Public schools

Shutter Bad Schools (Public or Private), Get Better Education. How Is This Even Controversial?

Shifting students to better schools gets better outcomes. Imagine that.


Closed school
Chamey /

Parents often resist when public schools close their doors, even when said schools are underperforming and/or underpopulated. In my former hometown of Barstow, out in the California desert, in the face of declining enrollment, citizens nevertheless resisted school districts' efforts to close a couple of schools and even used California's absurdly complicated environmental laws to try to block it (essentially arguing that the district hadn't adequately studied the environmental impact of moving students to other schools).

But when privately operated charter schools perform poorly, school districts are often very quick to try to shut them down. Paperwork issues? Shut them down! Don't like how they're spending the money? Shut them down!

Research highlighted by NPR suggests that the willingness to shut down bad or unneeded schools is good, public or private, and doing so is often a boon to students.

This should not be a controversial issue, but it is. NPR notes that a full 84 percent of parents in a recent poll said they'd prefer to keep a poorly performing school open and try to fix it, rather than shut it down. It's pretty easy to understand the logic of parents here. Changing schools is a stressful, difficult experience for families, and there's a high level of resistance unless circumstances truly call for it. As NPR notes, it's tougher for parents to be involved with schools the further they are from the family's home.

But perhaps the stress of being in a bad school is much worse. Some early research is showing that when underperforming and underenrolled schools are shut down, the closings benefited the students who were sent elsewhere. Contain your surprise:

James Kemple at NYU's Steinhardt School took a look at New York City's shuttering of 29 high schools that were among the lowest-performing in the city. The phaseout took place over several years, allowing students to finish out their educations at the school where they began. At the same time, New York opened a group of small high schools offering open enrollment and personalized attention for students, and it instituted a citywide choice policy.

Kemple followed a matched group of eighth-graders who, based on their middle schools and their neighborhoods, would have been expected to attend one of the closed schools. He studied where they went and what happened to them. The impacts were "quite strong," he says, in a positive direction.

"They ended up attending high schools that were higher-performing, with higher attendance, better test scores, better graduation rates, and did much better than students we compared them to," he says. That included a 15-percentage-point increase in the students' high school graduation rate.

Note that the story's a lot more complicated than just taking students from one school and shipping them off to another. It involves New York City treating school choice seriously and giving families much more power over where their students would attend.

There a bit of an "It's too soon to be entirely certain" tone to the story. Students from closed schools in Chicago, NPR explains, have been shifted to schools with better ratings from the city, but it's too soon to evaluate the outcomes. That—in the year 2016?we don't have adequate research on the educational impacts of closing bad public schools says so much about how entrenched the public education system is.

And yet, the power within the system has ultimately led us to a situation where the only way to actually "fix" public schools is to either threaten them with closure or allow parents to ship their kids elsewhere. The powerful education unions have made it next to impossible to fire bad teachers. They do everything within their power to even fight methods used to evaluate teacher performance or to tie pay or bonuses to educational outcomes. At this point, eliminating entire schools is one of just a handful of ways of bypassing that level of power.

This study's results are not remotely shocking or controversial. The only thing shocking is that it has taken so long for it to happen, even though we know full well that increasing money spent on education has not resulted in any increases in school performance. We've known all along that accountability and competition is what's missing. Now we're finally getting the research that backs it up.

Much more from Reason on school choice here.