If you are middle class or rich, you are not likely to discover that anybody is planning to punish your child’s school by closing it. School “reform” via “turnaround” happens in school districts like Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Newark, but it doesn’t happen in Winnetka, Grosse Pointe, Bryn Mawr, Chagrin Falls, or Montclair.
That is because the test-and-punish mechanisms of our federal testing law No Child Left Behind and newer policies designed around its philosophy—School Improvement Grants, for example—impose sanctions (like closing the school, turning the school into a charter school, or replacing the principal and the staff) on schools where the students persistently score in the bottom 5 percent of public schools nationwide. Such schools are virtually always in the neighborhoods of our big cities where poverty is concentrated—which means that virtually all the children are extremely poor. In our society we blame the test scores on the school without figuring out how to ameliorate the poverty. As the editorial board of Rethinking Schools magazine has brilliantly stated: school reform based on high-stakes testing “disguises class and race privilege as merit.”
In a situation like Newark, New Jersey, where the school district has been under state control for two decades and where the state overseer school superintendent, Cami Anderson, reports to Governor Chris Christie instead of the locally elected school board, citizens are using every avenue provided by the democratic process to protect and improve their public schools. They elected school principal and strong defender of public education Ras Baraka mayor in May, even though they knew the mayor can’t control school policy, and they filed a complaint about Cami Anderson’s One Newark school reform plan this spring with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR). This despite Chris Christie’s rude rebuke: “And I don’t care about the community criticism. We run the school district in Newark, not them.”
New Jersey Spotlight reports that the OCR complaint was “filed in May by parent advocates who specifically cited the state-operated district’s planned closing of three schools that have predominantly African-American enrollment.” On Tuesday, July 22, the OCR released a statement confirming, “that OCR is currently investigating whether Newark Public Schools’ enactment of the ‘One Newark’ plan at the end of the 2013-2014 school year discriminates against black children on the basis of race. OCR’s investigation began in July 2013. As it is an open investigation, we cannot share any further information.”
Bob Braun, longtime New Jersey reporter and now Newark blogger, reports that PULSE New Jersey, a group led by Sharon Smith, filed the complaint on May 13, as “part of its commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that outlawed school segregation.” PULSE NJ’s letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said: “Education ‘reformers’ and privatizers are targeting neighborhood schools filled with children of color, and leaving behind devastation. By stealth, seizure, and sabotage, these corporate profiteers are closing and privatizing our schools, keeping public education for children of color not only separate, not only unequal, but increasingly not public at all.”
Smith commented on OCR’s decision to investigate: “We are pleased that it is now open and merits investigation. But now it is about making sure it is a thorough investigation.”
PULSE NJ is working with a much broader coalition, Journey for Justice. Bob Braun quotes Journey for Justice organizer Jitu Brown, who understands Newark’s OCR complaint in the context the policy being adopted in urban school districts across the country of “turning around” low-scoring public schools by closing them: “What has been lacking—not only in Newark, but also in places like Chicago, New York, and New Orleans—is community input to help develop plans for successful public schools. We have been faced with top-down education policies that have failed because they lack input from the people who are most affected.”