The Political Peril of Right-Sizing the Schools

Closing underused school buildings is the right thing to do, but it's never going to be easy.
by | December 26, 2012 AT 11:00 AM

The scenario isn't new, but it's becoming increasingly familiar. Urban school districts experience declining enrollment. As a result, the districts find themselves with far more school buildings than they need. Each building costs a bundle to keep up, not to mention the cost of staff and its own administrative structure. And these days, it all comes on the heels of several years of budget cuts.

Some districts have responded with proposals to reduce the number of school buildings and use the savings from consolidation to improve education in the remaining schools. It's absolutely the right thing to do, but history is littered with mayors, school-board members, superintendents and others whose advocacy for such plans became an invitation to find a new line of work.

In Boston, for example, a promising good-government group burst on the scene and quickly achieved impressive results reforming the city's politics. But it came unraveled over its advocacy for a school-consolidation plan. That was in 1953.

It's no surprise that school employees and their unions routinely oppose consolidation plans. Somewhat more surprising is the opposition from many parents who often seem to value proximity over educational quality.

Between 2007 and 2008, former Washington, D.C. schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee closed 23 schools. District enrollment was plummeting; today the percentage of D.C. public-school students attending charter schools has reached 43 percent. It was one of the reasons the 2010 re-election bid of Mayor Adrian Fenty, who appointed and staunchly supported Rhee, became a referendum on Rhee's tenure. Fenty was defeated in the Democratic primary.

Now comes an attempt by Philadelphia Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. to close 37 schools--one of every six in the district. Philadelphia's enrollment has fallen by more than 50,000 students, while its school infrastructure has remained largely unchanged. As a result, one city school with a capacity of 1,071 students currently has 193. Hite's plan is hardly radical. If adopted, the school district's building utilization rate would rise from 67 to 80 percent.

In Philadelphia's case, it's more a matter of survival than immediately improving student outcomes. The city waited too long to move on consolidation; its schools recently borrowed $300 million just to pay its bills and make payroll through the end of the current school year.

But while the immediate savings will be used to keep the district afloat rather than to improve education, over time right-sizing will allow more money to be funneled into the classroom. And Philadelphia can use every penny. Recent data show 82 percent of the city's students failing to meet state standards in either reading or math; more than two-thirds are below standard in both.

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter is backing Superintendent Hite, and the city's School Reform Commission, which succeeded the school board when the state took over the city's schools in 2000, is expected to vote on the proposal in March. Let's hope the commission will do what's best for the district's students and resist the pressure to reject consolidation.