Sixty four schools will likely close in Philadelphia. New York is aiming at closing forty seven schools this year, down from its original target of sixty two schools. These numbers should be alarming to all of us. They should be a rallying cry for helping our schools and children. Instead, school closings have become so commonplace that we barely react when we hear about them–even in large numbers. Just like many of us have become desensitized to gun violence and reports of death, we have become desensitized to the educational violence that befalls our children and community.
Philadelphia’s recent announcement to close these schools has not been a media lightening rod. Instead, the case of Philadelphia is just the latest in a string of national stories of struggling urban districts shuttering school building doors to keep budgets afloat in turbulent financial times. But is that really all there is to it?
If we look more carefully, the patterns of national school closing are tied to poor academic performance among schools, but also the formerly controversial trend to close traditional public schools and opening charter schools. I say "formerly" controversial, because under the Bush administration there was a national debate about the expansion of charter schools, school choice, and educational privatization. Yet under President Obama, all three of these issues have gained traction with little national resistance or Democratic party challenge.
Philadelphia’s Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen has indicated that closing a mass number of Philadelphia schools and converting them to charters will keep the city’s schools from experiencing a 1.1 billion dollar shortfall by 2017. He projects by that by 2017, some 40 percent of children will be enrolled in charter schools. For him and others, it’s simple math: charter schools are less expensive to operate than traditional public schools, so close traditional public schools and replace them with charter schools. So if they’re cheaper, what’s the issue?
Study after study has raised serious concerns about the performance of charter schools, particularly finding that charter schools often do not perform better than traditional public schools. What this means is that while charter schools may be the new option in your neighborhood, it does not mean they are a better option. In low-income communities around the nation, school choice is the current trend, but it does not mean that our children are getting better quality educations.
In response to failing schools, the local and federal government have authorized the razing of failing public schools and advocated for their replacement with cheaper charter schools, of which about 16% are run by Charter Management Organizations (CMO). CMOs are non-profit networks of schools like Knowledge is Power Prep (KIPP), Achievement First, etc. and are often touted as the new networks of school success. While some schools and CMOs are successful, research again has found that there is a wide range among CMOs where both success and failure are common. If you look at the evidence, it’s difficult to conclude that charter schools, even those run by CMOs, are better than what we already have in traditional public schools. This is a hard pill to swallow, but an important one to swallow.
While school choice is a great, school quality is even greater. As traditional public schools continue to struggle and change is needed, we have to make sure that our communities are not sold cheap school choices rather than being provided with high quality educational institutions. School closings are supposed to “shake up” the educational system as we know it, but we must also ask, “what is next and will it be better?” We have to be sensitive enough to failing schools to change, and we have to be sensitive enough to the truth to know that changing doesn’t necessarily mean things will be better. The more sensitive we become to the realities schools face and what is offered, the more intentional we can become in building strong schools and communities.
Dr. R. L'Heureux Lewis-McCoy is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Black Studies at the City College of New York – CUNY. His work concentrates on race, education, and gender. You can follow him on twitter at @dumilewis or on his official website.