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Assumptions About School Closings Are Risky

The rationale for parental choice is that it is the most effective way to improve educational quality because it forces schools to compete for students. Schools that fail to attract enough students will close through the weeding-out process. Those that remain represent the best available options.

In theory, the argument is impeccable. But in practice, the argument falls short. The latest evidence comes from Philadelphia ("Philadelphia School District Plans to Close Dozens of Schools," The New York Times, Dec. 31, 2012). Drastic financial cuts have forced the district to announce the closing of 37 campuses by June. With 53,000 empty seats out of a total of 195,000, the new superintendent said he has no other choice. I understand his dilemma. There are fixed costs associated with keeping schools open, regardless of enrollment in the same way there are fixed costs associated with keeping factories open, regardless of production.

But schools are not businesses. In Philadelphia, schools earmarked for shuttering are based on their physical condition, usage, cost per student and academic record. What's disturbing is that the academic record is only one consideration, when it should be the only consideration. The decision has set off protests from parents, students and teachers. They point to improvement in academic performance, as well as to the disruption caused by sending children to schools in different neighborhoods. They have a case. When 17,000 students and 1,100 teachers are affected, the impact is significant. Moreover, it sets a precedent for the district. No matter how much a school improves its test scores, absentee rate and graduation rate, it is vulnerable to closing.

Supporters of parental choice will argue that if these benchmarks were so impressive, there would be few empty seats. But don't forget that parents often base their decisions on social, logistic, administrative and holistic factors. For example, a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts in June 2010 found that school safety accounted for the largest difference in how parents view their schools in Philadelphia ("Phila. parents want more school-choice options," The Philadelphia Inquirer, Jun. 29, 2010). Parents have the right to place as much weight on any factor as they want. But I always thought that schools exist primarily to teach knowledge and skills. If I'm right, then it's hard to defend what's going on in Philadelphia.

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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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