Opinion: Closing Oakland Schools Hurts Students, No Matter How You Sell It

Oakland Teachers Go On One-Day Strike To Protest New ContractThe Oakland school district is likely to propose the closing of more schools using a term borrowed from corporate America called “rightsizing.” The Business Dictionary calls rightsizing: “The process of a corporation reorganizing or restructuring their business. The term rightsizing is often used by companies instead of downsizing because it sounds less drastic.”

Adopting corporate vocabulary for public institutions is a problem, but the bigger problem is that closing schools has no educational justification. The most definitive national study of school closings indicates that they do not save money or improve student education.
University of Maryland researcher Gail Sunderman and UC Berkeley professors Erin Coghlan and Rick Mintrop produced a report “School Closure as a Strategy to Remedy Low Performance” for the National Education Policy Center.

They document that closing schools is not good for either student performance or non-cognitive well-being, and they begin their recommendations with this statement: “The relatively limited evidence base suggests that school closures are not a promising strategy for remedying low student performance.”

Four important points emerge from the study that was published in May of this year:

  1. Some have argued that closing schools where students do not have high test scores will help those students to do better.  The evidence indicates that the opposite is true.
    Student performance declines in the year after the closing is announced, even before the school is actually closed.   There is also an increase in dropout rates.
    Performance declines further at the new school to which the student is assigned.  Even if the new school is a better-performing school than the one from which the student was transferred (which is often not the case), performance improves in the second and third year but not more than it would have improved if the student had stayed at the original school. The studies also found modest negative spillover effects on the students attending the schools receiving the new students.
  2. Closings have a differential negative impact on Black students. In urban school closures 61 percent of the impacted students are African-American although African-American students makes up only about 31 percent of urban school populations.  And in some districts such as Chicago, Black teachers are also more likely to be affected.
  3. Students do not feel that they are being “saved” from a “failing” school. They experience the closings as oppressive.
  4. Closing schools does not save money.

In the case of Detroit, for example, the study concluded that the district achieved little or no savings, because of the extra costs associated with moving the additional students lost to the district and the renovation costs for upgrading schools, some of which were themselves later closed. The notion that schools should have a minimum size is not born out by a look at the average private school, which is smaller than the average public school.

Wealthier people do not, by and large, choose large anonymous institutions for their kids. Why should we?

So why would the Oakland district do something which is not helpful to its students?

The following are speculations:  First, the school board may not have this information.  (I plan to encourage them to read the study.) Second, it seems that the school board is being pressured in policy by the same entities that have led Oakland astray persistently.  The Fiscal Crisis Management and Assistance Team (FCMAT), for example, is a quasi private body of consultants, operating out of Bakersfield, which was involved in the take-over of the school district years ago.


Further, a number of Sacramento politicians are heavily funded by corporatized charter schools and may be willing to see public schools close because districts are required to offer closed schools sites to charters.

The recommendation of the NEPC study on school closings is simple – Instead of taking the costly step of closing needy schools, invest in them.

Kitty Kelly Epstein, PhD, hosts Education Today on KPFA and tweets from @educate2day941

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