This post was originally published on Flypaper, the blog of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
School closures are awful. I won’t argue otherwise.
But they are almost certainly on the horizon. Due to enrollment shifts and falling birth rates, many districts nationwide are experiencing a surge in empty seats. For a few years, federal funding tied to pandemic recovery may allow districts to delay difficult consolidation decisions. However, there will come a time when the expense of staffing, maintaining, and operating an outsized number of schools becomes untenable—and closures will be the only option.
The numbers tell the same story in city after city: Just 60 percent of the available placements in Indianapolis are occupied. After shrinking by several hundred thousand students since 2000, Los Angeles expects to lose another 28 percent of its enrollment over the next eight years. Shifts in Boston have left the district with the equivalent of 16.5 unused school buildings. Chicago, which famously closed fifty schools in 2013 under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, subsequently self-imposed a five-year moratorium on closures. Then, in 2021, a new state law prohibited closures and consolidations until 2025. Meanwhile, enrollment has plummeted. In fact, Chicago has 80,000 fewer students than it did in 2013. This school year, district data show over forty schools with fewer than 200 students.
We are confronted by a national wave of enrollment decline in our urban systems.
Unpleasant though school closures may be, there are steps leaders can take to mitigate their negative effects on families. The most irresponsible approach is living in denial even when closures have become inevitable.
Denver Public Schools recently provided a high-profile example of what not to do. Its fiasco began in June 2021 when the the Denver school board passed a resolution directing district leaders to address declining enrollment. A list of ten schools was eventually identified for closure—including some that required additional subsidies of more than $500,000 each school year to maintain basic services for students, due to their small size. After community pushback, Superintendent Alex Marrero cut the list to five. By the time the school board was set to vote on the closures, Marrero removed three more schools, leaving just two. The board ultimately did not vote to close any schools and sent Marrero’s team back to the drawing board. To sum up, the district spent eighteen months to make no decision at all.
It breaks my heart to see schools close. Most often, the effects are felt primarily by lower-income families. Neighborhoods lose beloved institutions and vital pieces of their social fabric. But there comes a point when it is no longer responsible to consume an outsized share of scarce public resources to provide subpar educational experiences in near-vacant schoolhouses.
Districts would be well advised to make closure decisions early and as judiciously as possible—and communicate how and why those decisions are made to families. Then comes the most important part: executing closures in a way that’s least disruptive for affected families. Done well, there is potential for students to land in better schools—and research has shown that when this happens, students often fare better academically than they did in their former placements.
I have some personal experience with a promising approach to school closures in New Orleans, where my organization, EdNavigator, has done work since 2015. Families in closing schools there receive two critical pieces of support. First, students are given preferential treatment in the city’s open-enrollment system. Essentially, if a vacancy exists, a student from a closing school has the first opportunity to claim it. This preference increases the likelihood that a student will land in a desired school rather than being defaulted to whichever school has excess capacity, as happens in many districts. (In some cases, this means that students in low-performing closing schools end up getting shunted to other low-performing schools that might be next on the closure list themselves.)
Second, our Navigators offer personalized counsel to families on which schools they should list on their applications. This is particularly important because families did not choose to leave their current placements. It is unlikely that they have been keeping tabs on alternative options.
Research published in 2022 suggests that these interventions make a difference. Families requested and were assigned to higher-performing schools than students in comparison groups, and they were more likely to remain in those placements over time. Initial results for student learning showed improvement in both reading and math during the first year students attended their new schools.
My advice to cities grappling with falling enrollment is to begin planning now. Engage in robust processes to take community input on which schools will close and when. But do not drag your feet hoping for a miracle that saves you from the scourge of closures altogether. That miracle is not coming. Instead, invest your time and resources in helping families transition, as New Orleans has done. Give families a real voice in determining their child’s new placement—and offer assistance in the pursuit of seats in charter schools, as well as traditional district schools. Moments like these are not the time to resurrect fruitless district-charter wars. Then, follow students closely as they acclimate to new buildings to ensure they aren’t lost in the shuffle, that their social work and special education services transfer seamlessly, that they make new friends.
The pandemic has already done enough harm to our children, in and out of school. We will only make matters worse by mismanaging our response to the enrollment shortfalls that show no signs of abating.