Will Closing Schools Pay Off? DCPS Closure Plan Unlikely to Produce Significant Savings or Better Resourced Schools
DC Public Schools (DCPS) Chancellor Kaya Henderson has announced plans to close and consolidate as many as 20 public schools, with the final decision expected soon. If approved, this would be the largest set of school closures in the District since 2008, when 23 public schools were closed.
The DCPS proposal cites under-enrollment and fiscal inefficiency as major factors in the selection of schools for closing. It also states that closing schools will free up resources and allow DCPS to create stronger education environments in the consolidated schools. Yet DCPS has not shared information to demonstrate how much would be saved by closing under-enrolled schools or how the savings would be used.
An analysis by Mary Levy and the DC Fiscal Policy institute (DCFPI) suggests that the savings from closing schools may be relatively small, and possibly non-existent in the first year following closure. This information should give pause to policymakers and anyone else hoping for significant savings to be reinvested in the remaining schools. Among the key findings:
- Smaller DCPS schools are only slightly more costly than larger schools. Smaller DCPS elementary schools typically received only 4 percent more per-pupil funding this year than larger schools and have teacher-student ratios that are roughly the same as in larger schools. A number of schools on the closing list also have lower per-pupil budgets than larger schools. The difference in spending allocated per pupil is greater at the middle school and high school levels. This means that the smaller schools are not always more expensive relative to larger schools.
- Cost savings from closing and consolidating schools may not be substantial. We estimate that savings in staffing costs next school year would be about $10.4 million. Based on the city’s 2008 experience, transition costs of closing schools could amount to $10.2 million in 2013-14 — in inventory, relocation and storage costs — erasing any savings in the first year.
- Consolidated schools may not be better resourced than they are now. If the DCPS proposal is implemented, it is not certain that schools receiving students from closing schools will experience greater quality, such as smaller class sizes. Based on the current staffing model used by DCPS, student-teacher ratios and class sizes actually may go up at many schools as a result of consolidation.
It is not clear if and how the school closing plan will contribute to strengthening the school system. The fact that DCPS has not identified the expected savings and or indicated how programs and resources would be enhanced in the remaining schools contributes to this concern.
A final DCPS school closure and consolidation plan should also be accompanied by information on how savings from closures, if any will be realized after the first year, will be reinvested. Doing so will help parents and other stakeholders better understand if and how school closures are linked to larger efforts to improve the quality of DCPS schools.
To read the full report, click here.
 Mary Levy is an independent school finance expert in Washington, DC.