Report on Urban School Closures Touches Rural Consolidation Themes

Last Updated: November 29, 2011

This article appeared in the November 2011 Rural Policy Matters.

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A report released last month examining the effects and processes of school closures in six large cities uncovers many experiences in these cities that rural residents will recognize. 

The report, "Closing Public Schools in Philadelphia," was released by the Philadelphia Research Initiative of the Pew Chartiable Trusts in anticipation of plans announced by the Philadelphia school board to shutter many of the city's schools.

Although the report makes no comparisons to rural schools and draws only on experiences and research in the six cities, many of the findings echo those of rural districts, especially those experiencing declining enrollment, shifts in population, and budget restrictions.

The report reviewed outcomes of school closures in the past decade in Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City, Missouri, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, and Washington. All six cities had experienced significant decreases in student enrollment resulting from changing demographics, falling overall population, and shifts in neighborhood patterns. All districts had low occupancy in some schools and some facilities in dire need of renovation or replacement. The report found four consistent themes.

Little savings. Financial savings have been small, especially in the context of "big-city school-district" budgets. The largest savings occurred, according to the report, when accompanied by large-scale layoffs. Most districts did not try to suggest to the public that savings would occur as a result of the closures, but instead advocated closures for other reasons.

Selling surplus buildings has been difficult and can lead to neighborhood blight. None of the districts saw any significant income from the sale of buildings. Many incurred some initial expense associated with mothballing or razing schools. The six districts together had at least 200 vacant buildings resulting from closures. The report notes that vacant school buildings sometimes attract vandalism and other illicit activity and "cast a pall over the neighborhood."

Effect on student performance appears minimal. The report acknowledges that there's been little attempt to track student performance after school closure. A study in Chicago, however, found that student performance tended to fall in affected schools for the remainder of the school year following an announcement to close the school; performance tended to rebound, however, the following year. 

School closures produce political fallout. In all six cities there were parents and community leaders upset about plans to close particular schools. The report notes that citizens are often concerned about the effects on displaced students, the effects on neighborhoods, and about a perceived sense that closures are related to gentrification. In some of the cities this fallout was significant for school and city leaders. 

Advice on Closures 

These finding are similar to research on the consolidation of rural schools: few if any savings, little effect on student academic performance (although rural research tends to include more analysis of the interaction of school size and achievement and persistence in school), negative economic and social consequences for communities that lose schools, and discontent among citizens in affected areas.

Despite these consequences, however, the report focuses primarily on ways that large cities can generate "public acceptance, though not necessarily enthusiasm" for school closures. These approaches include:

  •  trying to persuade the general public that downsizing is needed long before specific school closures are announced:
  • bringing in outside experts who are perceived as fair to guide the process;
  • establishing clear criteria for which schools to close;
  • being willing to make adjustments but not significant changes to the announced list of closures; and
  • including all school closures in one vote of the school board rather than holding separate votes on each school.
The RPM takeaway

The findings of the report suggest that the experiences of urban neighborhoods, and the actions of urban school boards, are similar to those of rural communities, although research and reported experience of rural residents suggests negative academic consequences related to increased school size and longer bus rides for many rural students. 

The school boards in the six cities seem to have been motivated to close schools primarily because of excess capacity and facilities in poor condition. These factors are legitimate concerns, especially where facilities have been poorly maintained and pose safety issues for students.

However, school clsoures appear to have little postive effect on urban student performance or the fiscal condition of the school system. And, it seems that school closures often effectively "offload" a poor facility on to a neighborhood already struggling with economic and social challenges, challenges that do significantly affect student performance. 

One wonders why closing a school is so often perceived as the only option and what it would take for civic and education leaders to imagine and implement joint efforts to invest in public infrastructure in ways that maintain schools as community anchors, house a variety of community activities and services, stave off further blight, and strengthen community quality-of-life and, in turn, student academic performance. That question is as relevant in urban as rural places. 

Read the report at

Read more from the November 2011 Rural Policy Matters.