J4J Alliance Organizes Urban Parents to Demand Federal Dollars for Full-Service Community Schools

Throughout this autumn, we have been reading about loud protests at local school board meetings, protests against mask wearing and and honest teaching about slavery in American history.  These disruptive protests have been organized by groups like Parents Defending Education, Moms for Liberty, No Left Turn in Education, FreedomWorks, and  Parents’ Rights in Education. The strategy here is being scripted by far-right think tanks including the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Goldwater Institute, the Heritage Foundation, Koch family foundations, and the Manhattan Institute.

But another important community organizing initiative, supported by the Schott Foundation for Public Education’s Opportunity to Learn Network and coordinated from place to place by the Journey for Justice Alliance (J4J), has grown and solidified over the past decade. The Schott Foundation describes this work: “The Opportunity to Learn Network has been at the forefront of every major positive shift in public schooling for more than a decade: trailblazing education funding campaigns; kickstarting the school discipline reform movement, and establishing the community schools model as the future of the American schoolhouse. How do we win systemic change?  Through grassroots organizing.  Education justice philanthropy centers ‘on-the-ground’ organizing, building the power of the people closest to the problem, so they can transform the systems and structures that generate and reinforce racial injustice.”

A leader in this effort with the Schott Foundation is the Journey for Justice Alliance, which supports parent and student organizing in cities across the United States:

  • In New Jersey, the Camden Parents Union, the Concerned Citizens Coalition of Jersey City,  the Paterson Education Fund/Parent Education Organizing Council, and Parents United for Local School Education in Newark;
  • In New York, the Alliance for Quality Education, the Coalition for Education Justice, and the Urban Youth Collaborative;
  • In Pennsylvania, the Education Rights Network & One Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Student Union, Racial Justice Now, Youth On Board, and Youth United for Change;
  • In Michigan, the Detroit Life Coalition, and Keep the Vote No Takeover of Detroit;
  • In Illinois, the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization of Chicago, and the Lugenia Burns Hope Center in Chicago;
  • In Massachusetts, the Boston-area Youth Organizing Project, and Parents on the Move;
  • In California, the Oakland Public Education Network;
  • In Kansas, Kansas Justice Advocates;
  • In Wisconsin, Schools and Communities United of Milwaukee;
  • In Arkansas, Grassroots Arkansas; and
  • In Connecticut, the Middletown Racial Justice Coalition.

Earlier this week at the National Press Club, the Schott Foundation and J4J convened allies—the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD and Congressmen Jamal Bowman (D-NY) and Chuy Garcia (D-IL)—to support the Equity or Else Campaign and to advocate for the educational equity initiatives in President Biden’s proposed federal budget for the current fiscal year. Two of the most important items in Biden’s budget proposal are, first, doubling Title I funding, which supports public schools serving concentrations of children living in poverty, and second, allocating more than $443 million for full-service, wraparound Community Schools, a significant increase over this year’s $30 million investment.

The federal budget is always supposed to be passed by September 30, but Congress has, as usual, delayed the vote with a series of continuing resolutions. To avoid a government shutdown this week, Congress passed another continuing resolution until February 8, 2022.  The Equity or Else Commission will hold town hall meetings, undertake “listening projects with people in under-served communities across the country,” and organize local community members to advocate for President Biden’s education priorities.

In an article last summer for The Progressive, education writer Jeff Bryant explained why President Biden’s proposal to expand full-service Community Schools—which locate medical, dental, mental health, and social services right in the school—signifies a radical and much needed shift in the direction of federal public education policy:  “President Joe Biden’s first budget request for the U.S. Department of Education signals a significant departure from the education policy priorities of previous presidential administrations. And not just a shift from the priorities of the Trump Administration, which was expected, but also from those of the Obama years.  It’s a welcome sign that the era of blaming teachers for low test scores may finally be coming to an end… Obama’s first budget request for the Department of Education, submitted to Congress in 2009, was all about fiscal austerity and accountability. It called for cutting Title I funds—the federal government’s program to support high-poverty schools—and shifting $1 billion from that program to grants for highly disruptive federal interventions in ‘low-performing’ public schools (read schools with low test scores).”

Bryant continues: “The Obama Administration, through policies like Race to the Top, incentivized states to adopt a ‘no-excuses’ approach… that punished schools and teachers for low test scores…. During the Obama years, legislation to fund the Full-Service Community Schools Program was introduced in 2011 and submitted again in 2014, but it never passed out of committee. Then in 2015, two amendments to the Every Student Succeeds Act… authorized a full-service Community Schools grant program and made program coordinators an allowable use of federal funds. Under Obama the program’s budget was a mere $9.7 million in 2015 and $10 million in 2016… Under Trump, Congress managed to boost funding for the program to $30 million, where it stands today.”

Kudos to the Schott Foundation and the Journey for Justice Alliance for convening allies and organizing parents to demand support for the schools in our nation’s poorest communities. President Biden’s proposal to expand the federal budget for full-service Community Schools from $30 million to $443 million will, if enacted by Congress, be a ground-breaking investment to better equip public schools to serve families. Grassroots action by all of the member organizations of the Journey for Justice Alliance is urgently needed to ensure that this exciting expansion of Community Schools is fully realized.

