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Enrollment Down. Achievement Lackluster. Should This School Close? (Opinion)

Shrinking enrollment and vanishing pandemic aid have delivered a financial gut punch to many school districts across the country. The looming reality of comprehensive school reorganization efforts, notably through closures and consolidations, has ignited passionate debates about fairness, equity, and the right to a high-quality public education that will shape the geography of opportunity in the United States for years to come.

As a scholar of school district-reorganization efforts, I find myself in a unique position. I am an education policy researcher who studies racial and social inequality in schools and I have been a vocal critic of how school closure decisions are typically made. Too often, school closure decisions are rushed, community stakeholders often lack a voice, and closures, too frequently, impact students and communities of color far more than others. Despite my criticism—or perhaps because of it—I now work alongside districts to help them navigate the tumultuous waters of closures and consolidations.

Throughout my research, I’ve seen a common pitfall: Districts tend to base their decisions on which schools to close or merge on narrow factors like declining enrollment, per-pupil costs, and achievement concerns. Although sensible on many levels, this approach overlooks a deeper issue: why some schools, with student bodies from the poorest families and serving the highest concentrations of Black and brown children, face persistent challenges of low enrollment and underperformance in the first place.

Imagine a tree that shows yellowing leaves on one side. A shortsighted arborist might prune these ailing branches, missing the real concern: Healthy trees don’t yield limbs with dying leaves in the same area, year after year. Such a pattern suggests a deeper, more serious problem. Ignoring the root causes allows the underlying issues to worsen. Similarly, when districts focus solely on budgetary and enrollment standards, they risk exacerbating the underlying inequities that lead to such vulnerabilities in the first place.

Consider the declining Black population in many U.S. cities. New York, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and other large metros have seen their Black populations dwindle over the last decade. And these declines are not simply a reflection of a shrinking overall population. The pattern is also attributable to racial disparities in home ownership, rising housing costs, and gentrification alongside systemic inequalities in employment and education that drive Black residents to seek better prospects elsewhere. Chicago, for instance, lost 85,000 Black residents between 2010 and 2020 despite experiencing population growth during the same period.

Such trends not only highlight the economic and social challenges that have marginalized Black residents in many cities but also leave room for a critical rethinking of the role that our school system plays in either anchoring communities or hastening their displacement. My research indicates that the trend of diminishing Black presence in central-city areas would likely accelerate if school closures continue to affect predominately Black neighborhoods.

Today, districts across the country have an opportunity to break new ground in reorganization efforts by placing equity at the very heart of the process—that is, elevating equity as a guiding principle that allows districts to acknowledge and account for inequalities in access and opportunity, both past and present. Schools would no longer be closed because of current outcomes and trends without considering the reasons behind these patterns. Think of equity as a great leveler, a tool that breathes life into ailing branches while allowing arborists to see meaningful, if not obvious, signs of distress in other parts of the tree.

What does this mean in practice? A high-achieving school in a well-off part of the city could still be considered for reorganization if it does not serve its highest-need students well. Likewise, a school with low enrollment in, say, a high-poverty, previously redlined neighborhood may turn out to be a poor candidate for closure or consolidation if its students express a strong sense of belonging at the school, its leadership is effective, or its learning rates are high by district standards.

To be sure, defining and measuring equity is not straightforward, so it is crucial to develop a clear, transparent, and comprehensive approach. In my work, I’ve encouraged districts to consider equity in terms of past investments. For example, schools in historically underserved communities or that disproportionately serve children growing up in neighborhoods that have long lacked the kinds of robust services and features that make life easier—stores, recreational activities, parks and playgrounds, reliable transit, safe and clean streets, and the like—would be less likely to close after accounting for these factors. Tools like neighborhood-level opportunity estimates can provide valuable insights into the lack of investments and resources that have limited opportunity for some of America’s schoolchildren in this and previous generations. By using these metrics, districts can get a better idea of the health of their communities and make more informed decisions about which branches to prune and which deserve greater care and attention.

However, simply having the right data isn’t enough. The path forward also demands that districts actively engage their communities in the process. Too often, school reorganization decisions are top-down, and communities, especially marginalized ones, have little voice in the process. By putting equity at the center and authentically valuing stakeholder voices, districts can upend traditional reorganization processes that disproportionately impact students and communities of color without compromising other operational principles, such as the pursuit of academic excellence or cost efficiency.

As budgetary pressures and enrollment challenges intensify, large urban districts nationwide are desperate for a new model—one that allows them to reorganize in ways that don’t burden their most vulnerable populations or further exacerbate existing inequalities. The boldest of districts can seize this moment by centering equity from the very start: defining it based on local conditions, disparities, and historical patterns of (dis)investment; measuring it through innovative data; and using it to inform decisionmaking about which schools to close and which to reinvest in. This is a chance to reimagine how public education systems can adapt to new realities to become the great equalizers of opportunity they can be.

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