A Moratorium Makes Sense

Pittsburgh City Council has entered the debate over the future of city schools. At a public hearing yesterday, parents, students, teachers, and community members spoke passionately in support of a new resolution, introduced by Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith, calling for a moratorium on school closures.

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Media coverage of the event included:

Here’s why this moratorium makes sense:

  • School closures don’t solve budget problems.
  • School closures don’t improve schools.
  • School closures hurt students, families, and communities.
  • School closures don’t provide time for the community to authentically engage in finding solutions to the district’s challenges.

Let me elaborate, starting with a quick history lesson. Here in Pittsburgh we have been through four rounds of school closures in the past decade, and are now looking at a proposed fifth round. Every time we’ve closed schools through these “right-sizing” plans we’ve hoped it would solve our financial problems and let us put the money towards improving academics for students. But time and time again that hasn’t happened.

In part that’s because closing schools often does not save as much money as people anticipate. After the last round of closures here, Pittsburgh only saved about $668,000 per building, which was far below expectations. [Pew Charitable Trust, 2011] When D.C. recently closed schools it actually cost them $40 million. [Washington Post, 3-22-13] Parent Kathy Newman pointed to data illustrating that school districts also lose per-pupil funding when students leave the district after school closures: one such California district thought it would save $700,000 by closing and consolidating schools, but wound up losing $2.4 million as hundreds of students left the district. [Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2011 report]

Instead of improving education for Pittsburgh children, with closures we now have education desserts where entire sections of the city don’t have a single public school. Community member Hazel Blackman spoke at the hearing about moving to the Hazelwood neighborhood in 2000, attracted by the schools and shops. Within three years, the public schools were all closed and the shops started to leave, too. Parent Cassie Schaffer mentioned her Oakland neighborhood, another part of our city without a single community school.

We’ve lost high-functioning, gorgeous buildings that were pillars of strength in their communities. School closures have literally harmed our neighborhoods, and disproportionately affected our communities of color. School volunteer Wallace Sapp, who spends between 80-100 hours a month in Pittsburgh Manchester K-8 on the Northside, talked about moving to Pittsburgh in the 50’s to escape the Klan. He described walking to his local public school as “walking to hope,” and the closing of public schools as “closing hope.”

School closures hurt our children, especially our poorest students. We’ve displaced children multiple times, adding to the disruption and churn in the lives of too many young people. Parent and PIIN education task force chair Irene Habermann pointed to national data showing that school closures like this in other cities have doubled the drop-out rate, increased school violence, lowered the enrollment rate of students in summer school, and disrupted critical relationships with peers and adults. [CReATE Research Brief, 2013] Research also shows that students displaced by school closures will do best when they are transferred to high-achieving schools, but that is generally not what happens. [de La Torre and Gwynne, 2009] The receiving schools tend to be similar to, or sometimes even worse, than the schools that closed.

And this should be obvious, but is worth pointing out: you can’t improve a school by closing it.

Parent and PPS alumna Ramona Jones reminded us that closing schools is a choice, and reflects a set of priorities that does not always put students first. For instance, this year PPS will spend 9% less on classroom teachers than it did two years ago, while spending 9% more on school police. In fact, it will spend more on school police than it will on counselors, social workers, school nurses, and librarians. [PPS 2013 Final Budget, p. 25]

Before we close another school, we need to understand what happened to previously displaced students. We need to make sure we are doing the most to protect our students from the negative effects of school closings, including increased class sizes. High school student Delaney Morgan explained that over-crowding and lack of resources has forced six students to share a calculator for math exams and that she is lost in the back of a room with 30 students. Parent Pam Harbin spoke at the hearing about the way in which past school closures have impacted children with special needs, pointing out that many students wound up being placed in schools that could not serve their needs. For instance, 17 Pittsburgh schools – a full third – are still not accessible to students with physical disabilities.

Just as important, we need a moratorium on closures until we know if we really need to close another school. Pittsburgh’s population loss has leveled off. We have strong evidence that young families are moving into the city and staying when their children reach school age. The Pittsburgh Promise program appears to be a part of this equation. And Kindergarten enrollment is way up this year.

While the overwhelming majority of speakers voiced their support for the moratorium resolution, a handful of people opposed the measure. Their objections mainly fell into four categories:

  1. The district must close schools because it is facing a financial crisis.” This argument presumes that school closures are the only way to deal with a budget crisis. But schools should only be closed when there are no students to go to them.
  2. If we don’t close schools, the district will go into receivership and the state will take us over.” This was the argument made by A+ Schools Executive Director Carey Harris. But Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith reminded everyone that this threat was also used the last four times schools were closed as a “scare tactic to threaten parents” and others who opposed the closings. Those who spoke in favor of a moratorium were also calling for bigger thinking, to find a way for the entire city to invest in our schools – precisely to head off any state takeover and to find a financial solution that actually works this time.
  3. A moratorium will make the school board’s job harder.” County Controller and A+ Schools board member Chelsa Wagner argued that City Council should not interfere in the business of the school district. School board member Theresa Colaizzi agreed. But it is hard to see how pulling together the entire Pittsburgh community to support our public schools will make the school board members’ job more difficult. A moratorium – providing time for the fuller engagement of the public in a deep conversation, possibly with the support of a series of public meetings that Councilwoman Kail-Smith advocates – can actually help the school board, by increasing buy-in of any eventual plan. And Councilman Bill Peduto also called for the creation of a task force to help bridge the city and school district on this issue, which would help re-start the relationship between the two legislative bodies. This could be a positive outcome of the moratorium and help make the school board’s job easier.
  4. City Council doesn’t have the authority to call for a moratorium.” Former PPS strategic planning director Cate Reed, who is now a regional director for Teach for America, argued that City Council members don’t have the knowledge necessary to call for a moratorium. PPS solicitor Ira Weiss stopped just short of saying that City Council doesn’t have the legal right to call for a moratorium. But both of these arguments miss the point. This resolution recognizes that the entire city needs to be invested in our public schools. It promotes a more holistic way of thinking that doesn’t silo the district off on its own, helping all taxpayers and residents to embrace public education as their issue and to look for solutions. City Council indeed has the moral and ethical authority to call for this moratorium. Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak and Councilman Bruce Krauss agreed that City Council has the responsibility to engage in questions such as this, and that it has a precedent of doing so. (Both mentioned several examples where Council worked with multiple partners to find answers to complex problems.) Council President Darlene Harris reminded her colleagues that families leave Pittsburgh when schools close, ultimately harming the city. This is an excellent example of why this issue is precisely within Council’s purview.

I applaud City Council for seeing the connection between our public schools and the health of our communities. Strong public schools make Pittsburgh strong. That means that we all have a vested interest in public education – every taxpayer, every resident of this city. Right now, this resolution offers us the opportunity to come together as a community, to engage in an authentic conversation, so that we can move forward together to find solutions that work for Pittsburgh.

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