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Closing Costs

In Philadelphia, protesters hit the streets over plans to close dozens of schools.

Whose schools are they, anyway? The question looms large when old schools face closure and new ones are up for approval. And among parents, teachers, school boards, and reformers, push can quickly come to shove along familiar battle lines.

Last December, Philadelphia schools chief William Hite Jr. announced a plan to close 37 of the city’s schools, sparking a series of protests, like the one pictured above, organized by a coalition of community groups and unions.

And this January, some 400 students and parents from around the country traveled to Washington for a DOE hearing, to testify that turnarounds, closings, and federal mandates fall more heavily on underfunded, nonwhite schools.

In Philly, the proximate cause for the closings was money, not school quality. The district faces a $1 billion shortfall during the next five years, and over the past decade, enrollment has shrunk from more than 200,000 to 146,000. The moves, Hite says, would boost the district’s utilization rate from 67 percent to 80 percent and save $28 million.

For his opponents, the dynamics are more complex. They say reformers are using the sea of red ink to disempower unions and communities, and to open up public education for private profit.

Hite has since reduced the number of closings to 29. He has also rejected large-scale charter expansion proposed by the outside consulting group that came up with the closure plan. A final vote is scheduled for early March.

Activists at the D.C. hearing are taking their fight to the courts as well. They’ve filed Title VI civil rights complaints against 15 cities with the DOE’s Office for Civil Rights. The DOE is trying to stay out of the line of fire. As a department official told The American Prospect, “The federal government doesn’t open schools. It doesn’t close schools.”

—Spring 2013—

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