Unequal Access to Educational Opportunity Is the Story of Today’s America

A highlight of the Network for Public Education’s recent national conference was the keynote address from Jitu Brown, a gifted and dedicated Chicago community organizer and the national director of the Journey for Justice Alliance.  His remarks made me think about the meaning of the last two decades of corporate school reform and the conditions today in his city and here where I live in greater Cleveland, Ohio.  It is a sad story.

Brown reflected on his childhood experience at a West Side Chicago elementary school, a place where he remembers being exposed to a wide range of information and experience including the study of a foreign language. He wondered, “Why did we have good neighborhood schools when I went to school but our kids don’t have them anymore? For children in poor neighborhoods, their education is not better.”

Brown described how No Child Left Behind’s basic drilling and test prep in the two subjects for which NCLB demands testing—math and language arts—eat up up more and more of the school day. We can consult Harvard University expert on testing, Daniel Koretz, for the details about why the testing regime has been particularly hard on children in schools where poverty is concentrated: “Inappropriate test preparation… is more severe in some places than in others. Teachers of high-achieving students have less reason to indulge in bad preparation for high-stakes tests because the majority of their students will score adequately without it—in particular, above the ‘proficient’ cut score that counts for accountability purposes. So one would expect that test preparation would be a more severe problem in schools serving high concentrations of disadvantaged students, and it is.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 116-117)

Of course, a narrowed curriculum is only one factor in today’s inequity.  Derick W. Black and Axton Crolley explain: “(A) 2018 report revealed, school districts enrolling ‘the most students of color receive about $1,800 or 13% less per student’ than districts serving the fewest students of color… Most school funding gaps have a simple explanation: Public school budgets rely heavily on local property taxes. Communities with low property values can tax themselves at much higher rates than others but still fail to generate anywhere near the same level of resources as other communities.  In fact, in 46 of 50 states, local school funding schemes drive more resources to middle-income students than poor students.”

Again and again in his recent keynote address, Jitu Brown described the consequences of Chicago’s experiment with corporate accountability-based school reform.  Chicago is a city still coping with the effect of the closure of 50 neighborhood schools in June of 2013—part of the collateral damage of the Renaissance 2010 charter school expansion—a portfolio school reform program administered by Arne Duncan to open charter schools and close neighborhood schools deemed “failing,” as measured by standardized test scores. On top of the charter expansion, Chicago instituted student-based-budgeting, which has trapped a number of Chicago public schools in a downward spiral as students experiment with charter schools and as enrollment diminishes, both of which spawn staffing and program cuts and put the school on a path toward closure.

As Jitu Brown reflected on his inspiring elementary school experience a long time ago, I thought about a moving recent article by Carolyn Cooper, a long time resident of Cleveland, Ohio’s East Glenville neighborhood: “I received a stellar education in elementary, junior high, and high school from the… Cleveland Public School system… All of the schools I attended were within walking distance, or only a few miles from my home. And at Iowa-Maple Elementary School, a K-6 school at the time, I was able to join the French Club and study abroad for months in both Paris and Lyon, France… Flash forward to this present day… To fight the closure of both Iowa-Maple and Collinwood High School, a few alumni attended a school facilities meeting held in October 2019 at Glenville High School… Despite our best efforts, Collinwood remained open but Iowa-Maple still closed down… Several generations of my family, as well as the families of other people who lived on my street, were alumni there.  I felt it should have remained open because it was a 5-Star school, offering a variety of programs including gifted and advanced courses, special education, preschool offerings, and Individualized Education Programs (IEPs).”

In his keynote address last week, Jitu Brown explained: “Justice and opportunity depend on the institutions to which children have access.” Brown’s words brought to my mind another part of Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood less than a mile from Iowa-Maple Elementary School. If you drive along Lakeview Road between Superior and St. Clair Avenues, you see a neighborhood with older homes of a size comfortable for families and scattered newer rental housing built about twenty years ago with support from tax credits. You also see many empty lots where houses were abandoned and later demolished in the years following the 2008 foreclosure crisis. Separated by several blocks, you pass two large weedy tracts of land which were once the sites of two different public elementary schools—abandoned by the school district and boarded up for years before they were demolished. You pass by a convenience store surrounded by cracked asphalt and gravel.  Finally you pass a dilapidated, abandoned nursing home which for several years housed the Virtual Schoolhouse, a charter school that advertised on the back of Regional Transit Authority buses until it shut down in 2018.

