School Closure: The Civil Rights Issue of Our Time

In an important piece published in The Hill, Judith Brown Dianis, Executive Director of Advancement Project, and Jitu Brown, National Director of the Journey for Justice Alliance, describe three complaints filed in 2014—on the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education—with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.  The complaints protest massive school closures in New Orleans, Newark, and Chicago, where 50 schools were shuttered at the end of the 2012-2013 school year.

One of the ways students in America’s cities are being deprived of basic opportunities is “through systematic and targeted school closures. We know this because we’ve been organizing against school closures, which are occurring in predominantly African American, Latino and low-income communities.  Across the country, these communities have watched as their schools, teachers, friendships and shared history are eliminated.  Many students are pushed out of one school only to be forced to attend another school that is further away, with less experienced teachers, similar resource inequities and instability.”

Here is the substance of the complaints: “The complaints challenged the disproportionate closures of traditional public schools in these cities. In New Orleans, the closures of the last five traditional public schools impacted over 1000 African-American students and only 5 White students. In Chicago, Black students were 26 times more likely to be impacted by school closures than White students.  In Newark, Black students were 51% of student enrollment, but 86% of students impacted by school closures.”

After a two year investigation, the Office of Civil Rights has reached an agreement with the Newark Public Schools that acknowledges the disproportionate impact of school closures on the city’s African American students and confirms that the school closures “did not appear to afford affected students any measurable, improved educational outcomes.” The agreement requires the Newark school district to investigate whether and how students from closed schools were affected academically and how their safe passage to school, and their access to special services (for disabled students) were impacted when schools were closed. Further, the district must evaluate and report on how the location of school facilities and the pupil capacity of existing buildings were affected and how the current location and availability of facilities affects Newark students’ overall access to education.

Judith Browne Dianis and Jitu Brown remind readers of the many personal and community implications of the school closures that can be neither investigated nor explained as a response to the civil rights complaint: “However, the agreement fails to address the many intangible harms of school closures—like the loss of critical relationships with teachers, staff and counselors.”

And then there are the causes—the factors that have persistently undermined urban schools in underfunded school districts serving masses of very poor children: “Crucial analysis missing from this narrative is that for decades schools that serve predominantly Black students experienced intense and consistent discrimination through… disinvestment, over-policing, and unequal distribution of resources.”

Under federal policy for the past two decades—the sanctions of No Child Left Behind and the priorities of Race to the Top—privatization, not investment, has been promoted as a solution to the problems in urban school districts  The idea has been to turn over so-called “failing” schools to Education Management or Charter Management Organizations:  “It is clear that privatization and the courting of charter schools are the real goals—choosing these over any proven method of remedying educational racism.  Several shuttered public schools had achieved consistent, documented growth yet were still closed because they failed to achieve an ever shifting standard set by state officials. These same officials, that ‘grease the rails’ for school privatization by eliminating democracy through mayoral control, state takeover and other schemes, never address the issue of equity in public education.”

“Time and time again, experimental policies and practices are imposed on Black and Brown communities over the resounding objection by the same communities.  We pay taxes and the return on our investment is intentional inequity, enriching politically connected school profiteers. This is an ugly practice that must stop. Education inequity in the United States, amplified by school privatization, is indeed a human rights issue.”