Jitu Brown Explains the Reasons for New Anti-Charter School Resolution from National NAACP

In October, the national NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, passed a strong resolution demanding a moratorium on the expansion of charter schools and the end of school privatization.  The Journey for Justice Alliance (J4J) and the Movement for Black Lives have supported the NAACP in demanding that the rapid expansion of charters be stopped in black and brown communities until:

  1. “Charter schools are subject to the same transparency and accountability standards as public schools;
  2. “Public funds are not diverted to charter schools at the expense of the public school system;
  3. “Charter schools cease expelling students that the public schools have a duty to educate; and
  4. “(Charter schools) cease to perpetuate de facto segregation of the highest performing children from those whose aspirations may be high but whose talents are not yet as obvious.”

The national NAACP has begun holding regional hearings about the resolution, hearings where controversy has surfaced over a very basic difference in philosophy. While many people support charter schools as an “escape” for able students from what are struggling and underfunded public schools in poor areas, many residents of those very communities have come to realize that the charters themselves are intensifying problems for the public schools that must continue to serve many of the children with the greatest needs.  Because charter schools have been around now for twenty years, there is documentation for these concerns.

Jitu Brown is the national director of the Journey for Justice Alliance (J4J), which Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post describes as “a national network of grass roots community organizations in 24 cities.  J4J, with more than 52,000 members across the United States, is committed to winning community-driven school improvement and educational equity…. J4J started in 2013, as parent and student organizations who were impacted by school privatization began to organize national mobilizations to protest policies such as school closings and to push for community-driven school improvement.”

Last Tuesday, Strauss published a statement from Jitu Brown about the NAACP’s resolution for a moratorium on the expansion of charter schools and about his own organization’s support for the NAACP’s resolution: “To criticize the call by the NAACP, Movement for Black Lives and the Journey for Justice Alliance for a moratorium on charter expansion and for the end of school privatization is to be tone deaf to the voices of the people directly impacted—and it is to ignore growing proof that corporate reform has failed to bring equitable educational opportunities to all children… (P)rivatization supporters speak about the virtues of charters while failing to address how they have increased segregation, sometimes cherry-picked students, taken funding away from underfunded traditional systems, and operated in secrecy.”

Writing about the Journey for Justice Alliance, Brown explains: “We applaud charters that are truly centers of innovation and believe we should learn from them.  Unfortunately, far too many are, in the words of esteemed scholar Charles Payne from the University of Chicago: ‘mediocre interventions that are only accepted because of the race of the children served.'”

What are the realities in the communities that the Journey for Justice Alliance has organized?  “Most charter operators,” writes Brown, “can find a way to get rid of students they don’t want, yet most of these schools don’t perform any better—at least when it comes to student standardized test scores—than traditional public schools. Charters, as a component of the school privatization movement, have contributed to the national decline in the number of black teachers… Charters, which overwhelmingly serve black and Latino children, have increased segregation.”

Most significantly, Brown, a community organizer from Chicago, describes the way charter school expansion has been part of the destruction and abandonment of traditional public schools.  Brown helped organize and lead the Dyett Hunger Strike in the fall of 2015, that eventually pressured the Chicago Public Schools to keep a public high school in the Bronzeville neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side.  He tells the story of Dyett High School: “In 2008, Dyett had the largest increase among high schools of students going to college in Chicago and the largest decrease in arrests and suspensions. In 2011, it won the ESPN RISE UP Award, outperforming hundreds of schools across the country and winning a $4 million renovation to its athletic facilities. The next year, Chicago Public Schools voted to phase out Dyett and open new charter schools. The district starved the school of resources, eliminated effective programs and encouraged students to transfer.  By 2015, the enrollment plummeted to 13 students… After I and 11 other parents waged a 34-day hunger strike in 2015 to save Dyett, it opened as a neighborhood school with a full freshman class and a waiting list.”

In a profound depiction of a privilege that is taken for granted by middle class families across America, here are Marwa Eltagouri and Juan Perez Jr., reporters for the Chicago Tribune,  describing the reopening of Dyett High School in September, 2016: “Families living nearby once again have an open-enrollment high school in their neighborhood. Parents don’t have to worry about their children taking buses or trains to far-off schools. And they don’t have to send their kids to privately run charter schools if they want to take honors or Advanced Placement classes. A first day of school at Dyett wasn’t supposed to have happened this fall. But after a yearslong protest by community leaders that included a 34-day hunger strike, Chicago Public Schools reversed its decision to close Dyett at the end of the 2014-15 school year.”

In September’s report, the Tribune quoted Jitu Brown: “When you go to a middle-class white community, you don’t see charter schools, contract schools or alternative schools.  You see effective, K-12 systems of education in their neighborhoods. Our children deserve the same.”

