Low Funding, Enrollment Lead To School Closures

PHOTO: Spingarn High School in Northeast Washington, D.C., will close at the end of the 2012-2013 school year.

Most students will depart for summer vacation in a few months without so much as a backward glance at their schools. After all, they'll be back shortly and there are other things--summer jobs, summer love--to worry about.

But for a growing number of students, the last buzzer will signal more than just freedom. It will mean closure in a very tangible form.

Dozens of schools in major cities across the country will shutter their doors for good at the end of the academic year. As cities try to scrape together enough funding to support their students, officials are looking for ways to trim fat, and in many cases schools with low enrollment are on the chopping block. Many of the schools up for closure are underperforming, and officials argue that distributing the students among other, higher performing schools gives them a better chance at success.

Washington, D.C., is set to close more than a dozen schools in the next couple of years, mostly in poor, minority neighborhoods. Philadelphia decided last week to close more than 20 schools. Other major cities, including Chicago, are also debating the issue.

On paper, the closures seem reasonable. Many of the schools are serving only a fraction of their full capacity of students. That's because the number of school-aged children in many major cities has dropped, and as neighborhoods have morphed and gentrified, the distribution of the children still living in them has shifted. Closures allow districts to eliminate administrators, custodians, cafeteria workers and other staff, and to siphon badly needed funding to other schools.

Charter schools also play a role. The taxpayer-funded but independently operated schools have attracted some of the students who used to fill public school seats. Charters in Washington, D.C., now claim more than 40 percent of the city's students. Other cities, such as Milwaukee, Wisconsin, offer vouchers that allow children to attend parochial or private schools.

But school closures are complicated and can have as many drawbacks as benefits. Opponents argue that local schools help provide a positive anchor for communities, particularly in poor or crime-ridden areas, which suffer a disproportionate number of school closures. And moving students to new schools can be expensive. Washington, D.C., for instance, significantly underestimated the amount of money it would cost to reassign and settle students in new schools after a series of closures in 2008. Moreover, the savings are often limited, at least initially, according to a 2011 Pew Charitable Trusts report that looked at school closures in major cities across the country.

"The money saved as the result of closing schools, at least in the short run, has been relatively small in the context of big-city school-district budgets, with the largest savings achieved when closings were combined with large-scale layoffs. Longer-term savings are difficult to project," the report states.

Spingarn High School in Northeast Washington, D.C., will close permanently at the end of the school year. Officials plan to use the site to create a career and technical "education hub" for students who want to pursue careers in transportation, and the current students will be redistributed to Dunbar, nearly three miles west; Woodson, a couple of miles to the east; and Eastern, to the south.

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