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Parents hate it when schools get shut down. But a new study suggests it helps kids learn.

A school closing protest in Chicago.
A school closing protest in Chicago.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Whether cities should close schools due to low enrollment or low quality has been a big issue in the past few years, particularly in Chicago, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel oversaw the largest school closing in the country.

A new study from the conservative Fordham Institute suggests that Emanuel might have done the right thing: closing schools can help students improve academically.

In Ohio's eighth-largest school district, students whose schools were closed and who ended up at different schools learned more than students in low-quality schools that didn't close, researchers Deven Carlson and Stéphane Lavertu found. Students from district schools that closed gained the equivalent of an extra seven weeks of math class and 10 weeks of reading class at their new schools. Students from charter schools that closed gained the equivalent of nine extra weeks of math lessons at their new schools.

Students from closed district schools mostly went to other district schools, while students from charter schools split evenly between district and charter schools.

The students whose schools were closed also didn't suffer academically in their first year at the new school.

The real difference: going from a closed school to a better school

For Ohio students who went to better schools — 68 percent of students from closed charter schools, and 59 percent from closed district schools — the learning gains were much bigger. After three years, students from district schools that closed were just over 13 weeks ahead in reading and math compared with peers; students from charter schools that closed were 12 weeks ahead in reading and 18 weeks, or an entire semester, ahead in math.

It's too early to say whether Chicago's students will see the same results as Ohio's. In Chicago's school closings, most students ended up at schools that were at least slightly better than their old schools, researchers from the University of Chicago found.

But 39 percent of students were still at schools on academic probation. That's partly because parents didn't always want to send their child to their newly assigned school. They valued schools that were close to their homes, where teachers and administrators from the old school ended up, and where students could commute safely.

Academic quality was important, too — but parents sometimes looked for small class sizes or magnet programs, not high standardized test scores. Sometimes that meant a school that had a lower academic performance rating. But the University of Chicago researchers reject the idea that those parents made a poor choice. "The majority of interviewees … put a lot of thought and effort into finding the right schools for their children," they wrote.

So the problem isn't only that there isn't an unlimited supply of better schools. It's that parents don't always agree with school officials about what a good school looks like.