Budget, Quality, Population Issues Lead Cities to Close Schools: Is Yours Next?

Jermaine Jenkins has no idea where his 4-year-old son will be going to school next year.

Jenkins is one of hundreds of parents in Kansas City, Mo., who will be impacted when the district shutters nearly half of its schools in the fall, a move that could put Jenkins' son out of school.

"It was a shock," Jenkins said of the school board's decision to approve the largest school closing in the district's history.

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Of the district's 61 schools, 26 will be closed or consolidated come August. This includes high schools, middle schools, elementary schools and early childhood centers, which includes Faxon Montessori, a public elementary school and early childhood center that Jenkins' son attends. The remaining two public Montessoris, Jenkins says, are nearly at full capacity.

"They say they can't enroll any child right now. I don't know where my son is going to go to school next year," said Jenkins, who serves as the president of Faxon's Parent-Teacher Association. "They are not thinking of whole overall. They're just thinking capacity and money."

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The Kansas City school board's decision last week sent shockwaves through the country, and experts say this could just be the beginning.

Enrollment at Kansas City's public schools has declined rapidly. Thanks to charter schools and an exodus to the city's burgeoning suburbs, there are roughly 17,000 kids today, compared to the peak of 70,000 in 1979. Facing a $50 million budget shortfall, the board last week approved the new superintendent's plan to close schools that the district deemed to be under capacity.

Experts say the district has long suffered from mismanagement and did not keep up with the shifting dynamics; hence, the cuts were long overdue. But while Kansas City's case may be unique because of the size of closures and the drastic reduction in enrollment, it does signal a trend that is likely to accelerate in these tough economic times.

Just today, Robert Bobb, Detroit's emergency financial manager, announced plans to close 45 schools in the next five years because of declining enrollment.

"As demographic shifts keep happening and cities continue to lose students, the traditional public schools are going to have to get smaller," said Andy Smarick, a distinguished visiting fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington-based educational research and advocacy organization. "This is exacerbated by [an] increase in charter schools in many places... so we're certainly going to see more of the enrollment-based closures, probably in a lot of the older cities."

The trend is likely to be consolidated in urban areas that may not be experiencing the same kind of boom they once did.

"When districts are forced into draconian budget cuts, school closure is the last resort. It's a very painful decision to make but sometimes districts are forced to make them," said Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brown Center on Education Policy at Washington-based think tank, the Brookings Institution.

It may be unpopular but, after Kansas City's announcement, both economists and educators are calling for other struggling cities to re-evaluate their school districts.

Tough economic times actually present an opportunity to school districts to evaluate the size of their student population and their building maintenance costs, which are the second largest expense after teacher salaries, according to Smarick.

"State budgets are in as bad a shape as they've been. Budgets are making them face tougher decisions," Smarick said. "This is actually a case where budget deficits can help districts make decisions they need."

It's a downsizing many, including Kansas City's superintendent John Covington, dub as "right-sizing."

"Closing schools, or any public facility, is never easy, but it is hard to argue that a cash-strapped municipality isn't within its rights if it chooses to cut costs by reducing the number of public facilities," Edward L. Glaeser, an economist at Harvard University, wrote in the New York Times Tuesday. "If a district closes particularly poorly performing schools, children may end up getting a better education as a result, albeit at the cost of a longer bus trip."

Glaeser argues that "right-sizing" a city -- a component of which is closing schools -- can bring fledgling Detroit back to its greatness.

Could More Districts Be Slashing Schools?

Indeed, many more cities may be following in the footsteps of Kansas City. This trend, experts say, can expect to ripple through the Midwest, and the old Rust Belt -- which includes some mid-Atlantic states -- and in general, older cities, where the population of children and young adults has declined and the housing market has suffered.

"I don't know of any district looking at closing that percentage of schools [as Kansas City]. That said, are school closings on the agenda of school districts? Absolutely," said Rick Ginsberg, dean of the University of Kansas's School of Education. "When you're facing draconian cuts, there's not a lot of degrees of freedom."

But experts are divided on whether school closings that are based on enrollment drops and budget concerns really translate into better schools.

"I'm not as optimistic as some people that this can be used to improve quality of education," Loveless said. "The fact is they will be forced to close schools with lowest kids. Unfortunately, low performing schools that have high enrollment are likely to stay open."

Smarick said another trend will be districts closing schools, not because of enrollment issues, but because of quality. Schools have already started taking major steps to reform failing schools by cutting them or converting them into charter schools. New York City has closed about 100 schools for this reason. Chicago is also pursuing such cuts in a program that was started by former superintendent and now-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Closing persistently failing schools can be beneficial for both adults and students if it's done the right way and they have better schools to go to, Smarick said.

"It all depends on how well the process is done. The most important thing is when you close a school, you have to make sure that students have a higher performing school," he said. "It takes a lot of work to make sure you do this right."

As beneficial as it may be, closing down a school is never popular, as illustrated in the case of Kansas City, where the school board's meeting was filled with chaos and crying. Shuttering schools, which are often built into the fabric of the neighborhood and may have a long history, is not an easy task.

"It becomes a hot button political issue, especially in rural communities, it's very difficult to close a school," Loveless said. "They really can shake up a neighborhood."

For Nancy Haynes, who helped start Faxon Montessori in 1988, the school's closing is the end of an era.

"[The] Faxon Montessori building, where we are located, was the first public school building in the nation to be built specifically for Montessori," said Haynes, who teaches at the school and doesn't know yet what her future in the district holds. "I am very sad. I'm frustrated."