Graffiti alters a sign outside Andrew J. Bell Jr. High School in New Orleans, Louisiana, which has been sitting vacant since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005. After the storm, schools across the city were closed or converted into charter schools — a process that civil rights advocates say disproportionately displaced Black students. (Photo: Mike Ludwig)
As students across the country head back to school this week, some will be traveling longer distances than usual to reach the classroom. These students do not live in remote areas. In fact, they live in some of the most urban districts in the country, and they used to have schools right in their own neighborhoods — until school boards and state officials closed their doors in the name of “reform.”
In May of 2014, civil rights organizers in Newark, Chicago and New Orleans filed complaints with the Department of Education demanding federal intervention to stop widespread discrimination against people of color in their cities’ public school systems. The complaints couldn’t have been more urgent — neighborhoods were literally losing their schools to closures and consolidations, and the students whose schools were being shuttered were overwhelmingly Black and Brown.
It’s been more than two years, and of those three cities, only Newark, New Jersey’s school system has reached an agreement with federal officials. Even that agreement, which requires the district to identify and fix transportation and academic problems faced by students displaced by school closures, is only between the district and federal officials. To the frustration of civil rights advocates, the deal does not include an agreement for accountability between the schools and the taxpaying families who say their children were systemically discriminated against as the closures swept through their neighborhoods.
In New Orleans and Chicago, the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights is still investigating the complaints, offering no regular updates to the civil rights attorneys and the communities behind them. Speaking on background, a department spokesman said officials do not discuss the details of ongoing investigations as a matter of policy, and some take longer than others to complete due to complex legal issues.
Meanwhile, schoolchildren in New Orleans are crossing busy, four-lane roads to reach charter schools located neighborhoods away from the shuttered school buildings sitting vacant on their own streets.
After Hurricane Katrina devastated southern Louisiana in 2005, a state-run board took over the New Orleans school district, fired thousands of local teachers and initiated the most aggressive consolidation and privatization campaign in the nation. Black students and families watched their public schools close at much higher rates than those with predominantly white students, and the district often failed to provide them with adequate educational alternatives after the closures, according to the 2014 complaint.
In Chicago, schools are being “sabotaged” by budget cuts and attacks on the local teachers union. Schools struggling from a lack of resources will be labeled as “failing schools” in just a few years, but only by standards set by bureaucrats and lawmakers miles away, according to Jitu Brown, a community organizer in Chicago and the national director of the Journey for Justice Alliance. The organization is made up of grassroots civil rights groups in 23 cities fighting to replace policies that shut down schools with community-based solutions.
Chicago is not alone. In cities across the country, hundreds of schools have shut down under so-called “reform” policies handed down by the Bush and Obama administrations, according to Journey for Justice. State and local officials use enrollment numbers, high-stakes testing scores and other metrics attached to state and federal funding incentives to identify and shut down schools considered to be “failing,” robbing neighborhoods of essential public resources and disrupting students’ academic life.
“We don’t believe that we have failing schools,” Brown told Truthout. “We think that’s a political statement. We’ve been failed.”
An Unequal Education System
Brown says that taxpaying parents in Black neighborhoods deserve better-funded schools with more resources for learning, but the inequities in Chicago are sitting in plain sight. For example, schools in wealthier, whiter neighborhoods enjoy teacher’s aides in every classroom and librarians on staff at all times, while schools in lower-income neighborhoods of color do not.
Brown said that a “sense of possibility” must be raised within a child’s mind to “open the door for information they receive.” But it’s much more difficult to spark that sense of possibility in schools that lack the classroom tools for inspiring learning that are available in other parts of the city. And it’s those same under-resourced schools that are shut down when students’ test scores do not meet the standards set by politicians outside their community.
Civil rights advocates argue that the disruption caused by school closures makes it more likely that students will skip class and even drop out of school, further lowering enrollment numbers and graduation rates in districts already being punished for underperforming. Plus, when schools close, neighborhoods lose places to gather, learn and access public services. Children and alumni lose a place where they learned, played and made memories.
“You have the feeling that you don’t have any community roots anymore and its very disruptive to a community’s mentality and community psyche,” said Jessica Shiller, a “scholar-activist” who teaches education at Towson University and works with communities impacted by school closings in Baltimore, where the city is four years into an aggressive renovation plan that will close and consolidate 26 schools by 2022.
Shiller told Truthout that shutting down neighborhood schools is one of the worse things policy makers can do, especially in low-income neighborhoods.
“That school is where kids get meals and have a relationship with somebody outside the family, a person watching them during the day; it’s where they play basketball, it’s a place to gather and see friends,” Shiller told Truthout. “And I don’t think that school district leaders … are thinking about it that way.”
Shiller said that some residents in Baltimore’s Black neighborhoods are already cynical, viewing the “renovation” plan as a force for gentrification, designed to push unwanted families and students out, making room for more affluent residents.
Back in Chicago, more than 100 schools have been closed in the past 15 years, with shutdowns peaking at 49 in 2013. New research shows that Black and Latino children in Chicago were most likely to be displaced by school closures, depriving them of the opportunity to attend schools located conveniently in their own neighborhoods and, in some cases, forcing them to travel through areas with high incidences of street-based violence in order to attend class. In New Orleans, nearly every public school in the majority-Black city has been shut down or converted into a charter.
