Mass school closings have torn through urban districts across the country for over a decade, and for years, law firms and legal aid organizations have attempted to stop or stall these closings. However, one question seems to haunt litigation over this issue—what is the harm? How will closing a school hurt students? How will it hurt communities? Why should courts intervene to stop this?
Despite the number of school closings nationwide, formal research on this issue—specifically, research regarding the effects that closings have on students—remains very limited. For the past two years, I have represented students who were displaced or otherwise adversely affected by school closings and other forms of school district restructuring in Chicago, Illinois, through an Equal Justice Works Fellowship sponsored by the Mansfield Family Foundation. Our work has revealed information about how school closings affect students, schools, and communities. This article aims to capture the legal and practical implications of school closing decisions for affected students and to answer, at least in part, that repeated question—what is the harm and what approaches can help individual students who are forced to leave one school and move to another?
A Quick Primer on School Closings
The first step in understanding how school closings affect students and communities is understanding the rationale and procedures behind them. State laws and local policies have applied different rationales and followed different procedures for executing closures, but there are several commonalities.
Why are districts closing schools—and which schools are being closed?
School districts nationwide have generally offered two main reasons for closing schools: (1) low academic performance or (2) underutilization of school building space, or a combination of low academic performance and underutilization. Applying these two bases has consistently resulted in schools from low-income communities (rather than those from middle- or upper-income communities) being disproportionately closed or restructured.
Low academic performance
Federal law has required states and local governments to have academic performance policies, previously through the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and currently through the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Academic performance measures may include a variety of academic metrics but usually rely heavily on standardized test scores. While these performance measures apply to all schools, research has consistently shown that standardized achievement tests unfairly disadvantage minority students and students from low-income families.
Closing schools based on space utilization rates has become commonplace for school districts struggling with declining enrollment and budget issues—even though there is relatively minimal cost savings associated with closings. In many cities, there has been a strong correlation between underutilization of neighborhood schools and the decreasing availability of public housing and the proliferation of charter schools. Reducing the number of public housing units has led to fewer children in many neighborhoods; charter schools located in low-income neighborhoods have often attracted students who would otherwise attend neighborhood schools.
On the surface, each of these policies seems to have neutral goals—conserve resources and provide improved academic opportunities for students. But each has had a disparate impact on communities that serve low-income and minority students.
Who makes the decision to close?
School boards are typically the authority that makes the final determination regarding school closings—sometimes with input from other governmental sources (such as city governing body or mayor) and often following an opportunity for public input regarding school closing decisions. Most school districts and municipalities have recognized that community input is important and necessary for this type of decision, and most districts have formally requested public commentary in writing or through public hearings (or both) at some point in the school closure process. But it is debatable whether the public’s comments are genuinely considered by local decision makers. Even though community input should be highly persuasive, many affected communities—especially those that have dealt with year after year of closures—have reported that, from their perspective, school districts have already made a final decision by the time public input is requested. The disconnect between district personnel and school communities has also has an impact on the effectiveness of district efforts to support communities after closings are approved. If school districts have not collected meaningful information from school communities about the risks associated with a particular closing or the specific needs of the school community, then attempts to provide transition support will likely be insufficient.
When are closing decisions made? The time frame for closures is another similarity across jurisdictions. The school closing process is typically initiated and completed during one school year (started in the fall or winter, and schools are closed over the summer). This short period of time has caused significant disruption for schools that are considered and selected for closure. More specifically, there is limited time for parents to find new schools for their students, limited time for school districts to reassign staff, limited time for individualized education program (IEP) teams to ensure that all students with disabilities will have appropriate services at their new school—and limited time for any organized efforts to challenge these decisions.
This quick timeline creates a challenge for litigation contesting school closings. Once a district starts this process, things can move very quickly. On the other hand, lawsuits filed before a school closing decision is final may be vulnerable to challenge regarding the ripeness of the decision. See, e.g., Smith v. Henderson, 944 F. Supp. 2d 89, 94–95 (D.C.C. 2013).
What Researchers Have Found about the Impact of School Closings
Quantitative research regarding the effects of school closings is very limited. However, there are certain findings and conclusions that researchers have been able to agree on. First, the primary way that students may actually benefit from a school closing is if displaced students are reassigned to a significantly higher performing school. See Marisa de la Torre & Julia Gwynne, When Schools Close: Effects on Displaced Students in Chicago Public Schools (Univ. of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research 2009); John Engberg, Brian Gill, Gema Zamarro & Ron Zimmer, “Closing Schools in a Shrinking District: Do Student Outcomes Depend on Which Schools Are Closed?,” 71 J. Urban Econ. 189 (March 2012). Unfortunately, going to a significantly higher performing school rarely happens, and the quality of the receiving school is often negatively affected by the pressures of supporting a significant influx of new students. See De la Torre & Gwynne, supra, at 5, 11; Deven Carlson & Stephane Lavertu, School Closures and Student Achievement: An Analysis of Ohio’s Urban District and Charter Schools 21 (2015). Second, researchers have found that school closings have a disparate impact on low-income students, students with disabilities, and minority students. See Carlson & Lavertu, supra, at 2; Journey for Justice Alliance, Death by a Thousand Cuts: Racism, School Closures, and Public School Sabotage 1–2 (2014). Last, student mobility rates—which can negatively affect achievement levels, graduation rates, etc.—have also been found to increase after a school closing (excluding the initial displacement via closings). In other words, students who have been displaced by a school closing are more likely to transfer schools again after the closing process is complete. See De la Torre & Gwynne, supra, at 20–21.
