ANY SCHOOL closing is painful, but the closure of 37 Philadelphia schools feels like a massive bandage being ripped off a wound. And considering how long that bandage has been on, it's bound to be excruciating for much of the city's public school community - parents, students and teachers.

But here's the thing: Not only has that bandage been on for too long, but it also has been used to try to cover an illness that's more serious than a flesh wound. The dwindling enrollment, aging buildings and declining academic performance in the face of scarce resources that prompted the district to identify the buildings and programs slated for closure represent a far more serious illness besetting public education.

And whether or not you agree with Superintendent William Hite's choices on this, he should get credit for making this unpleasant action his first major move in his job as schools chief. He's the unfortunate recipient of a can kicked down the road by past administrators.

While aging buildings and performance are part of the closing criteria, the increasing numbers of students enrolling in charters has left the district with more than 70,000 vacant seats. The capacity of some of the schools slated for merger or closure is eye-opening; most are less than half full; a few are at less than 20 percent of capacity.

Such underutilization is an expensive luxury that the strapped district can't afford. Unfortunately, however rational and compelling the numbers argument may be, it won't ease the anxiety of parents having to send a child to a different school. Nor will it quiet the many protesters who were already out in force yesterday.

Schools are more than buildings and numbers, after all. They are part of the fabric of a community, embedded with complicated issues of equity and race. These need to be acknowledged. But so does the fact that we owe every child a good education, and we have failed to deliver on that promise.

This is not news. The public-education landscape has been changing for decades. We are at a flash point, with more options than ever. And charters have wielded the biggest impact on the current enrollment figures in Philadelphia. The charter movement has value, but it has also been embraced by policymakers who have ignored the fiscal impact on the districts that send the students. For example, the state forbids the district from imposing enrollment caps. Just last month, A School Reform Commission move to sidestep that law led to howls of protest from charters. The state has eliminated charter reimbursements to districts and has tried to take oversight away from local districts. (It has also ignored the fact that 27 percent of charter students come from nonpublic schools, a cost that directly hits the district's budget.)

Hite has made the closures part of a plan not just to shut down underutilized schools, but also to improve performance of all students. Faced with the choice of spending money to heat and maintain buildings that are barely occupied, or spending it on improving academic programs, the choice should be clear. As the city readjusts its view of the landscape, that fact should be at the forefront.