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For better or for worse, today’s school superintendents have become CEOs. Corporate principles and the lexicon of business are pervasive throughout American schools. Teachers work to shore up a bottom line defined by test scores. And if numbers fail to improve, the district drops the school from its portfolio.

In some communities, the record numbers of public school closures have set off a fiery backlash among activists and educators. Philadelphia school officials voted to shutter nearly 10 percent of their schools next fall. Chicago leaders are weighing the closures of dozens of possible schools. And the New York City Department of Education, which eliminated 140 schools between 2003 and 2012, is eyeing another round. Detroit, Washington, D.C., and Oakland have also tried to close large numbers of schools in the past few years.

Permanent school closings
Pepper Middle School is one of 23 schools set to close in Philadelphia. (Photo by Jukie Bot)

Recently, at hearing before federal Department of Education officials, a coalition of residents from 18 cities called for a moratorium on the closures. “This is part of a national epidemic that we’re seeing … in communities of color around the nation,” said Zakiyah Ansari, advocacy director at the Alliance for Quality Education, in an interview before the hearing. “We need to be pushing back against the so-called reformers that say closures are successful.”

Some of the closings are particularly controversial because they stem not merely from tight budgets or declining enrollment: They are the direct result of a changed philosophy about education in general, and struggling city schools in particular. In New Orleans, where I spent the last three years reporting and writing a book about the schools, closures (or “takeovers” by new operators with different leaders and staff) are viewed as inevitable for the time being. They are part of a Darwinian new education landscape where the “strong” schools—as measured by test scores and other data-driven benchmarks—survive and expand, while the “weak” ones are forced into extinction.

Supporters of the closures point to the thousands of schools across the country that have failed children for generations yet have been allowed to stay open. Critics, meanwhile, maintain that schools should not be closed like franchises that fail to meet sales goals, uprooting their predominantly low-income student bodies.

It’s one of the ironies of the debate over closures—and the larger debate surrounding contemporary school reform—that both sides claim the mantle of the civil rights movement and profess to have the best interests of some of America’s most vulnerable children at heart. The reformers argue that closing underperforming schools will help create thousands of first-generation college graduates; their opponents claim it will destroy minority-led schools and weaken impoverished neighborhoods.

But in the end, each side fails to fully understand that a family’s connection to a school is like any other relationship. On the one hand, most people can’t easily disentangle themselves for pragmatic, data-driven reasons. But at the same time, parents and students may be too blinded by love, fear, or habit to leave a dysfunctional relationship.

Whether and how the government should intervene to end such a complicated affair is rarely an easy question. But a moratorium on school closures or takeovers would be too simplistic. It could potentially leave thousands of children in schools that have violated the public trust, and children’s well being, for years. As an education writer for more than a decade, I have seen parents of all income levels make poor educational choices despite the best of intentions. Sometimes, they fall prey to slick marketing that belies a lack of educational expertise. Other times, they act out of convenience or tradition. Many families are simply overwhelmed. In one extreme case I witnessed, dozens of Milwaukee parents sent their children, year after year, to a private school run by a convicted rapist. The school, called Alex’s Academics of Excellence, did not close until the government forced it out of business.

But it is undeniable that in some cities school closings have become too prevalent, and may do more harm than good overall. Children and communities need stability to grow and develop. Today’s education reformers cannot underestimate the attachment students and families sometimes feel to mediocre, even awful, schools.

With this in mind, officials must take a more holistic look when deciding whether to close a school—one that extends beyond test scores and includes an assessment of whether families will have ready access to high-quality alternatives. (In New Orleans, school officials have, at times, closed schools only to shuttle displaced students to other low-performing institutions.)

An evaluation of a school’s viability should take into account test score trends, student attendance, retention, and graduation rates, but it should also include parent and student satisfaction levels, site visits, and conversation with families about what they want and need from a school. No single factor should trump the rest, and officials must ask themselves hard questions about whether they have provided the school with the support and stability it needs to thrive.

Some schools will inevitably have to close, despite community objections. But in other cases, officials might find that the numbers fail to capture a complicated reality shaped by history, tradition, and relationships —  a reality that simply cannot be reduced to a bottom line.

This story also appeared on The Atlantic on March 8, 2013.

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  1. The problem is that in Louisiana you can’t trust any of the data that support the closures . . . or of the “miracle schools” themselves. What we have is a corrupt and inhumane claim to “educate” the least among that in fact fleeces public coffers behind a wall of impenetrable “transparency.” Down here, it’s politics and a complex web of relationships that run the “public” schools: board members, CEOs, and school leaders via the nexus of New School for New Orleans and its myriad relationships to every nefarious ALEC-backed “foundation” in the USA.

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