No Quick Fixes: Disparities in COVID Learning Loss Reflect Persistent Inequity in Children’s Economic Circumstances and Inequitable School Funding

Nine months ago, Stanford University educational sociologist Sean Reardon seemed confident that students would bounce back relatively quickly from the COVID disruption in their schools.  He told Education Week’s Sarah Schwartz: “Children born now will, hopefully, attend school without the kinds of major, national disruptions that children who were in school during the pandemic faced. Most likely, scores for 9-year-olds, will be back to normal relatively soon….”

Now Reardon has joined Harvard’s Tom Kane expressing deeper concern about what the newest test scores show: serious inequalities in the way children’s schooling was disrupted. Because Reardon and Kane are data wonks, of course test scores—the primary source of measurable academic data—are their focus. Their new conclusions about the depth of COVID disruption—what the data prove—should interest and concern us all.  I am concerned, however, about their proposed remedy when it comes to helping children who fell even further behind during the pandemic.

Here is how Reardon and Kane describe their research and what they have discovered: “We’ve looked at test scores, the duration of school closures, broadband availability, Covid death rates, employment data, patterns of social activity, voting patterns, measures of how connected people are to others in their communities and Facebook survey data on both family activities and mental health during the pandemic. And to get a sense of how probable it is that students will make up the ground they lost over the next few years, we looked at earlier test scores to see how students recovered from various disruptions in the decade before the pandemic… Our detailed geographic data reveals what national tests do not: The pandemic exacerbated economic and racial educational inequality.”

Are you surprised?

They continue: “By 2022, the typical student in the poorest districts had lost three-quarters of a year in math, more than double the decline of students in the richest districts. The declines in reading scores were half as large as in math and were similarly much larger in poor districts than rich districts. The pandemic left students in low-income and predominantly minority communities ever further behind their peers in richer, whiter districts than they were… (T)he extent to which schools were closed appears to have affected all students in a community equally, regardless of income or race… But school closures are only part of the story… We found that test scores declined more in places where the Covid death rate was high, in communities where adults reported feeling more depression and anxiety during the pandemic, and where daily routines of children and families were more significantly restricted. In combination, these factors put enormous strain on parents, teachers and kids…. On average, both math and reading scores declined by roughly a tenth of a year more in the 10 percent of districts where social activities were most curtailed than they did in the 10 percent least restricted.”

Parents don’t realize, they write, how far behind their children really are; they should be worried.  School districts need to take major steps.  So…. what are their prescriptions?  They conclude: “This summer mayors and governors should be launching public service campaigns to promote summer learning. And school boards should begin negotiating to extend the next school year.” Community organizations, museums, camps and athletic programs should “add an academic component to those programs.” “One possibility would be to offer an optional fifth year of high school for students to fill holes in academic skills, get help with applying to college or to explore alternative career pathways… Another option would be to make ninth grade a triage year during which students would receive intensive help in key academic subjects. As enticing as it might be to get back to normal, doing so will just leave in place the devastating increase in inequality caused by the pandemic.”

What worries me in a report documenting that, “in communities where adults reported feeling more depression and anxiety during the pandemic, and where daily routines of children and families were more significantly restricted,” the purpose of the new report seems to be stimulating parents to worry more.  And, if disruption in children’s lives was a primary cause of collapsing test scores, according to this research, why pack academics into summer camp and football practice at a time when we should be grateful that kids’ social life is returning to normal?

What about making the school year longer and adding a fifth year of high school?  Kane and Reardon suggest that the proposed fifth year would be optional, but I worry— when it comes to how the test-and-punish accountability hawks have always operated—whether optional might pretty soon become mandatory when it comes to the kids with the lowest scores. And even though these researchers correlate the reduction of in-person schooling with increased learning loss, they suggest that schools should incentivize community organizations to have students use “educational software—like the programs from Zearn and Khan Academy… Schools could incentivize organizations working with students after school, on weekends or during school vacation weeks to include time for students to learn online.”

Public school policy that obsesses about test scores has for over two decades been punitive for schools, punitive for teachers, and punitive for children. Many states have failed to end the Third-Grade Reading Guarantee, which holds kids back when they can’t pass the mandatory standardized test in third grade, even though it has been well documented that holding kids back even once increases their chance of dropping out before high school graduation.  And a number of states still make high school graduation dependent on passing a high school exit exam even when students have completed all of their classes successfully. Will cut scores on standardized tests once again become the marker that mandates more punishment—summer school and a fifth year of high school?

