other small districts, the school is the centerpiece of the community. That will mean little to residents elsewhere, but it cannot be minimized. As Linda Darling-Hammond correctly noted, school closings are severely disruptive. Students are forced to travel long distances to other schools if, in fact, they are accepted at all. Others simply drop out ("Why Is Congress Redlining Our Schools?" The Nation, Jan. 10). A school in a small town is also a major employer. When it closes, jobs are lost.

Further, there's the question of whether school closures deliver what their proponents promise. I wrote about this issue before ("Closing Failing Schools," Dec. 7, 2011). Based on the experience in Chicago, New York and the District of Columbia, the answer is no. Supporters of closing failing schools will maintain that it's too soon to draw any definitive conclusions because the practice is too new. Fair enough. But I think that even after the strategy is given a longer trial, it will prove to be a disappointment.

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

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