Issues Displaced Students Have Faced
Our individual legal representation has shown that displaced students face a variety of unique challenges after school closings. These clients have experienced a wide range of educational harms—from having their school records lost to having initial special education evaluations delayed (sometimes for more than a year), to having special education services disrupted or inappropriately decreased (or both). At the individual student level, the harm is dependent on a number of factors, including the quality of the receiving school, whether the student has a disability, the student’s support system outside of school. However, at a school district level, there are consistent trends and commonalities in the harmful effects of school closings for purposes of litigation.
Special education issues
Students with disabilities are especially vulnerable to the educational harms associated with school closings. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act, students with disabilities have the right to receive the specific services and supports required by their IEPs and section 504 plans. The individualized nature of special education directly clashes with the large-scale disruption of school closings. Among the Legal Assistance Foundation’s school closing cases, there were common special education issues that students experienced.
To receive or continue receiving special education services, students must be evaluated. The failure of a school district to provide thorough or timely evaluations directly affects the student’s ability to receive appropriate educational services. The announcement of school closings can cause disorganization at the district and school level—making it more likely that evaluations will be delayed or rushed. In addition, the decision to evaluate a student for the first time may be delayed if the student and his or her teachers are displaced by closing. Generally, school staff members prefer to get to know a student and gather data before approving an initial special education evaluation. When schools are closed, this process is disrupted, and there is a higher likelihood that the student’s initial evaluation will be delayed as new staff gathers data and reconsiders whether to refer the student for evaluation.
Failure to implement and reduction of special education services
Once a student has an IEP or section 504 plan, school districts have an obligation to implement the services included in those plans. Generally, a student’s educational needs drive the services that the student should be receiving at school. Financial constraints, programmatic changes, or other dysfunctional issues within a school district should not disrupt a student’s special education services. However, implementation problems can occur when students from closing schools are assigned to receiving schools that may not have the resources to implement their IEPs. In such cases, a prolonged failure to implement the IEP can occur—a clear violation of IDEA. In other situations, it may lead to attempts by IEP teams at the closing or receiving school to reduce or eliminate services that students need—another violation of IDEA.
Maintaining accurate school records for students with disabilities is critical. Teachers need immediate access to current student IEPs and 504 plans, current evaluations, medical records, previous IEPs and 504 plans, etc. Unfortunately, during the school closing process, student records have not always been properly maintained or transferred to a student’s receiving school. Without access to accurate records, schools may fail to provide appropriate support to students with disabilities and to timely refer students for evaluations.
Community and school culture issues
As noted above, school closing policies have consistently had a disparate impact on communities that serve low-income and minority students. Even though academic performance and space utilization may seem somewhat unconnected, both of these bases consistently result in closing schools that serve the district’s most vulnerable student populations. In many low-income communities, neighborhood schools are long-standing anchors and support systems. Closing neighborhood schools disrupts and further destabilizes communities that are already burdened with other forms of instability. Moreover, at a community-wide level, these polices led to repeated schools closings in low-income communities. Disrupting the educational experience of any student can be harmful. Repeating that process with schools and communities that are overburdened and underserved only exacerbates the harm to students.
There have also been issues with combining different school communities into one attendance center after a closing. One concern that has been raised in response to school closings in different cities is that new school boundary lines and receiving school assignments crossed gang lines and historical neighborhood divides. Pew Charitable Trusts, Closing Public Schools in Philadelphia: Lessons from Six Urban School Districts 13 (2011). In Chicago, during the 2013 school closing process, parents and community members testified about the real and imminent threats that students would face during the proposed school transitions. A review of the hearing officer opinions from those public hearings demonstrates that the more concrete and specific that challengers (e.g., parents, community members, students) are when explaining this threat at a hearing, the better. For example, in 2013, Chicago Public Schools proposed closing Manierre Elementary and assigning its students to Jenner Elementary. At the public meetings and hearings for this proposal, there was persuasive testimony from students, parents, teachers, and community members about the long-standing gang rivalry between the communities that these schools served. Ultimately, Manierre was one of 4 schools—out of 4 proposed closings—to avoid closing. As community witnesses have pointed out, students will not be available for learning if they are afraid for their own safety, and without proper consideration and planning for affected communities, school closing decisions have raised significant safety concerns.