A School with No Students

Once upon a time, there was an empty school building. The school day started and ended as if students walked the hallways, but the classrooms sat eerily empty. Administrators sat in offices shuffling papers, but no one practiced math facts or checked books out of the library.

It sounds creepy, but this is not a ghost story. In fact, the scariest part of this story is the fact that it is a true story. As families moved away from the neighborhood assigned to this public school, the school vowed to stay open just in case somebody wanted to go to school there. In other words, taxpayers continued paying for salaries and up-keep while no education was happening on school grounds. What in the world is the purpose of a school if there are no students?

This extreme scenario begs several questions:

“How can a school run without students? Isn’t it a common argument that when a school loses students, they lose funding?” Although this is not the average American public school, it does point out an inconsistency with many arguments against giving families more educational freedom. The argument typically goes that supporting anything other than public school will take away funding from existing public schools.

But when students change schools, it also removes the financial obligation associated with those students from the school. Each student costs the school money to educate. So, schools may lose $100 in a “per student” resource inputs, but the overall “student costs” might be reduced by $200, meaning the remaining students actually end up with more money per child.

For example, districts often get funding from a mix of city, county, state and federal resources, and not all of the funding is allocated on a per-student basis. When students drop out or move away, the district still receives some of the funding. In fact, some districts have secretly encouraged some children to drop out of school and pursue a GED instead, because the costs of educating these children exceeded the revenue that was lost.  And if there are NO students, I guess administrators may be embarrassed, but they can actually get paid to keep a school open “just in case.”

Another question might arise as follows:

“What do we do with failing schools where enrollment is dwindling to nothing?” Although a school’s history can be a cornerstone of a neighborhood, what should communities do when schools become memorials to those educated in the past instead of being active and engaging classrooms today? A school can only help a community thrive if it’s giving children the opportunity for a quality education.

In Vermont, one school struggled with a very similar scenario. Student enrollment was down to only a dozen students, and the town felt it was time to take drastic measures. The town voted to close the school and instead use funds to allow families in the town to decide where they would like to send their children to school.

Two years later, the school board chair said, “Where there once were no residents attending [board meetings]... at last week's meeting there were not enough chairs.” She continued by describing her town, saying, “People are moving in, and they’re moving because we have school choice.”

It feels crazy that a community would pay for a school to exist without students. In the same vein, it also feels confusing when the only students left in a school are students trapped there because their parents can’t afford to move away, not because they actually want to attend the school. Comparing the two school districts above, consider the ways assigned schools vs. more school options can affect the well-being of students, families, schools, and neighborhoods.