Save Closures for Truly Failing Schools

Context needed for decisions, whether by state or local officials

Michigan state Superintendent Brian Whiston caused a small stir at a recent State Board of Education meeting when he remarked that Detroit district leaders would be shutting down some schools this year.

The School Reform Office released in January a list of 38 persistently failing schools subject to closure or other drastic interventions. Twenty-five of the schools are in Detroit, all but one operated by the school district or the almost-defunct Education Achievement Authority. But state officials have never closed down a conventional public school for poor performance.

Despite earlier threats, the trend seems unlikely to change. Gov. Rick Snyder earlier delayed any state decision on school closures until May. Then Whiston offered the 38 schools a chance to sign “partnership agreements” with the Michigan Department of Education to give them extra time to meet goals to improve achievement. The state superintendent speculated that local districts would opt to close some of the 38 schools on their own.

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When Whiston specifically addressed that speculation at the state’s largest and most troubled school district, local leaders pushed back. The Detroit district announced that it intends to close only one school, Durfee Elementary and Middle School, but the Detroit Free Press reports that some board members have expressed concerns with that plan.

Durfee is one of 20 Detroit schools recognized as performing in the bottom 5 percent in Michigan. The Mackinac Center’s most recent Context and Performance Report Card agrees with this rating. Our report card adjusts state test scores for expectations based on student poverty. That means these schools are truly poor performers, even given the greater challenges they face.

With power recently restored to the local school board, the Detroit district needs to make drastic changes if it hopes to survive. Too many students are poorly served, thousands of seats remain empty as families have fled to charters or suburban districts and the district is on a dangerous financial trajectory less than a year after a $665 million Lansing bailout.

Yet any benefit that might come from attempts to right-size the state’s largest district ought to be limited to the 20 schools that truly are the worst performers. State test scores don’t reveal everything parents care about in terms of school quality, but they can highlight schools that fail the basics.

The other four Detroit schools on the state’s “next level of accountability” list are doing better when adjusted for student poverty, either marginally, like Bow Elementary and Middle School, or substantially, like Thirkell Elementary.

Whether state or local leaders make the decision about closures, they should steer clear of schools that are beating the odds.

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