How to Responsibly Implement School Closures to Ensure Educational Equity

This article is the fifth installment in a series focusing on achieving educational equity. Don’t miss the introductory post, along with the ones discussing school finance, student discipline, and advanced education.

The core of the current dialogue on “educational equity” revolves around the stark racial and socio-economic disparities prevalent in the American education system. The distribution of resources and opportunities tends to favor White, Asian, and affluent students in areas like school funding, advanced educational options, and high-quality career-technical programs, while Black, Hispanic, and economically disadvantaged students experience disproportionately negative outcomes such as disciplinary actions, grade retention, and special education placements.

One key theme emphasized in this educational equity series is the necessity to ensure that more of the positive resources reach Black, Hispanic, and economically disadvantaged students, such as by reforming the school funding model to be more progressive and implementing universal screening to identify students who could benefit from advanced educational opportunities. Additionally, efforts should be directed at mitigating the negative experiences faced by these students, like exploring alternatives to suspension/expulsion and promoting a more orderly classroom environment.

An important aspect to address is that certain aspects perceived as negative, like discipline, may have beneficial outcomes. Although traditional out-of-school suspensions have been linked to adverse consequences in various studies, discipline, when employed effectively, can aid in fostering better behavior, teaching students essential classroom conduct, preparing them for future success, and promoting an environment conducive to learning for all.

Similarly, the placement of students in special education programs has been a subject of concern regarding overidentification of Black students, leading to stigma and decreased expectations. However, recent research indicates that in some categories like “specific learning disabilities,” Black students are actually underrepresented. Correct and early identification of these students can allow them to receive the necessary services to address their educational needs, reframing the notion of being labeled as a student with a disability to a potentially positive development.

Concerning student retention, especially for those struggling in reading by the end of third grade, there is evidence suggesting that a second year in third grade due to mandatory retention policies could serve as a valuable investment by providing necessary interventions that were lacking previously.

Now, turning attention to the topic of school closures, not related to the temporary pandemic-induced closures but the permanent shutting down of underutilized school facilities, there is a prevailing sentiment that closures are unfavorable, particularly in Black, brown, and economically disadvantaged communities.

While the pressure on district leaders to handle school closure decisions equitably is understandable, it raises questions on what equity truly means in this context and whether closures, despite their initial challenges, could ultimately bring positive outcomes for students. Let’s explore further.

The Reality of Excess School Buildings and the Need for Closures

The issue of surplus school infrastructure has captured recent media attention due to a significant decline in school enrollment, primarily attributed to factors like the post-recession reduced birth rates, decreased immigration rates during certain periods, and shifts of students to charter or private schools amid the Covid-19 crisis. Urban areas have also experienced population relocations to suburban regions or other locales due to changing work trends, impacting student enrollment in traditional public schools.

While recent migration patterns may have introduced some fluctuations, many school systems are grappling with sustained enrollment declines of over ten percent, reflecting the long-term demographic shifts and reduced birth rates in the country. Predictions of substantial enrollment drops, like the projected 30 percent decline in LAUSD, underscore the severity of the situation.

The outlook for a rebound in birth rates seems unlikely, mirroring global trends of declining fertility rates, and the prospect of substantial immigration increases remains doubtful. Given these factors, except for a few high-growth communities, school districts must acknowledge the enduring trend of declining enrollments and make tough decisions regarding school closures.

Evaluating the Impact of School Closures

The consequences of school closures, whether due to poor performance or low enrollment, have been extensively studied, revealing varied outcomes based on individual contexts. Typically, the academic performance of affected students post-closure depends on whether they are placed in higher-performing schools. Instances where students transfer to better schools tend to yield positive long-term results, while those moving to lower-performing schools witness a decline in performance. A similar pattern is observed in charter school closures.

Moreover, communities affected by school closures might experience unexpected benefits despite initial apprehensions. Studies have shown a notable decrease in crime rates, specifically violent crimes, following the closure of high schools characterized by student misbehavior and academic underachievement.

Approaching School Closures with Equity

Given the complexity and sensitivity surrounding school closure decisions, especially concerning equity considerations, it is imperative for school board members and superintendents to adopt a strategic approach to navigate this challenging terrain.

Instead of merely assuring that school closures won’t disproportionately impact low-income or minority communities, the focus should be on ensuring all affected students gain access to higher-performing educational settings.

The objective should be to ensure that the closure of schools ultimately leads to improved outcomes for students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Achieving this goal will demand concerted efforts, including:

  1. Identifying schools for closure based on performance metrics, targeting the lowest performing schools with students achieving at distressingly low levels without evident progress.
  2. Ensuring adequate openings in nearby higher-performing schools, along with addressing any logistical challenges related to student transitions or transportation to prevent barriers to access. This may involve prioritizing displaced students for enrollment in nearby charter schools.
  3. Engaging in effective and timely communication with students, families, educators, and the broader community regarding the rationale behind school closure decisions and facilitating the transition process to higher-performing schools. Valuable insights on communication strategies have been offered by Tim Daly.

Despite the emotional toll associated with school closures, the potential of improving educational environments for our most vulnerable students holds promise for narrowing achievement gaps if executed thoughtfully. Such efforts to ensure real equity in educational opportunities are crucial.

1. While it may be a challenging task if a large portion of districts comprises significantly underperforming schools, even if the schools retained are only marginally better than the closed ones, students stand to benefit.

Michael J. Petrilli serves as the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and an executive editor for Education Next.

This commentary was originally published on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

The post Doing Educational Equity Right: School Closures appeared first on Education Next.

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