Certainly I believe that school districts should prioritize, and school staff should collaborate on plans to ensure that students catch up on their academic skills.  But I know that, in Ohio, for example, as the state phases in a new school funding plan, legislators have failed the school districts serving communities where family poverty is concentrated by phasing increases in Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid at a much slower rate than the rest of the new formula. And rather than accelerating the phase-in of the new plan, the legislature intends to drive more and more money to expanding vouchers for private school tuition.

In an article published in a 2023, Big Ideas report from First Focus on Children, constitutional scholar Derek Black describes the rampant school funding inequity across the states and among the school districts within each state. Surely these alarming school resource disparities are a large part of the reason some children are catching up from COVID’s disruption more slowly than children in other school districts: “On most major measures, educational inequality is holding steady or on the rise. Achievement, segregation, and funding data all indicate that poor and minority students are receiving vastly unequal educational opportunities. For instance, predominantly minority schools receive about $2,000 less per student than predominantly white schools. Even putting aside this inequality, overall government commitment to public education is receding. Since 2008, most states have substantially decreased school funding, some by more than 20%.”

We also know that family poverty is an enormous challenge for parents and for children and that school achievement scores correlate with family income. Congress supported parents and children during 2022 by expanding the federal Child Tax Credit and making it fully refundable to the poorest families.  But Congress let that program lapse (see here and here) at the end of 2022, throwing many families back into deep poverty.  Restoring the 2022 expanded and fully refundable Child Tax Credit would be a major step to help stabilize children’s lives.

The most direct way for states to address academic learning loss through their public schools is for legislators to invest in the public schools by ensuring that state school finance formulas are adequate, fully funded, and designed to distribute revenue equitably across wealthy and poor school districts.  Children will best catch up from the pandemic in small classes taught by well supported teachers. Students will engage enthusiastically with schooling when there are strong academics, reading programs that feature enticing children’s and adolescent literature, art and music programs, and plenty of sports and other enriching settings for students to connect both socially and academically.

Certainly I agree with Reardon and Kane that test scores documenting COVID learning loss are a symptom of extremely serious structural inequity that was only exacerbated by the pandemic.  But I believe significant efforts to address school funding inequity and ameliorate child poverty are the only long term way to help children who are struggling to catch up after the three-year COVID disruption.


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)

Coronavirus Forces Us to Notice the Essential Role of Public Schools

Maybe someday we’ll all come to agree that we were crazy—for two decades after No Child Left Behind— to accept school closure as a “turnaround strategy” for so-called “failing” (low-scoring) public schools. Certainly the coronavirus pandemic, when public schools are being shut down to protect the public health, ought to be a wake-up call.  While we cannot question the public health experts who are prescribing such a radical step, the widespread closure of public schools provides an occasion to examine the meaning of public education across today’s America.

Eve Ewing, the University of Chicago sociologist, recently examined the widespread, permanent, closure of public schools in Bronzeville, a neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. At the end of the 2013 school year, Chicago Public Schools shut down 50 so-called “failing” schools, many of them on the South and West Sides. Ewing’s focus is broader than this week’s lesson, but she does examine the essential role of public schools as core social institutions that anchor neighborhoods: “Judith Butler argues that when a community faces the loss of a place, that loss can become so insurmountable that it becomes part of the community’s own self-definition… The people of Bronzeville understand that a school is more than a school.  A school is the site of a history and a pillar of black pride in a racist city.  A school is a safe place to be.  A school is a place where you find family.  A school is a home.” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, pp. 155-156)

This week’s school closures—universal across many states—are only temporary, though parents and teachers cannot anticipate how long the shutdown will last.  But although schools are closed only temporarily, the closures are disruptive and disorienting.  Valerie Strauss presents tweets, some of them funny, from teachers trying to create online lessons and from lucky parents trying to work at home—two parents doing two jobs from home while their children try to study online—all on one computer.

