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Districts should rethink closing schools

December 20, 2018

Plans to close schools are often explored when school districts face low enrollment and financial deficits. Closing schools might seem like a logical solution to fiscal shortcomings, but it can be more complicated and costlier in reality.

Take the Austin Independent School District, or AISD. The district recently proposed to close 12 schools by the 2021-22 school year to address declining enrollment and financial challenges. I understand why AISD is considering this route, but there are costs to closing schools that districts often miss in the process.

I have studied this topic for the past six years, and there are three unforeseen, nonfiscal costs that the school district leaders across the state should pay close attention to while they consider closing schools.

What districts often underestimate are the costly effects of school closures on the academic outcomes of displaced students and the costly impacts of school closures on local communities. Plus, any fiscal savings that occur are often only short-term.

Students’ academic outcomes will always be essential to school districts. But the truth is the academic outcomes for students after their schools close are neutral at best and negative in some cases. Research indicates that some students whose schools closed experience long-term negative impacts on their reading and math scores. Also, students whose schools have been closed are absent more often and have weaker relationships with adults and other students at their new schools. These experiences have been shown to occur even when students attend schools with higher academic ratings.

So, closing one school and sending students to another school is not a simple fix and can possibly undermine the positive student outcomes that school districts want.

Schools that mainly serve African-American and Latino students are closed at higher rates even when predominantly white schools have similar academic standings. In these communities, schools often represent a place of hope, pride and dreams. So, when schools are closed, it not only affects students, families, teachers and staff members, it also reverberates through the entire community.

Schools are commonly a community institution in neighborhoods. Therefore, when they close, it can leave a gaping hole, erase racial and cultural histories, and create transportation issues for students and families because some students will have to travel longer distances just to attend school.

The savings after school closures are also often short-term. Due to gentrification, housing unaffordability, growing competition from charter schools and other factors, some of Austin’s schools continue to lose enrollment. When schools in Texas consistently lose enrollment, it typically creates shortfalls for districts, especially those considered property-rich.

Cutting costs is one of the main reasons school districts cite for closing schools. However, research shows that closing schools does not result in significant savings in big-city school district budgets unless combined with massive layoffs. The research is not clear on whether school closures result in long-term savings for districts.

Despite shrinking budgets and enrollments, it is imperative that school administrators focus on racial and educational equity to ensure that students who are commonly underserved by schools, because of their race, income, gender, native language or perceived ability, are at the center of any decision to close schools. Equity work requires districts to be creative in their approaches to ever-changing education contexts.

We know district administrators do not take closing schools lightly. But they should pay close attention to these commonly unforeseen, nonfiscal costs as they consider options to address their enrollment and fiscal challenges because research tells us that closing schools may not be the best option in the long run.

Terrance L. Green is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Texas at Austin.

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