Leadership at Seattle Public Schools (SPS) is not leveling with the public that the district is quietly and relentlessly moving towards closing many of our neighborhood schools. This move to shutter schools is the wrong policy direction and will only hurt kids, families, and neighborhoods.
Debating whether or not closing schools is a good idea should be at the center of the current school board races. It should be garnering significant public attention. But it is not, in part because district leaders haven’t been forthright and fully transparent.
Seattle Public School finances are in trouble. Over the next two years Seattle Public Schools face over $200 million in budget shortfalls, and that’s after using the entirety of our rainy day fund to close a budget shortfall last year. These are the results of chronic poor planning by SPS and underfunding from Olympia.
More worrying is a long-term decline in enrollment, with the number of students in Seattle expected to fall by 15 percent over the next decade. As a result, the District is laying the groundwork for closing neighborhood schools. Over the summer they held a series of cheerfully titled “Well-Resourced Schools Community Meetings.”
But beneath the happy talk the school closure agenda was clear. Each of these meetings opened with a speech from Superintendent Dr. Brent Jones in which he assured families that “no school closures are planned for the ‘23-‘24 school year,” but then emphasized that SPS faces a serious budget crisis. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…
While they aren’t stating these arguments publicly, the District and some members of the current School Board are privately claiming that closing schools will shrink our budget deficit and will more efficiently deploy fixed costs — such as principals — by consolidating into larger “well-resourced schools.”
But these arguments are flawed.
First, closing schools will not shrink our budget deficit. The District has no plans to lay off the teachers, staff, and service providers who work in those schools. In fact they just signed new contracts with teacher and custodial unions. They intend to re-assign teachers, not reduce their ranks. Given that personnel accounts for well over two-thirds of SPS’ annual budget, closing schools cannot reduce our total costs. In fact, we’ll end up spending money to move people and equipment and shutter the building.
Second, schools should not optimize for efficiency, they should optimize for learning. Schools are not factories; their job is not to produce kids at the most efficient dollar per principal ratio. Leave that thinking to manufacturers. We need to focus on reversing the slide in enrollment, and even more importantly, closing our shameful achievement gap in which only a third of the students most in need of our help are meeting math and reading standards.
If you don’t believe me, just look at Chicago. As The Sun Times reported, Chicago Public Schools closed 50 neighborhood schools in 2013 because of low enrollment, “inefficiency,” and chronic budget shortfalls. The Mayor and the Superintendent promised better outcomes for kids by consolidating them into fewer schools which would have more resources. Sound familiar?
The results in Chicago were a failure. Kids from closed schools had lower graduation rates and fared worse on standardized tests than those whose schools stayed open. Even worse, all of those students went through years of “educational destabilization.” Hardly optimal for learning.
We should heed the warning that Chicago’s experience provided. Instead of closing schools, we should invest in them. We should bring more programs (like art and music classes) into those schools so they can attract more kids and strengthen our long term funding. We should embrace neighborhood schools as a source of diversity, variety, and community, offering options for kids who may not thrive in a bigger school.
Admittedly, this will take resources and money. The best place to find those resources is Olympia, where we have a lot of work to do to rebuild trust with budget writers. We can start by reinvesting in transparency and accountability at the School Board and District. Seattle Public Schools has a $1.2 billion budget, but our Board recently did away with the standing Finance Committee. That’s unacceptable: No other organization of this size would forgo such oversight.
We need a new vision for Seattle public schools. We need to expand the programs that bring families to Seattle Public Schools, not eliminate programs and schools, and in the process push families away. We need to embrace neighborhood schools, not close them. We need clarity and straight talk from the school board and SPS leadership, not spin. We need to challenge the status quo, not accept it.
I believe that every kid deserves a great public school. We have a chance to build a bigger vision for Seattle Public Schools. But for that to happen, we need to reverse direction on closing schools.