When Schools Close, Can Choice Schools Move In?Posted 6 January 2011 by K12Reboot
As under-performing districts lose students, what happens when schools have to close? Does the district make those facilities available to charter schools that can provide neighborhoods with new choices? Or do they fight choice and try to keep the facilities out of the hands of the “competition”? Many large school districts have faced significant declines in their student populations over the last decade. (Detroit’s public schools have lost 44% of their students just since 2004. Kansas City, MO, has only 17,000 public school students today, versus 70,000 in 1980, and that district plans to close half of its remaining schools by next fall.) Demographic changes like an aging population account for some of the declines, but the largest factor is undoubtedly the abysmal reputation that these districts have acquired. Young families with children don’t move into these cities if they can’t afford private school tuition, and families who already live there move out if they can. That means school closures and consolidations.
But what happens to the facilities that are no longer needed? Some campuses get converted for adult education use, alternative schools for students who cannot attend traditional schools, or end up getting used as office space for a bureaucracy that often grows independently of the actual numbers of students being served. (If you live it one of these large districts, take note of how your re-purposed neighborhood schools are being used.) Some cities, like Denver, CO, which is taking a more constructive approach to school choice, are making these campuses available for new charter schools. More typically, though, large districts resist attempts to chip away at their monopolies by denying use of these facilities for charter schools.
Milwaukee, WI, provides a typical case. Although Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) does not own its campuses (the city does), the district does control how, and whether, the campuses can be sold or leased. And MPS has consistently fought any attempts to use vacant schools to provide new choice options to residents. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal, 27 schools sit empty, including some that have received multiple offers from charter schools. (MPS maintains that there are plans to redevelop or reuse all but 13 of those campuses.) Considering the negative impact of MPS’s position on the educational options of Milwaukee’s students, and on the livability of the city generally, the president of the Milwaukee City Council, Willie Hines, and state Sen. Alberta Darling have vowed to propose legislation to force MPS to sell or lease its vacant school buildings to high-performing charter school operators that wish to use them.
The School Board President, Michael Bonds, reacted with predictable open-mindedness and concern for students, calling the proposal ”ridiculous at best.” Commenting with unusual candor on the threat that charters pose to MPS he says, “It’s like asking the Coca-Cola Company to turn over its facilities to Pepsi so Pepsi can expand and compete with the Coca-Cola Company”. Given that reactionary perspective, it is likely that the Board will prefer sales of vacant campuses for redevelopment, rather than any sale or lease to a charter. Such sales have two advantages for traditional districts: they generate cash to keep the monopoly schools on life support a little bit longer; and they help keep the “dreaded” competition at bay.