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.”