How much money does a closed school save?

Philadelphia School District Headquarters. Last night, the city of Philadelphia approved efforts to close 23 public schools, about 10 percent of the city’s total, because they are under used and the city says they costs too much to keep up. The closures are part of a national trend brought on by more kids going to private and charter schools and public budget cuts.

The city of Philadelphia has announced plans to close 23 of its public schools. Several reasons went into the decision…but financial pressure and rising charter school enrollment are seen as key drivers.

But Philadelphia is not alone. In recent years, New York, Chicago and Washington D.C. have all done the same thing. These changes have a cost. In some quarters, the anger in Philadelphia is palpable.

“You will not, and I mean you will not lower the quality of my education,” says Paul Robeson High School student Totiana Myers.

Myers is one of the lucky ones. School officials pulled Robeson off the chopping block Thursday night. More than 10,000 students will likely be forced to switch schools. The closings are a move to shore up a $1.35 billion budget shortfall over the next five years.

“At some level, it does make some sense to think about ways to economize,” says Kate Shaw, executive director of with Research for Action, a nonprofit that studies education policy.

Charter schools have fueled declining enrollment in Philadelphia’s public schools filling their own classrooms with more than 55,000 students.   Shaw says closing half-empty schools as a way to consolidate resources is gaining traction nationwide.

But it’s a nuclear option.

“When you have a situation in which a school district doesn’t have enough money, has chronically low performing schools and is dropping enrollment, there is no good solution to those problems,” she says.

Mary Filardo with 21st Century School Fund in Washington D.C. says shuttering dozens of schools can provide some savings -- maintenance and laying off personnel.

But long-term, you can’t count on it.

“It’s not a clean sort of, ‘oh, if you close this school somehow you save all this money for it.' If you keep the children, obviously you are going to keep paying for the education of these children,” she says.

And while it’s easy to focus on buildings and spreadsheets, Filardo says you can’t forget the kids -- where they end up matters.

And in Philadelphia, the reality is many of these students will be moving from one school in trouble to another.  

About the author

Dan Gorenstein is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Health Desk. You can follow him on Twitter @dmgorenstein.

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