Closing schools: It's not just about money
The School District of Philadelphia recently issued its list of 37 schools to be closed permanently this year. We just can’t afford them anymore, the district tells us. The deficit is too big, so it’s time for parents and students to make “painful choices.” The financial crisis is one reason neighborhood schools are on the chopping block, but it is not the only one.
In November 2011, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission, without benefit of public discussion, voted to sign the Great Schools Compact. Written by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, it mandates closing district schools, expanding charters and relocating 50,000 students to “high-performing” schools by 2017. In addition, the compact authorizes the Philadelphia Schools Partnership, a privately funded organization whose board includes no educators, to distribute funds to any school of its choosing.
After the William Penn Foundation shifted $15 million from its coffers to PSP’s last spring, the influence of both organizations — neither of which holds public meetings — grew as the community’s diminished. The William Penn Foundation also paid millions to the Boston Consulting Group, a corporate consulting firm whose executive committee includes bankers, financial managers, chemical engineers, merger-and-acquisition experts and corporate lawyers — but no educators — to come up with a plan that recommends dramatic expansion of charters, district management by private operators and outsourcing of many district functions.
Superintendent William Hite’s appointment last year raised the hopes of many that he might think outside the corporate-reform box. His recently released plan, however, has dashed those hopes. It fails to call for research-based reforms such as smaller class size, increasing instructional time by reducing high-stakes testing or returning certified librarians to the district’s many closed libraries. He has reaffirmed his support for “Renaissance” schools, whose wholesale disposal of experienced faculty destabilizes schools and perpetuates the myth that only teachers should be held responsible for student success.
Dr. Hite’s earlier assertion that we must close schools because we do not have the money to keep them open conflicts with statements he has made at several community meetings that the money saved by closing schools can be put to better use in those that remain open. What money — the money we don’t have?
A 2011 study published by the Pew Charitable Trusts concluded that “the money saved as the result of closing schools...has been relatively small in the context of big-city school-district budgets.” The study also notes that selling shuttered schools tends to be “extremely difficult.” The Washington Post last week cited a study by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute that shows that although school closures will save the D.C. district $10.4 million, the closures themselves will cost $10.2 million. Philadelphians have yet to be told what transportation, moving, retrofitting buildings and maintenance of empty schools will cost here.
Inequity in education is hardly new, but it is having deeper and more permanent consequences for urban students. The system of funding local education through property taxes has meant that affluent suburbs such as Lower Merion spend $26,000 per pupil and Philadelphia must make do with just $13,000. The difference is a curriculum rich with challenging electives versus one crowded with test-prep classes.
We seem to accept that as just a fact of life, that it’s just too bad our kids weren’t born to more affluent parents. Now, however, we are asking our children to say goodbye to their teachers, to many of their friends and to the school that has nurtured them and, in many cases, their parents and grandparents. We are asking communities to watch thriving schools and important neighborhood anchors become eyesores that will lower their property values.
Is this the best we can do for our students and our city? Can’t we put up a stronger fight for something so valuable and so irreplaceable?
Lisa Haver is a retired teacher and education activist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org