But for society’s most vulnerable families, school may have a very different meaning. Back in 2003, just as school turnarounds—including school closure—were being prescribed as part of No Child Left Behind’s test-and-punish regime, Pedro Noguera, an education sociologist (then at NYU, now at UCLA) argued that public schools are indispensable institutions: “Despite the severity of the conditions present in many urban schools, and despite the intractability of the problems they face, these deeply flawed institutions continue to serve millions of children throughout the United States. In fact, the largest school districts in the nation are classified as ‘urban’ and they serve nearly one-third of school-aged children… In a profound demonstration of faith, millions of parents voluntarily take their children each day to the very schools that have been described as ‘desperate hell holes.’… At a minimum, they may enroll their sons and daughters because they know that even at a failing public school their children will have access to a warm meal and adult supervision while they are there…  In economically depressed inner-city communities… public schools play a vital role in supporting low-income families. Even when other neighborhood services, including banks, retail stores, libraries and other public services do not exist, are shut down, or are abandoned, public schools remain. They are neighborhood constants… because they have a relatively stable source of funding, ensured by the legal mandate to educate children.”  (City Schools and the American Dream, pp. 4-6)

This past week, whether or not to close the public schools became a major dilemma and in some places, a political controversy. The coronavirus pandemic is exposing the extreme vulnerability of families in places where the public school is the primary source of economic and social support.

The Chicago Sun-TimesNader Issa explains why the decision to close schools for public health reasons was so complicated and difficult in Chicago: “Families in low-income and under-resourced communities rely on schools for breakfast, lunch and daycare for their children.  Some of these families have technology deficits at home.  Students with complex needs in special education programs depend on the care of trained professionals.  Parents who work hourly or are self-employed might not be able to afford taking time off work to care for their young children. ‘In some of these communities, if we take away a school—the only public good we still offer them—then we start to leave them to fend for themselves,’ said Victoria Trinder, a University of Illinois at Chicago assistant professor and urban elementary education program coordinator… It shouldn’t take a pandemic for policymakers to realize they need to help under-resourced communities and schools.  But the fact remains that it’s those exact hardships that mean the decision to shut down Chicago schools would undoubtedly need to be accompanied by serious social service efforts to minimize the burden on underserved communities—help that even in normal circumstances is insufficient.”

Issa profiles the special challenges for parents of children at Vaughn Occupational, a high school for special education students: “Given Vaughn students’ complex needs, including indispensable assistance from classroom aides, the infrastructure simply doesn’t exist to provide instruction online… That’s especially true district-wide with CPS’ more than 50,000 special education students, and others who might not have computer or internet access at home.” A parent of an autistic student explains the challenges for students like her son and for their families: “They have really high needs that can be met at schools but not at their neighbor’s house.”

Examining the decision that faced New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and NYC Mayor Bill De Blasio, the NY Times Editorial Board wonders, “What happens when working people are so vulnerable—without decent health care, child care and other forms of support—that it puts the whole city at risk?”

As in Chicago, the NYC public schools are a primary support for the city’s most vulnerable families: “(N)early one million households in the city don’t have internet access, making online learning difficult… Of the more than one million students in New York’s roughly 1,700 schools, about 750,000 live at or below the poverty line. These children count on meals and critical services from the schools. About one in every 10 students is homeless.”

Public schools, explains the Editorial Board, are essential for more than the families whose children are enrolled: “New Yorkers should pause to absorb one important insight from the fact that the mayor and governor regarded the public schools as, essentially, the vital day care center for city workers. New York’s schools are a critical support network for the city’s children and those children’s parents are a critical support network for the city. This is both a tribute to the importance of the school system and to the hard-working New Yorkers who hold the city together, and a jarring indictment of how little support these New Yorkers receive in turn…. Like health care workers, transit employees, police officers, firefighters, E.M.S. employees, sanitation workers and other essential employees also have children in the public schools. Others, including low-wage workers who live paycheck to paycheck in the service industries, could not only be forced to stay home now to care for their children, but could lose their jobs as a result.”

“That is a lesson for wealthier New Yorkers in particular to consider as they work from home in the weeks ahead, perhaps ordering groceries to be delivered, counting on the hospital to be open should hey need it. A system that has left the working poor so vulnerable—without decent health care, child care and other forms of support—turns out to have created tremendous vulnerability for society as a whole.”

Michael Bloomberg Says He May Run for President: Why He Won’t Be my Choice

New York City’s former three-term mayor, Michael Bloomberg, a multi-billionaire businessman, is exploring whether to join other Democrats running for President in 2020. It is said that he would be a Democratic centrist, and we know that he has contributed positively to the national conversation promoting gun control and an aggressive response to climate change.  But, as usual in this political season, his record on public education has been neglected by the press.

