In 2013, the School District of Philadelphia closed ten percent of its traditional public schools. Citing poor academic performance, declining enrollments, and fiscal constraints, the District deployed school closure as an education reform strategy. Other districts mirror Philadelphia’s efforts, closing from five to fifty percent of their public schools. This dissertation examines how public school closures, sales, and reuse can be seen not only as education reform policy, but also as urban policy, transforming the physical, social, and political fabric of a city. This dissertation thus extends the work on the education-related impacts of school closures, and demonstrates the salience of school closures from an urban policy and planning perspective.
Using Philadelphia as a case study, I draw on theories of frame analysis and use ethnographic methods to explore the discourses of closure that circulate among policy makers, residents, and the broader public. I conducted seven months of fieldwork in Philadelphia, including 118 interviews with City and School District staff, residents, and non-profit leaders, and participated in City, School District, and neighborhood association meetings. I look not only at the closure decision-making process, but also follow the trajectory of school buildings from vacancy to the transformation of schools into capital assets to the reimagining of school reuse. Examining the discursive frames of school closures, sales, and reuse is a first step at grappling with the racialized tensions and material consequences of this policy intervention.
Chapters 1 and 2 provide an introduction to the issue of and current empirical research on public school closures, and background on the City and School District of Philadelphia. Chapter 3 situates the Philadelphia case in a larger national context by examining newspaper media coverage in 13 cities across the country. Coverage fosters a conflictual and dichotomous framing of closures, reducing plural meanings of schools to two competing and singular arguments: arguments for closure, based in rationality and technical expertise and arguments opposing closure, based in emotionally laden messaging. Media are predominantly sympathetic to the problem definition and causal interpretations of school closure proponents. Newspaper media do not maximize their role as a democratic institution, and neglect the disproportionate and racialized impact of closures.
In Chapter 4, I move to the Philadelphia case. I use Philadelphia’s school closures as a revelatory case to shed light on the multifaceted values that schools have to neighborhoods, planning, and urban governance. Schools are valued economically, socio-spatially, and symbolically, and this extreme case expands the scope of these values currently found in the literature. Economically, schools are an employment center, often for neighborhood residents; assets or liabilities that contribute to school district fiscal solvency; and redevelopment sites and vehicles for private profit making. Socio-spatially, closures reveal how school buildings have potentially negative value, as attractive nuisances in the absence of stewardship. Schools are key physical landmarks in the urban fabric, serving as nodes on pathways throughout the neighborhood, shaped by individual perceptions of safety and community. Symbolically, closures stand in for larger processes of neighborhood change, triggering or exacerbating fears about gentrification or continued disinvestment. Decisions about schools represent a larger and historically racialized relationship between particular communities and the public sector, one that is defined by systemic respect or disrespect. In Chapter 5, I build on the values identified in Chapter 4 and describe the three discursive frames of school closures that emerged from my research: closure as crisis management, closure as loss, and closure as oppression. Each one places schools in a different spatial context – from the a-spatial market (crisis management) to the school site and/or neighborhood (loss) to broader citywide patterns of re/development (oppression). This variation is tied to different notions of time, which foreground the past, present, and future in divergent ways.
Chapter 6 concludes with reflections on the racialized nature of school closures, sales, and reuse, and on directions for practice and research. My findings demonstrate that to understand the consequences of school closures, research needs to examine not only the moment of closure, but also the subsequent sales and reuse of school buildings. “Placing” schools in this way situates this education reform policy in its spatial context, and reveals how school infrastructure is urban infrastructure, playing a central role in urban change. This study also illustrates the importance historicizing school closures, and considering links to past and present place-based policies that have sought to improve poor neighborhoods, yet have had racist impacts. This study documents how the administrative boundaries of the school district and school attendance catchment areas define people’s mental maps of their neighborhoods, and challenges planners to consider school district or school attendance boundaries as a spatial unit of analysis. The tensions over perceived lines of accountability, political action, and resistance around school closures, sales, and reuse also suggest more reflection and attention by practitioners to bridge cross-sector silos and reconsider silo-ed public engagement processes. This research reveals the ways that schools are sites of contestation in the politics of place. It helps further understanding of the geographic and geopolitical boundaries that are tied to school sites and school districts. It enhances planners’ conceptualization of and work at the nexus of place and schools. From an urban policy or planning perspective public school closures, sales, and reuse call for a recalibration or assessment of interventions in neighborhoods, cities, and regions.