Sadly, Philadelphia will close 23 schools

After extensive debate and self-questioning, the School Reform Commission in Philadelphia, a state-run task force charged with overseeing the city’s schools, approved on Thursday a plan by the school district to close 23 public schools and make a dent in a huge budget deficit, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports.

About a month ago, district officials were planning to close 37 schools. They whittled the list down to 29 in order to avoid students being relocated to schools that performed even worse than their original schools or were considered dangerous, although some people still say many students will travel through hostile areas to get to their new schools, where current students will likely mistreat them. The SRC then spared four schools in Thursday’s school-by-school voting. Two schools still face a vote by the commission.

Protests over the school closings in Philadelphia have gone on for months and resulted in 19 arrests Thursday, including Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who was said to be barricading doors to the meeting room in an attempt to prevent the meeting from taking place.

Kia Hinton, left, of Philadelphia, testifies at the US Dept of Education on Jan. 29. At right is Dawn Hawkins.
Kia Hinton, left, of Philadelphia, testifies at the US Dept of Education. At right: Dawn Hawkins.

Some community groups have accused school districts across the country, including in Baltimore and Chicago, of discriminating against black and Hispanic students, who represent the majority of students in many urban schools. In January, activists representing Philadelphia filed a civil-rights complaint with the US Department of Education, where the Office of Civil Rights is looking into the matter.

Philadelphia’s city council approved a non-binding resolution on Jan. 24 calling for a one-year moratorium on school closings, but the city council has no authority to enforce a moratorium. At a hearing before the US Education Department, Christopher Cordero, a Philadelphia student, called the council’s action “a symbolic representation of the people’s voice,” saying it showed the “true governance of Philadelphia’s people.”

Even Pedro Ramos, who serves as chairman of the SRC, said the closings were “excruciating, difficult, and emotional for all of us” but would help restore the district’s financial well-being. The district currently faces a $1.35-billion budget deficit over the next five years. Many school buildings require extensive repairs and upgrades in order to make them into modern schools, so some savings will be realized there. Philadelphia Superintendent William R Hite said the district can no longer continue to spend money on things that have nothing to do with the quality of education students receive.

“More of our resources are going toward heating, cooling and maintaining aging buildings, and being spread far too thin across our 237 schools,” he wrote in an op-ed piece in the Inquirer. “We estimate that up to $24.5 million can be saved annually through school closures and reinvested into schools. Over five years, we project to save $122.5 million. When you are running a deficit, $122.5 million is no small sum of money. It is no mere budget percentage.”

But research from the Pew Charitable Trusts in 2011 found that closing schools often results in lower savings than districts initially project:

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. … Selling or leasing surplus school buildings, many of which are located in declining neighborhoods, tends to be extremely difficult. No district has reaped anything like a windfall from such transactions. As of the summer of 2011, at least 200 school properties stood vacant in the six cities studied. … If left unused for long, the buildings can become eyesores that cast a pall over neighborhoods and attract vandalism and other illicit activity.

Note that Philadelphia doesn’t plan to make the large-scale layoffs that might improve the savings. Some staff members will lose their jobs, but most teachers will simply be transferred to other schools. An additional (small) point of order: The same $122.5 million can’t be both “saved” and “reinvested” at the same time. Dr Hite can’t “reinvest” money he doesn’t have. Furthermore, many people, most of them students or parents from the affected communities, say the very act of closing the schools and possibly destabilizing communities is the exact opposite of the reinvestment in schools Dr Hite wrote about.

“What do we do to protect ourselves?” asked Ted Stones of Philadelphia at the US Education Department hearing in January. “How can you create hardships for students and at the same time say that you are trying to create a better education for them? That’s the question. If you … move them from this school to that school and take the quality teachers away, that creates a hardship, and it will not increase the excellence in our education. It’s very simple, so we just need to get somebody to pay attention.”

The clock seems to have run out on 23 schools in Philadelphia, mostly in northern Philadelphia, which is mostly African-American. But it will not run out on students who want a high-quality education. In the 2013-14 school year, those at schools that have closed will be bused to schools a little farther from their homes, but their activism and involvement in their education has been an inspiration to the country.

All things end, even good schools, so there isn’t much anyone can do about the school closings. There’s no benefit to improving buildings, mere shells for our temporary use. Better to look at improving the education for students, and Dr Hite’s vision including some of the strategic partnerships he’s building, combined with the involvement from community members including students and parents, could very well set Philadelphia on a historic track for high student achievement. The answer is not in the buildings, but in the heart.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.