My children went to school in Cleveland Heights, only a couple of miles from Glenville. Cleveland Heights-University Heights is a mixed income, racially integrated, majority African American, inner-ring suburban school district. Our children can walk to neighborhood public schools that are a great source of community pride. Our community is not wealthy, but we have managed to pass our school levies to support our children with strong academics. We recently passed a bond issue to update and repair our old high school, where my children had the opportunity to play in a symphony orchestra, and play sports in addition to the excellent academic program.

Jitu Brown helped organize and lead the 2015 Dyett Hunger Strike, which forced the Chicago Public Schools to reopen a shuttered South Side Chicago high school. Brown does not believe that charter schools and vouchers are the way to increase opportunity for children in places like Chicago’s South and West Sides and Cleveland’s Glenville and Collinwood neighborhoods.  He explains: “When you go to a middle-class white community you don’t see charter schools…. You see effective, K-12 systems of education in their neighborhoods. Our children deserve the same.”

In the powerful final essay in the new book, Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, Bill Ayers, a retired professor of education at the University of Illinois, Chicago, agrees with Jitu Brown about what ought to be the promise of public education for every child in America:

“Let’s move forward guided by an unshakable first principle: Public education is a human right and a basic community responsibility… Every child has the right to a free, high-quality education. A decent, generously staffed school facility must be in easy reach for every family… What the most privileged parents have for their public school children right now—small class sizes, fully trained and well compensated teachers, physics and chemistry labs, sports teams, physical education and athletic fields and gymnasiums, after-school and summer programs, generous arts programs that include music, theater, and fine arts—is the baseline for what we want for all children.” (Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, pp. 314-315) (emphasis in the original)

U. of Chicago Researchers Document Damage to Communities and Students from 2013 School Closures

Ever since Chicago closed 50 schools in May of 2013, we have listened to teachers worrying about the effects on the children who were transferred to so-called welcoming schools. And we have continued to hear laments from the community after neighborhood institutions were shuttered.

Corporate school reformers always claimed that school disruption would save us from the old 20th century status quo. Disruptive school turnarounds—fire the principal, fire half the teachers, charterize or privatize the school, close the school—were the final prescription in the No Child Left Behind Act as the supposed cure for low performance. They were also at the heart of Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants.

In Chicago, where a growing charter school sector has been actively competing with neighborhood schools, competition from privatized charters has exacerbated an already-declining school enrollment.  School closures in Chicago have been justified both as the way to reform struggling schools and as an efficiency—saving money by consolidating an ever smaller school district enrollment in fewer schools.

Until now, academic research about the implications of school closings has been negative, but very careful to avoid overstating its negative conclusions.  Last May the National Education Policy Center published a policy brief which declared: “The relatively limited evidence base suggests that school closures are not a promising strategy for remedying low student performance… School closures have at best weak and decidedly mixed benefits; at worst they have detrimental repercussions for students if districts do not ensure that seats at higher-performing schools are available for transfer students. In districts where such assignments are in short or uncertain supply, ‘closure and transfer’ is a decidedly undesirable option.”

But scathing new research last week now paints a much bleaker picture. The University of Chicago Consortium on School Research released a new and sharply critical report five years after Chicago Public Schools’ massive 2013 school closures. The report condemns school closure (one of the prescriptions for disruptive turnaround) precisely because school closures in Chicago have proven so terribly disruptive for children teachers, and communities.

The Consortium describes Chicago Public Schools’ declared purpose for closing schools: “Although cost savings was the primary stated reason for closing schools, city and district officials saw this as an opportunity to move students into higher-rated schools and provide them with better academic opportunities. Underutilized schools, the district argued, were not serving students well.”

But what has happened over five years has not fulfilled district leaders’ expectations.  Instead we read about the destruction of trust and the fragile institutions of school and community: “Our findings show that the reality of school closures was much more complex than policymakers anticipated…. Interviews with affected students and staff revealed major challenges with logistics, relationships, and school culture… Closed school staff and students came into welcoming schools grieving and, in some cases, resentful that their schools closed while other schools stayed open. Welcoming school staff said they were not adequately supported to serve the new population and to address resulting divisions. Furthermore, leaders did not know what it took to be a successful welcoming school… Students and staff appreciated the extra resources, technology, programs, and the expansion of Safe Passage, although they wished for longer-term investments because student needs did not end after one year. Staff and students said that it took a long period of time to build new school cultures and feel like a cohesive community.”