In the statement printed by Valerie Strauss last week, Brown names the real problem at the heart of America’s greatest educational challenge: “The biggest failure of the American education system is deep, entrenched inequity. In many places, black and brown children are not valued as much as their white counterparts. We want the choice of world class, sustainable neighborhood schools to anchor our communities, just as white brothers and sisters enjoy.”

Stunning Report Rejects School Closures, Charters, and Paternalism of School Reformers

Death by a Thousand Cuts: Racism, School Closures, and Public School Sabotage, a stunning report released this week by Journey for Justice (J4J), cuts through the ideological babble on school “reform” and lets us listen as “voices from America’s affected communities of color”—parents, students, and community leaders—tell us how school closures and privatization are affecting them, their neighborhoods, and their children.

J4J is a broad alliance of 36 grassroots community, youth, and parent-led organizations in 21 American cities that include Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Oakland, Los Angeles, Boston, New Orleans, Camden, Paterson, New York City, and Washington, D.C., many of them places listed by school “reform” promoters as part of the Portfolio School Reform Network, where public schools are now being managed— often by appointed school boards and mayoral or state oversight—through school closure and privatization.

Listen to J4J’s commentary: “To justify this radical transformation… the proponents of these policies have taken to talking about them as matters of racial and social justice… As the residents of the communities most affected by school closures and charter school expansion, we must take issue with this rhetorical description.  First, it is appalling that anyone would dare to equate the billionaire-funded destruction of our most treasured public institutions with the grassroots-led struggles for racial equality to which many of our elders and ancestors made heroic sacrifices.  Second, we simply cannot tolerate anyone telling us these policies are for our own good… The communities they’re changing so rapidly are our communities, and our experience with school closures and charter school expansion confirms what an abundance of research has made quite clear: these policies have not produced higher-quality educational opportunities for our children and youth, but they have been hugely destructive…  Third, while the proponents of these policies may like to think they are implementing them for us or even with us, the reality is that they have been done to us.”

The report, whose release was accompanied by the filing of three civil rights complaints (protesting discrimination in Newark, New Orleans, and Chicago) with the Department of Justice and the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, makes the case that school “reform” based on school closure and privatization has been racially discriminatory because, “there are strong tendencies to treat our communities differently than other communities would be treated.”  Reformers have been less concerned about school closures in communities of color; more willing “to destabilize the democratic institutions”; more concerned about cutting costs; more willing to subject poor children of color to unproven experiments; less concerned about ensuring the presence of experienced, well-qualified teachers and small classes; more willing to impose test-driven curricula; less concerned about kids pushed out of school; and more willing to privatize education.

“When the so-called ‘reformers’ use our ‘failing schools’ as justification for closing them, or privatizing them, they claim that the primary failings exist within those schools.  They act as if there were no underlying cause for the often-unsound educational practices, or frequently uneven teaching capacity that exist within our schools  They confuse these symptoms of the problem with the problem itself, which is that our public schools have been persistently under-resourced, under-supported, and undermined for decades, including by many of the same people that now purport to ‘fix’ them.”

J4J details the problems when public schools are closed as well as the disappointments parents discover when the charters that have promised so much let them down by finding ways not to accept students with special education needs or English language learners, or students who are likely to post low scores—or when too many charters control school climate with overly militaristic discipline or through shockingly high rates of suspensions, push-outs, and expulsions.

The report is chilling in its description of how school closures and privatization are destroying America’s big cities and turning urban public school systems into institutions of last resort.  “These policies have placed many of our communities in a vicious downward spiral. The under-funding of public schools, combined with extensive public criticism of those schools, drives families away from public education.  Often, they head to the new charter schools that benefit from favorable media coverage and preferential treatment from policymakers.  That only makes conditions worse in the public schools and the surrounding community, as they typically lose more resources while having to serve more high-need students, and eventually quality educators get driven away.  Those schools are, at that point, frequently identified as ‘under-utilized’ or ‘failing,’ leading to their closure.  However, the closures only reinforce the same dynamics: more attacks on public schools, more cuts in funding, more families being driven away, more deterioration in the remaining public schools and the surrounding community, more educators leaving, more schools identified as ‘under-utilized’ or ‘failing,’ and thus more closures.  Over and over this downward spiral has played out in our communities, producing one round of school closure after another.”

What can be done?  The report’s authors ask for six very significant steps including asking the U.S. Department of Education to replace its four required punitive school turnaround models (that feature firing teachers, closing schools and privatizing schools) with a “Sustainable School Success” model that would support and improve struggling schools. They ask the U.S. Senate to hold a hearing on the impact of school closure and privatization.   And they ask President Barack Obama to change course radically by calling for a national moratorium on school closure and charter school expansion.

I am delighted that an enormous coalition of community organizations in cities across the United States is questioning the direction of the school reforms being pushed today by the Obama administration and suggesting sensible steps that would help us begin to change course.  These groups express regret that, “perhaps the most significant development in this realignment of forces (that accelerated the implementation corporate school ‘reform’ across America’s cities) was the election of President Obama and the ‘reformers’ successfully convincing him to not only embrace this viewpoint, but to greatly accelerate its implementation.”