TRUE or FALSE? Closing DCPS Schools Will Make the System Stronger?
This month, DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson will announce which schools will be closed at the end of the school year, from a list of 20 announced last fall. She says that these schools are under-enrolled and expensive to operate. The implication is that closing schools will allow DCPS to create stronger education environments in the consolidated schools.
Unfortunately, the Chancellor has not shared much with the public to demonstrate just how expensive the under-enrolled schools are, how much would be saved by closing them, and how the savings would be used. Perhaps that is because there really won’t be major savings. Right now, smaller DCPS schools receive only slightly more per pupil funding than larger schools and have teacher-student ratios that are roughly the same as in larger schools. Together, these don’t suggest that the smaller schools are overly expensive or under resourced relative to larger schools.
This means cost savings from closing and consolidating schools may not be substantial. We estimate that savings in staffing costs next school year would be about $10 million, but the transition costs of closing schools will be very close to that, erasing any savings in the first year.
If closing schools does not generate much savings or greater benefits to students, what is the point? Even if all 20 schools are closed, there will still be under-enrolled schools, particularly if enrollment drops as it did after the 2008 round of school closures. Chancellor Henderson has set a bold goal of improving test scores in low-performing schools, but the school closure plan does not say what will be done to improve overall quality of the remaining schools, which is needed to improve outcomes and draw families back into DCPS.
In other words, the real question is not which schools will be closed, but what will be done with the schools that stay open to make them better?
Are Small Schools Cost Inefficient?
One of the main arguments in the Chancellor’s proposal for school closure and consolidation is that the under-enrolled schools or small schools are inefficient and require additional funding from the school system to operate. Yet an analysis of general education spending per pupil shows that small schools are not spending much more on a per pupil basis than large schools of the same school type. At the elementary level, for example, the typical general education budget for smaller schools is $8,472 per pupil, compared with $8,149 per pupil in the larger schools. (See Figure 1 below.)
Will Closing Schools Save Money?
An initial analysis from DC education finance analyst Mary Levy shows that DCPS could see $10.4 million in staff savings next school year from shuttering the 20 schools. This reflects the staff savings from closed schools net of the new staff costs that would be allocated to the receiving schools, based on DCPS staffing guidelines. Additional funding may also be generated by leasing vacant buildings to charter schools or other organizations in the future, but that is still uncertain.
Will Closing Schools Cost Money?
Consolidating schools may save money over time, but there definitely are short-term costs that should not be ignored. The cost of closing 23 schools in 2008 was estimated at $9.7 million, but a DC auditor’s report found the actual costs totaled $39.5 million, including demolition of school buildings, moving and relocation, and transportation of displaced students. This time around, Mary Levy estimates $10.2 million in one-time costs related to inventory, relocation and storage. This would erase any staff savings in the first year, although there should be net savings in future years.
DCPS has also stated that certain schools may reopen in a few years, if the population of school-age children grows at projected rates. The cost of closing and reopening these schools, both in terms of actual funding and the disruption to the community, is worth considering before making final decisions about school closings.
The Key Question: Will Closing Schools Lead To Greater Quality?
Chancellor Henderson has said that savings will be used to reinvest in our classrooms, and that larger schools are able to have small class sizes and more flexible groupings of students to help teachers work together in teams. DCPS also states that when schools reach certain size thresholds, it gives the school’s principal more flexibility to use their resources better.
But if there are no cost savings, it is not clear how additional resources can be steered towards the schools that need them the most. Beyond that, it is not apparent whether the consolidated schools really will bring new levels of classroom flexibility.
The student-to-teacher ratios in large DCPS schools were not much better than in small schools of the same type. (See Figure 2 below.) For example, the average student-to-teacher ratio for large elementary schools (more than 350 students) is actually higher than in smaller elementary schools.
What’s more, after the 20 schools close, it is not certain that the consolidated schools will see smaller class sizes. In fact, it looks like their student-teacher ratios and class sizes will go up as a result of consolidation. For example, many students in closing schools will gain a librarian that they may not have had before, but the ratio of librarian to students will increase for the newly consolidated school.
What Steps Are Being Taken To Show System-Wide Vision?
Perhaps most important, it is not clear that closing 20 small schools addresses the issue of under-enrollment throughout DCPS, either now or in the future. There are 40 DCPs elementary schools under the recommended size of 350 students and just 24 above this level. Only three out of 13 middle schools and six out of 18 high schools meet criteria for a fully enrolled school. If students continue to leave the system, as they did after the 2008 round of closings, DC may be looking at even smaller schools in the following year.
In other words, losing schools does not address the root causes of under enrollment and low quality of DC public schools. It is reaction to a problem rather than a proactive solution. Chancellor Henderson should have coupled her school closure plan with other more forward-looking plans to improve the quality of the school system. With other major changes coming, including a review of school boundaries and a new plan for modernizing school facilities, a plan for improving academic performance would have helped parents and others see the silver lining in the difficult process of closing schools.
It is not too late. With proposed school budget guidelines coming out soon, DCPS can start to communicate how school closings will help address the lack of sufficient funding that individual school budgets continue to face, particularly those schools with the most ambitious goals for improving performance. Without that, it is hard to see why school closures will be anything other than another painful chapter in the history of DCPS.
Bhat is an education finance and policy analyst at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute (www.dcfpi.org), which conducts research on tax and budget issues that affect low- and moderate-income DC residents.