It's been a rough year for public schools on the chopping block for closings.
In May, the Chicago Board of Education decided to close 50 public schools, a move that the decision makers originally claimed would save the district $560 million in capital expenses over the next decade. Proponents of the closings say that the move is necessary to make up for the loss of 145,000 students from the past decade, based on 2010 U.S. Census numbers. They also say the schools that were targeted were chosen because of low enrollment numbers - some as little as half-full.
A fact-finding article from Chicago's WBEZ found these, and other, claims to be a stretch. Enrollment in CPS is actually only down 28,000 since 2000 - however there are over 75,000 less when just looking at non-charter, district-run schools. Either way you look at it, the numbers are less than Census stats alone. The original capital savings amount has actually been officially adjusted to $437.8 million, but no new building assessments are included in that number. The formula for determining "half-full" classrooms has also been called into question since teacher-to-student ratios for special education classes are not adjusted.
Chicago is the most prevalent example, but there are others. The Richmond School Board in Virginia is at the center of hot debate over whether or not to close three district schools, including one with a citywide preschool program. The Brevard County School Board on Florida's east coast chose to close three elementary schools this spring, and parents quickly filed a lawsuit that said minority schools were targeted. That lawsuit was halted by a judge for lack of evidence to support the claims, but it highlights the passion behind these school closings. Parents, students and communities as a whole feel targeted, even if school board members are quick to blame unbiased numbers.
So who is right? The self-proclaimed objective board members and politicians who say students will attend better-performing schools and that the money saved will go to other educational initiatives? Or the parents, teachers and students that say there shouldn't be a price tag on quality education? Each of these districts, and many others around the nation, have individual circumstances. At the risk of sounding like a cynic, each school board member and politician has an agenda too - some virtuous in nature and others selfish. There is no concrete way to declare a winner in these cases; there is no formula for determining right or wrong.
I think, though, when schools are viewed only for their monetary contributions (or lack thereof), there is an inherent problem. Schools are not short-term retailers that tally up profits at the end of each business day; the economic impact of students from strong public schools with enough teachers and space to go around is often not felt for years, or even decades. To call schools a societal burden that are half-full because of special education classrooms with a higher student-to-teacher ratio is flawed. To close underperforming schools punishes the very students who struggle and need the safety and stability of a neighborhood school - not one that they must take a 20-minute bus ride to attend.
Then there is the emotional impact of it all. Neighborhoods affected by school closings, and particularly the students impacted, face an inferiority complex. Why their schools? Why their neighborhoods? For families that already feel a sense of helplessness due to poverty and crime-ridden streets, the mental toll of being a target for a school closing weighs heavy. Maybe the judge ruled against those parents in Brevard County who claimed minority bias, but that doesn't change how those communities feel in their hearts. We often associate our public schools solely with the well-being of our children, but they really do belong to entire communities. A school closing brings communal grief - for the jobs lost, for the children displaced and for never being able to know what could have been within the school walls. To flippantly toss these emotions aside and advise communities to simply "move on" just adds salt to the wounds.
There are times when a school closing is simply an inevitability but communities should first look for other solutions. Instead of shuttering underutilized public schools - icons of the community - districts should consider other neighborhood uses. Maybe a community center. Maybe adult education classes. Maybe a cooperation agreement with a local college that opens up the building for paid courses. Maybe even a health center, or location for other district office space. Closing public schools should not be a short-sighted procedure. The decision should look beyond immediacy, and 10-year plans, and focus on the only investment that really matters: quality, public education for all our nation's children.