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Closing Failing Schools Is Risky

Reformers urge that consistently failing schools be shuttered. They maintain that allowing these schools to continue to operate deprives the neediest students of a quality education. The argument has great intuitive appeal, but a closer look reveals that is not likely to produce the expected results.

I'd be the first to support school closures if there were assurances that the strategy would work as proposed. But the evidence so far does not engender confidence. To begin with, it is not new. In 2003, St. Louis hired a marquee-name New York bankruptcy firm to address falling enrollment and appalling test scores. William Roberti was named superintendent. During his 13-month tenure, he closed 21 schools, laid off more than 1,000 employees and privatized many school services. Roberti stepped down at the end of his contract, proclaiming that the district had made "tremendous strides." But enrollment continued to plummet and parents complained about the closures.

Then there's the problem of what to do with displaced students. Schools that remain open in Philadelphia rarely have room for additional students. As a result, these students essentially become refugees. What makes the situation intolerable is that the district's plan has had a disparate effect on black and Hispanic students, as well as students with disabilities. I don't believe that the district deliberately chose to cut these students adrift, but that has been the net effect. That's why charges of racism arose when the school board in Charlotte, N.C. in 2010 voted to shutter 10 schools.

The latest example is Jonathan Levin High School for Media and Communications in New York City. ("Born as a Tribute but Faltering, a Bronx School Nears Its End," The New York Times, Mar. 1). Opened in 2002 in memory of the son of Time Warner's chairman who was murdered in his apartment by a former student, the school focused on the media as a way of engaging students. Despite an impressive beginning, it has fallen on bad times over the past five years as the number of non-English speaking students has increased. The changes resulted in a decline in the graduation rate from 50 percent to 31 percent, making it a prime target for closing.

Since Mayor Michael Bloomberg took control of schools there, 142 have been shuttered, with 24 more expected. The rationale is to help students get a better education, but it is not seen that way by black and Hispanic parents, who maintain that the city is less interested in helping failing schools than in creating new ones. They have a point. A study in 2009 by the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School found that although new public schools overall did better at first than the schools they replaced, they were unable to maintain their performance after a few years.

The history of education reform is replete with examples of the use of untested solutions to vexing problems. What were initially termed miracle cures ultimately turned out to be mirages. I have reference now to the dramatic gains in test scores in Houston more than a decade ago. Coincidently, Houston is once again in the news because the school district there is supposed to absorb students from the soon-to-be-closed North Forest Independent School District, which for six consecutive years has been identified as "academically unacceptable."

Of lesser concern but still noteworthy is the issue of what to do with closed school buildings. The Sacramento City Unified School District has seven such properties. One school has been vacant for more than two decades. The easy answer is to sell them to raise much needed cash. But that has not been the case perhaps because the district somehow hopes to woo back students. I doubt that will happen. Chicago does just the opposite with what it calls "underutilized" schools ("Disaster Capitalism in Chicago Schools," In These Times, Mar. 3). The Chicago Board of Education moves quickly under the guise of a fiscal crisis to close these schools and convert them into charter schools.

Critics of my skepticism will retort that we can't wait until all the evidence is in before undertaking change. The education of young people is on the line. There's truth to their contention. Every year that students of any race or ethnicity are subjected to appalling schools is one year too many. But on the other hand, let's not assume that ill thought out action is better than doing nothing at all. It isn't.

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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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