Public School Closures Increasing in Cities, but Affected Neighborhoods Differ Regionally

UC Davis Researchers Look at 260 Metro Areas

Front of public school with label above doors.
A recent UC Davis study has found that public school closures don't always affect only underrepresented populations. (Getty Images)

When public elementary schools close, families, teachers and public school advocates often criticize municipal authorities saying these closures disproportionately affect the poor and underrepresented, potentially widening the racial and socioeconomic gaps in these communities.  

A new study from the University of California, Davis, looked at the locations of closures in 260 metropolitan areas of the United States between 2010 and 2016 and found a variety of conditions exist in areas where schools close, presenting a complex picture of how school closures may or may not affect communities.

“We find results that don’t fit the general portrait of previous work — in other words, there is a lot of heterogeneity in what types of neighborhoods experience closure,” said Noli Brazil, a UC Davis assistant professor of human ecology and lead author of a study published online this month in Social Science Research.

“We find support for some public claims and prior research — neighborhoods with greater percent Black, lower percent white and higher socioeconomic disadvantage are more likely to experience a closure.”

However, the findings found that:

  • Neighborhoods with a greater percentage of Hispanic residents now experience a lower likelihood of closure
  • Urban neighborhoods experiencing gentrification experience a higher likelihood of closure
  • There are racial differences in what predicts closure in the Northeast or Midwest versus the South and West

The data come from the National Center of Educational Statistics, the School Attendance Boundary Information System project and census data.

Regions differ

Researchers found that in the Northeast and Midwest, for example, neighborhoods with closures tended to have more Black residents, a lower percentage of whites and have lower socioeconomic status. These findings, they said, corroborate prior research that focused on cities in these areas with a high degree of segregation — Chicago, Philadelphia and Detroit, for example. These conditions, additionally, are more pronounced for closures in cities than in suburbs in these regions, in particular urban neighborhoods experiencing gentrification, researchers found.

Schools are less likely to close in the West and South, and there are contrasting neighborhood patterns of closures between the two regions. Areas in both regions that experienced an increase in Black residents are protected from closure, but rising Hispanic presence in the West and rising white presence in the South, over time, are associated with a greater likelihood of a local public school closure.

With respect to Hispanic populations in neighborhoods, researchers found that previous assertions that more school closures occur “in minority neighborhoods” is inaccurate. Researchers speculate that the  presence of strong socio-cultural ties among the Hispanic population that bind them to local schools could be a reason, as could less participation in charter or commuter schools. The reasons, they said, warrant further qualitative research, however.

“Our study is an important step in understanding the complex picture of school closures in the contemporary urban context of school choice, gentrification and neighborhood revitalization,” researchers said in their study.

As school closures dot the landscape, their effects — whether they be assessed as increasing crime, providing less access to education or decreasing home values — depend on the types of neighborhoods that experience the closures, researchers said.

“Unlike prior work focusing on single cities, our study relies on a large sample of neighborhoods to demonstrate that closures are not a monolith, and that multiple patterns exist,” Brazil said.

The article, “The neighborhood ethnoracial and socioeconomic context of public elementary school closures in U.S. metropolitan areas,” is co-authored by Jennifer Candipan, assistant professor of sociology, Brown University.

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Related: Policy article by Noli Brazil

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