While test scores dropped in the short term (and lagged for much longer in math) for students who were transferred to new schools and also for students already enrolled in welcoming schools, the academic impact was exacerbated by the unanticipated realities of the disruption. During the 2012-2013 school year, even as the District held hearings about pending school closures, more students than usual transferred out of the schools scheduled to become welcoming schools. These students seemingly transferred out to avoid what was scheduled to happen in their schools.

The magnitude of the disruption is reflected in the number of students and teachers who were affected: “When the closures took place at the end of the 2012-13 school year, nearly 12,000 students were attending the 47 elementary schools that closed that year, close to 17,000 students were attending the 48 designated welcoming schools, and around 1,100 staff were employed in the closed schools.”

Consortium researchers conducted qualitative interviews with educators and students in six of the welcoming schools. They identify themes running through the responses from across the six schools.  First, “Planning for a merger of this magnitude was highly complex and involved a great deal of adaptation. School leaders said they did not know how to balance the need to plan with the recognition that the process, in reality, was unfolding with a high degree of uncertainty and ambiguity.  Planning was also difficult because staff only had a few months and they did not always know how many of the closed school students would enroll in their schools, nor their final budgets.”  Remember that Chicago Public Schools allocates funding on a per-student basis.

While some welcoming schools were awarded STEM or International Baccalaureate programs—which have been sustained over the five years that have followed the school closures, “Many… initial supports… were hard to sustain after the first year… due to budget cuts in subsequent years and the end of the one-time influx of resources. An exception has been the expansion of a program that “hires Safe Passage workers to stand along designated walking routes during before-and after-school hours.” Everyone appreciates the addition of this program, which the school district has sustained.

What nobody in the school administration seems to have appreciated, however, is the social impact and emotional distress among students and educators in the schools which were closed, in the welcoming schools as well, and in the primarily African American neighborhoods on Chicago’s South and West Sides, where most of the schools were closed: “When schools closed, it severed the longstanding social connections that families and staff had with their schools and with one another, resulting in a period of mourning… The intensity of the feelings of loss were amplified in cases where schools had been open for decades, with generations of families attending the same neighborhood school. Losing their closed schools was not easy and the majority of interviewees spoke about the difficulty they had integrating and socializing into the welcoming schools.”

The report continues: “Even though welcoming school staff and students did not lose their schools per se, many also expressed feelings of loss because incorporating a large number of new students required adjustments… Creating strong relationships and building trust in welcoming schools after schools closed was difficult. Prior to the actual merger, school communities said they felt as if they were competing with one another to stay open, which made accepting the loss that much more difficult. Displaced staff and students, who had just lost their schools, had to go into unfamiliar school environments and start anew. Welcoming school communities also did not want to lose or change the way their schools were previously.”

In a timely coincidence, the Partnership for the Future of Learning has released a nine-minute film, Kings and Queens, featuring Irene Robinson, a Chicago grandmother and activist, who describes, from the point of view of her family, the 2013 closure of their neighborhood school. Robinson describes the same grieving process that is documented by the U. of Chicago Consortium on School Research’s new report.  She tells of the loss of Overton Elementary School: what the school meant to three generations of her family—herself, her six children, her 18 grandchildren—and to her community. “We cooked there. We had holiday meals there with the children and the parents. We had GED classes in our school for the parents.”

Chicago Public Schools, a district suffering from declining enrollment overall, has exacerbated the decline of its neighborhood schools by permitting uncontrolled growth of charter schools which compete with the neighborhood schools for enrollment. And Chicago Public Schools has already begun the process of  closing several more neighborhood schools. WBEZ’s Sarah Karp reports on the reaction of Janice Jackson, Chicago Public Schools’ CEO, to the new report from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research: “CPS’s current Schools Chief Janice Jackson called what happened ‘unacceptable.’ But said the outcome will not deter her from closing schools in the future. At the time of the closings in 2013, Jackson was principal of a West Side high school. ‘We acknowledge that it was imperfect,’ she said. ‘For me, I can focus on the learnings that came out of that.'”

Karp continues: “After taking a five-year break from school closings, the Chicago Board of Education voted in February to shutter one elementary school and four high schools. Jackson is allowing most current students to stay until they graduate and she is providing extra support for students before and after they graduate.”