Mass school closings: Why the numbers don't add up
by Helen Gym on Dec 20 2012 Posted in Commentary
Like most of the public, I’ve been baffled by the District’s latest rationale for closing down an unprecedented number of schools in a single year. In observing the school hearings this week, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a quote by Maya Angelou: “There’s a world of difference between truth and facts. Facts can obscure the truth.”
That statement couldn’t ring more true when looking at the District’s proposal to close down one in six Philadelphia schools, including wiping out 9 public schools in the 19121 and 19132 zip codes (plus Vaux will no longer be a high school). The plan will disrupt the lives of 17,000 children in the District – more than 10 percent of the population – for a questionable savings that amounts to barely 1 percent of the District budget.
Moreover, the District has failed to show any lessons it has learned from cities across the country that have closed down public schools with little impact on finances or student achievement.
The District comes to the table with a chosen set of facts: utilization, capacity, facilities condition index, and so on. Based on these numbers, the District argues, it is below optimal utilization. The District is shrinking. But is it?
It’s worth remembering that in the spring, the School Reform Commission authorized an unprecedented expansion of more than 5,000 charter seats at a projected cost of $139 million over five years – at a time when Chief Recovery Officer Tom Knudsen threatened that schools may not even open in September. Among the expansions were a 1,400-student high school for Performing Arts Charter, even though the District already has four performing arts high schools drawing from a citywide population. Charters with school performance index figures that ranked them among the worst in the District received five-year renewals and expansions. In fact, of the 26 charters up for renewal last spring, the SRC voted to close just three, and two are appealing.
Whatever your opinion may be of charters, there’s no question that the District has failed to explain its inconsistent approach of allowing charter expansion without regard to expense or academic quality while insisting on draconian and widespread sacrifice among District schools. This despite the fact that many of the District schools targeted for closure outperform some of the charters that the SRC renewed and expanded last spring.
The numbers don’t add up on the alleged $28 million in savings the District says it will garner. District officials have not disclosed a full accounting of the transition costs and other expenses associated with closing schools – something that should be of grave concern given what we know about school-closing expenses.
In Chicago, an internal document leaked to the press showed how school administrators there failed to inform the public of associated transition costs for closing and consolidating a proposed 95 public schools. Administrators had contended that the school closings would save between $140 million and $675 million over 10 years. However, the document showed that District officials estimated that they would lose a huge portion of those savings because of an “upfront cash investment” of anywhere between $155 million and a whopping $450 million in personnel, transportation and safety costs.
How can our District state that the proposed school closings will save enough money to make it worth the chaos when it hasn't publicly shown its calculations and accounting for all the expenses?
The sale of school buildings also has questionable value. A 2011 Pew study of six school districts nationwide found that most districts overestimate the amount of money they expect to gain from school sales. Many buildings stand idle for years and contribute to neighborhood blight. Indeed, the recent announced sales of three Philadelphia school buildings reaffirm that fact. The schools earned little more than 60 percent of market value. One of the schools sat on the market for a decade. Another school, Muhr Elementary, sold for $150,000, less than half its market value of $360,000.
Finally, the District has failed to demonstrate the most important factor in closing and consolidating schools – that we end up with a school system stronger and in better shape than the one we’re trying to repair. The numbers don’t lie on the academic impact of school closings nationwide. Numerous studies have shown school closings have little impact on student achievement. Over the last decade, Chicago has closed down nearly 100 public schools. According to a 2009 study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research, 82 percent of students simply moved from one underperforming school to another, including schools on academic probation.
According to researchers, one of the most significant factors in student achievement during a school-closings process is the quality of the receiving school. A recent Research for Action study showed that most of Philadelphia’s best schools are already at capacity and are unlikely to be able to take on more students. Moreover, we haven’t heard anything substantive from District officials about the concrete investments in the receiving schools on the list.
Nowhere is this situation made more apparent than the students who were wrongly promised a better education when FitzSimons and Rhodes were closed last year. Just in June, the students were transferred to Strawberry Mansion High School, a school struggling with both climate and academics. District officials talked facts – utilization, expenses, enrollment – to justify the move. Parents and students talked truth: Where was the guarantee of a better educational opportunity?
Last week, the District named Strawberry Mansion to the list of new school closures and have proposed transferring students to Ben Franklin High, yet another struggling comprehensive high school. A portion of these students will therefore have attended three schools in three years through no fault of their own.
District officials have all the excuses, of course. Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn said Strawberry Mansion is now at 25 percent capacity. But you had to wonder what investments were made to Strawberry Mansion to encourage any level of confidence among parents and families to retain them in the District. How confident are parents now that Ben Franklin will received renewed investments, especially when District officials avoid anything but lip service about that concern?
There are too many offenses to even count among the list of proposed school closings. Schools like Vare and George Washington elementaries – racially diverse and successful schools – make the list. So did McCloskey Elementary, which has steady enrollment, a stable staff, PSSA test scores above the District average, and a principal who’s a recent Lindenbaum Improvement in Education Award winner. Now the students will head to Edmonds, a school that’s nearly a mile away with no transportation entitlement.
Bok Technical High School, one of the few specialty high schools serving a sizeable immigrant student population, is shutting down while its program merges inexplicably with South Philadelphia High School. It doesn’t matter that the School Reform Commission earlier this year made a stated commitment to vocational and technical education. Only a District numbers-cruncher thinks that Germantown can merge with King, or that students from University City can waltz into Overbrook or Sayre without a problem.
And if you've got a kindergartner in the 19121 or 19132 zip codes, the District has all but pulled out of your neighborhood. Note: I don't consider the chance of winning a charter lottery to be a so-called viable option.
The District’s school-closings proposal is a stunning failure, not just of math but also of the vision of public education. The questionable assumptions about charter expansion and school closings are a central reason that Parents United for Public Education filed a complaint with the Board of Ethics this month about the controversial use of a consultant who was not employed by the School District yet who had unprecedented access to District leadership to lobby around issues like school closings and charter expansion. It’s no surprise to us that the donors who helped pay for the consultant, like the Philadelphia School Partnership, have been among the most vocal advocates for mass school closings as well as massive charter expansion.
It’s our hope that the School Reform Commission and the new leadership under Superintendent Hite will reconsider an approach that has failed to answer so many questions and concerns. The last thing this leadership needs is to associate the rhetoric around school closings to that of the comedian Stephen Colbert: “I can’t prove it but I can say it.”
Helen Gym is a co-founder of Parents United for Public Education, a Notebook board member and a regular contributor.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.