Should the Government Ever Close a Public School for Poor Performance?


I’m not sure.

Here are things I’m somewhat sure (70%?) about:

  1. State governments should require all K12 schools that receive public funds to take a singular, rigorous test that is administered in a manner that reduces cheating.
  1. State governments should create a letter grading system that assigns letter grades to schools based on their performance on this test. These letter grades should be weighted at least 50% toward growth.
  1. City government and non-governmental organizations should widely publicize these letter grades.
  1. State or city governments should operate an efficient, centralized enrollment process that only requires families to submit one form when ranking school preferences.
  1. Funding should be allocated to schools based on how many students they serve, as well as how at-risk this student population is.

Here is one thing I have promoted in the past but remain unsure about:

  1. Government should close or reconstitute a school that consistently receives a “D” or “F” rating – even if parents desire to send their children to this school.

In short, I believe there are huge information problems around the quality of education schools are delivering, and I’m willing to sacrifice a significant amount of school autonomy (in the form of standards and assessments) to provide information on school quality to parents (and to the general public).

Additionally, I’m willing to sacrifice some amount of statistical precision to ensure that this information is digestible to parents.

However, I also believe that:

  1. Parents should have power to choose schools that they feel will serve their children well.
  1. Test scores aren’t everything.
  1. While I generally support the data governments currently use for accountability, I can imagine a world where I did not.
  1. The political costs of closing schools are very high.
  1. Choice reforms might be much more accepted by the public if they were not connected to school closure.
  1. Over time, good information and open enrollment access could lead to the closure of many of these poorly rated schools anyway (due to under-enrollment) – so that student achievement could increase faster over the long run due to less political battles.  

Much of this is based on my experience in New Orleans, where letter grades, coupled with centralized enrollment, has increased the percentage of parents making high-quality choices (as measured by test scores, which are not perfect, but generally a useful measure) – and where we received significant pushback in closing schools.

Or to put it another way, reform might be better off if a superintendent could say:

“This school is closing because the community did not feel it was good enough to send their children here. Next year, we will open a school in its place that hopefully better meets the needs of the community.” 

Of course, the transformation process could still be politically difficult. But it might be perceived as (and be) more legitimate.

Whatever you might believe on this issue, the tensions between achievement, efficiency, community, and liberty will not being going away anytime soon.

4 thoughts on “Should the Government Ever Close a Public School for Poor Performance?

  1. Adam Hawf

    I think your hypothetical could work well if school governors (boards, CMOs, whoever) either had extraordinary financial resources or reliably chose to close their own schools quickly once enrollment flagged sufficiently. In reality, however, I imagine a world in which people delude themselves as enrollment wanes and they cut staffing (~80% of budgets) to the bone and pray that the next year will be better.

    What do you say to the argument that this closure experience could actually be more painful and damaging for students as the gradual loss of enrollment led to financial cutbacks and thus material degradation in the quality and variety of educational services available for the students in a school? In this scenario, I think you would end up with a greater number of mid-year closures which are both more disruptive and more likely to receive material negative media coverage.

    I’m not entirely certain but my instinct is that this framework could actually lead to worse politics in the long-run because of media coverage of the negative consequences at the school level in cases of significant under-enrollment. The extent of excess capacity and the ferocity of competition for students would of course be key factors.

  2. nkingsl

    Adam, thanks for the comment. It seems you have some real world experience here?

    Per your arguments:

    In New Orleans, we’ve rarely seen a school close midyear (even those with financial issues), so I’m not sure how much of a threat this would be.

    But if this kept on happening; yes, I could see it leading to pushback.

    One solution might be for the district to keep a bailout fund to keep schools a float that will be closing at the end of the year.

    But this is all somewhat conjecture. I’d like to see one city go this route and see what happens.

  3. Andrew

    Building space is a non-trivial issue, and allowing a poorly performing school to continue when a higher performing one could be occupying that space could decrease the overall number of quality seats in the city. Even if you measure quality by parent rankings.

    I’d also be curious to see preference data for New Orleans by school. Even if a school is ranked low, they are insulated from the impact of those parent choices because there are a limited number of seats in the city. So in order for a school to really feel an enrollment impact they have to be so bad that parents aren’t even including them in their preference rankings at all. And even then the school would still have students assigned there unless there was sufficient excess capacity in the city.

    I like the idea of deferring to parents. Perhaps parent ranking from the central enrollment proces could be an element in charter renewals, right alongside financial audits and academic performance.

  4. nkingsl

    Thanks Andrew – per facilities, having charters own the facilities would be a partial remedy, as they would have to incur the cost of low utilization. But yes, if you allow poor performing schools to stay alive a little longer, this will have short term negative impacts.

    I think allowing for 5-10% over capacity might be a partial solution to your second point.

    Yes, enrollment in renewals would be an interesting metric.



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