Collateral Damage of the Market Metaphor: School Closings and Community Impact

Written by: Kacy Martin

Primary Source: Green & Write, November 2, 2015

We may now be seeing a shift in our collective understanding of what a school closing truly means to a community. Earlier this fall residents of Chicago organized a hunger strike to protest the closure of a high school on Chicago’s South Side. The hunger strike was successful as the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) board voted to keep the school open. This news was met with jubilation among activists, church leaders, and families and begs the question: what is the community impact of school choice and strictly sticking to the “market metaphor”?

Photo Courtesy of Nick Southall

Photo Courtesy of Nick Southall

One Argument for School Choice

One argument for school choice goes something like this: Let parents use the information available to them to select a school. As parents “vote with their feet”, poorly performing schools will lose enrollment. At this point the poorly performing schools will have two choices, make the necessary changes to improve and thus attract more students or close their doors. On the surface, it seems like a simple and effective way to incentivize school improvement.

The Reality

The reality, however, is far from this simple. Parents often don’t have perfect information about school performance, school improvement is usually not a matter of educators simply trying harder, and many failing schools continue to operate. All of these issues complicate the implementation of the market metaphor in public education.

Beyond the question of whether market competition has the potential to motivate struggling schools, however, is what happens to the schools that fail to improve. Trapped in an underfunded and over-saturated competitive context, traditional neighborhood schools are increasingly facing sanctions, making it even harder to improve. The end result – more and more school closings. This is particularly true in large, urban districts like Chicago, which closed nearly 50 schools in 2013, and dozens more since. Philadelphia, too, closed 31 schools three years ago, and adds to this total each year.

Public Response

Instead of the, “good riddance” attitude that might be expected of residents watching a supposedly failing school close, many students and community members are publicly mourning the loss of their schools. In addition to the community response in CPS, community members in Philadelphia have partnered with Temple University to create art that expresses the deep sense of loss felt at the closure of a school.

Supporters of their neighborhood schools see them as an anchoring force in a community not easily replaced. They are places in which neighbors get to know each other and multiple generations of students develop a sense of allegiance. In short, parents and community members see local neighborhood schools as much more than the sum of their test scores and often fight vehemently when threated with closure.

Rather than questioning the sanity of these school supporters, maybe there is something we can learn from them. Members of these communities have started a conversation about the worth and function of a school in relation to its neighborhood—a conversation that we’d do well to all engage in as we seek to improve our public education system.

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Kacy Martin
Kacy Martin entered the Educational Policy program in the fall of 2013. After completing a Bachelor and Master's degrees at the University of Michigan, she taught in the Chicago Public Schools, serving on the Instructional Leadership Team and creating professional learning cycles to improve teacher practices in reading instruction. Her research focuses on the impact of parent social networks on school choice in urban districts, the relationship between urban planning and school enrollment, and the politics of education finance at the local and state levels.