Philadelphia officials vote to close 23 schools
March 8, 2013
Officials on Thursday night approved closing 23 public schools, about 10 percent of the city’s total, largely backing a plan by the school district to erase a huge budget deficit and reduce the number of underused schools.
The decision was made after the police arrested 19 protesters, including Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, charging them with disorderly conduct. The protesters blocked doorways into a meeting room in an attempt to prevent members of the School Reform Commission from entering.
The commission, a state-run body that oversees the Philadelphia schools, rejected the district’s closing plan for only 4 of 27 schools that were under discussion at Thursday’s meeting. The district will vote later on shutting two other schools.
The votes were taken during a sometimes heated three-hour meeting after some 500 protesters gathered outside district headquarters, blocking a major road in central Philadelphia.
The commission chairman, Pedro Ramos, said after the vote that the closings were “excruciating, difficult and emotional for all of us,” but that they helped to restore financial stability.
The closings were opposed by all but one of the 32 people who spoke at the meeting.
“The process by which the Philadelphia School District decided on school closures was flawed and must be rejected,” said State Representative W. Curtis Thomas.
Teachers at schools that are closing will be transferred, but some other staff members will lose their jobs.
The closings are intended to erase a budget deficit of $1.35 billion over five years.
The district cannot afford to keep open buildings that are significantly underused and in some cases require repairs that would cost millions of dollars, the district’s superintendent, William R. Hite, has argued. More than a quarter of the district’s 195,000 seats are empty.
The district had first proposed to close 37 of 237 schools, but last month reduced the number to 29 after being persuaded by some parents that the original plan would send their children to dangerous or lower-performing schools.
The plan affects elementary through high schools.
Opponents have argued that children should not be forced to attend schools in unfamiliar neighborhoods where they might be victimized as outsiders, and that academic improvements shown by some schools would be jeopardized by the upheaval.
Students at the schools to be closed will be transferred at the start of the 2013-14 school year.
Philadelphia is one of a number of major cities that have been closing schools because of falling enrollment, poor academic performance and budget deficits. New York, Chicago and Washington have closed dozens of schools in the last decade and have recently published plans to shutter dozens more.
Public school enrollments are falling as more students migrate to charter schools. In Philadelphia, the proportion of students attending charter schools jumped to 23 percent in the 2011-12 school year from 12 percent in 2004-5, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
School districts are also being hit by state budget cuts. Pennsylvania cut Philadelphia’s financing by $419 million this year. Meanwhile, the federal government has provided incentives to close schools that do not measure up to national performance standards.
But some analysts have questioned the efficacy of programs to close schools. The Pew Charitable Trusts said in a 2011 study that no district has reaped a financial windfall from selling shuttered buildings, which are often in declining neighborhoods and hard to sell.
It found 200 vacant school buildings in six cities in the summer of 2011, and said most had been empty for several years.
A study by Research for Action, a Philadelphia-based educational research group, said that most districts that close schools save money by reducing payrolls. It noted that Philadelphia’s current plan does not include laying off teachers.
Savings are limited by expenses such as transportation costs for students moved to different schools, demolition of some properties, and a drop in the market value of empty buildings in depopulated areas, the Research for Action study said.
Some community groups accuse school-closing programs of discriminating against black and Hispanic students, who represent the majority in many urban schools.
In January, activists representing six cities including Philadelphia filed a civil-rights complaint with the United States Education Department, which said it would investigate the complaints in Philadelphia, Detroit and Newark, N.J.
Just as the 129 school closures in Chicago would affect largely black & Latino students, so will the Philadelphia closures.
From the Philadelphia Student Union: There is one thing we can do now, as young people and as a city. By organizing ourselves, we can win this fight and see created safe, quality schools for all students. We are going to keep fighting the systems and individuals for whom closing schools is a priority. We will engage and uplift the voices of those that are most intimately affected by the systematic undermining of public education. We will prepare ourselves for the next round of school closures, not only because we know they are coming but because we refuse to lay down and allow public education to be destroyed in front of our eyes.