Meanwhile, both Illinois and Louisiana are among at least 25 states that are providing less state funding per K-12 student today than was provided back in 2008, before the recession took hold, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. This data was drawn from state “formula” or “general” funds, where the bulk of state school funding comes from, leaving local school districts hard-pressed to come up with sufficient funding.
Illinois is one of 14 states with “regressive” school funding formulas that spend less money on districts with more low-income students, according to Education Law Center. Year after year, Chicago and Philadelphia, which have both suffered large numbers of controversial school closings, rank as some of the most disadvantaged school districts in the nation.
The Education Law Center reports that disadvantaged school districts don’t just deserve the same funding as their wealthier neighbors. In fact, they require more funding to attract skilled teachers with competitive salaries, and to pay for programs and resources that may not be necessary in areas where families have better job opportunities. For example, most suburban parents may be able to buy sports equipment, pay for basic health care and sign their kids up for music lessons, while parents in lower-income, urban areas may lean more heavily on public schools for such resources.
However, Brown says that cities like Chicago refuse to fund and support schools equitably across race and class lines. Then, they turn around and blame the victim when officials shut the schools down.
“They say something is wrong with those teachers or those kids … and then open the door for hustlers to basically run in,” Brown said, referring to privately-run charters that have popped up across Chicago, even setting up shop in old storefronts.
Who Benefits From School Closures?
In many cases, charters and “contract” schools run by nonprofits or private businesses replace the schools that are shut down. Nationally, experts say charters have had a mixture of problems and successes, including higher marks for some students, but also patterns of “exclusion” that force already-marginalized students out of school in order to improve the school’s performance and attractiveness. The exclusion of children with disabilities and behavioral challenges is not only discriminatory, it feeds the school-to-prison pipeline by pushing kids into the hands of police on duty at schools or out into the streets.
In New Orleans, a recent survey found that parents gave much higher “grades” to new charter schools than to the public schools that used to operate in most of the city and suffered for years from mismanagement and budget woes. Surveyors found similar trends among parents in more than a dozen other cities. However, there was a direct correlation between parents’ views of charter and public schools: The worse parents viewed their traditional, publicly run options to be, the higher the marks they gave to newer charters.
But for students of color displaced by school closures, the results have so far been disappointing. A recent Rice University study found that 27 school closures in Houston, Texas disproportionately displaced poor and Black students, and the closures were not associated with any academic gains among these students besides some small, short-term gains in math.
The Rice researchers agreed that closures would have had the potential to improve displaced students’ performance if they were moved to the city’s highest-performing schools, but this did not happen in most cases. Instead, low-performing students and students of color were moved to schools that were only slightly better performing than the schools they came from.
A 2009 study in Chicago yielded similar results, and a 2012 study on an anonymous, urban school district suggests that displacing students can actually harm their academic performance if they don’t land in significantly higher-performing schools.
Shiller points to two rival high schools in Baltimore, Forest Park and Northwestern, which are currently being consolidated into one building. Both schools are predominately Black and have similar levels academic performance, and it’s unclear how students will benefit from the merger. Parents are concerned about conflicts arising between students who, until now, have rooted and played for rival sports teams.
“It’s really going to be about whether kids feel like they can make a place there,” Shiller said. “It’s the school that’s like their enemy.”
Students, parents and alumni say the merger was pushed through with little public notice and community input as Baltimore pursues a sweeping renovation plan, leaving concerned parents pleading with school officials to slow the process down.
“They’re tearing this community up by the roots,” Michael Rose, a parent of a recent Northwestern graduate and a rising ninth grader, told the Baltimore Sun earlier this summer. “They’re going to rush it, have a little get-together and get away with it.”
In a way, Rose’s frustrations sum up the sentiment behind the Journey for Justice’s national mission and the civil rights complaints filed on behalf of parents and students in New Orleans and Chicago. Across the country, families and students of color feel pushed around when schools are closed, privatized and consolidated. Instead of receiving the support they need to succeed, Black and Brown students are punished with closures when they don’t, only to be shuffled around a public education system bearing all the marks of racial inequality.
It’s a problem that goes all the way to the top. Jadine Johnson, an attorney for the Advancement Project, a civil rights group that helped file the complaints with the Department of Education, said that the impacted communities in New Orleans and Chicago have been left out of the accountability process as the federal investigations continue with little transparency.
“The process, in terms of reaching a resolution, ends up being between the school and the Department of Education, and that’s something we need to change,” Johnson said.
The department said it may use a variety of techniques to gather and examine all the relevant facts of a case before deciding whether there is enough evidence to show that federal civil rights law has indeed been broken, but Brown argues the investigations should be more “victim centered.” Once the investigation is taking place, alleged harmful activities such as school closures should stop until a final decision is made, and there should be a very clear process for appeal.
Brown said he is grateful that the federal authorities agreed to investigate educational discrimination in New Orleans and Chicago, but now that two years have passed, he’s starting to doubt that federal civil rights officials are the “crusaders for justice” that he once hoped they would be.
“The wheels of justice, they are rusted,” Brown said. “And they don’t turn.”