Michael Bloomberg does have a long education record. Bloomberg served as New York City’s mayor from January of 2002 until December of 2013. In 2002, to accommodate his education agenda, Bloomberg got the state legislature to create mayoral governance of NYC’s public schools. In this role, Michael Bloomberg and his appointed schools chancellor, Joel Klein were among the fathers of what has become a national wave of corporate, accountability-based school reform. Bloomberg is a businessman, and Joel Klein was a very successful attorney. Neither had any experience as an educator. They took aggressive steps to run the NYC school district, with 1.1 million students, like a business. Their innovations included district-wide school choice, rapid expansion of charter schools, co-location of a bunch of small charter and traditional schools into what used to be comprehensive high schools, the phase out and closure of low-scoring schools, evaluation of schools by high stakes standardized test scores, the assignment of letter grades to schools based on their test scores, and a sort of merit pay bonus plan for teachers.

In her 2018 book, After the Education Wars, Andrea Gabor, the New York business journalist and journalism professor, comments on Bloomberg’s educational experiment: “The Bloomberg administration embraced the full panoply of education-reform remedies. It worshiped at the altar of standardized tests and all manner of quantitative analysis. The Bloomberg administration also had a penchant for reorganizations that seemed to create more disruption than continuous improvement among its 1.1 million students and 1,800 schools.” ( After the Education Wars, p. 75)

Gabor describes Bloomberg’s expansion of charter schools: “Harlem, in particular, has become the center of an unintentional educational experiment—one that has been replicated in neighborhoods and cities around the country.  During the Bloomberg years, when close to a quarter of students in the area were enrolled in charter schools, segregation increased, as did sizable across-the-board demographic disparities among the students who attended each type of school. An analysis of Bloomberg-era education department data revealed that public open-enrollment elementary and middle schools have double—and several have triple—the proportion of special needs kids of nearby charter schools. The children in New York’s traditional public schools are much poorer than their counterparts in charter schools. And public schools have far higher numbers of English language learners… In backing charter schools Bloomberg and other advocates pointed to one clear benefit: charters, it was widely accepted, would increase standardized test scores. However, years of studies showed little difference between the test-score performance of students in charter schools and those in public schools.” After the Education Wars, p. 95)

A Leadership Academy for school administrators taught business management principles. Gabor explains: “The Leadership Academy, launched in January 2003, was a cornerstone of the new Bloomberg administration’s education-reform strategy for public schools, one focused on breaking up both the central bureaucracy and New York City’s large, factory-style high schools…  The Leadership Academy’s mission was to recruit and train six hundred new entrepreneurial principals by the end of Bloomberg’s first term, in 2006, to help run the many new mostly small schools that the new administration hoped to establish.  Like many of the Bloomberg-era reforms, there was much that was controversial about the Leadership Academy.  For one thing, the academy boasted the ideal of a public-private partnership and the promise of helping to run both schools and the education bureaucracy more like businesses….”  (After the Education Wars, p. 76)

Perhaps Gabor’s most abiding criticism is that Bloomberg and Klein distrusted experienced educators. And this attitude has been part of the corporate reform movement they helped launch across America’s big cities during the past two decades: “The business reformers came to the education table with their truths: a belief in market competition and quantitative measures. They came with their prejudices—favoring ideas and expertise forged in corporate boardrooms over the knowledge and experience gleaned in the messy trenches of inner-city classrooms.  They came with distrust of an education culture that values social justice over more practical considerations like wealth and position. They came with the arrogance that elevated polished, but often mediocre (or worse), technocrats over scruffy but knowledgeable educators. And, most of all, they came with their suspicion—even their hatred—of organized labor and their contempt for ordinary public school teachers.” (After the Education Wars, p. 4)

In her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch examined all this while it was an ongoing experiment: “In the first decade of the new century, New York City became the national testing ground for market based reforms.  Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his chancellor, Joel Klein, applied business principles to overhaul the nation’s largest school system, which enrolled 1.1 million children… They reorganized the management of the schools, battled the teachers’ union, granted large pay increases to teachers and principals, pressed for merit pay, opened scores of charter schools, broke up large high schools into small ones, emphasized frequent practice for state tests, gave every school a letter grade, closed dozens of low-performing schools, and institutionalized the ideas of choice and competition (albeit without vouchers).  (The Death and Life of the Great American School System, p. 69)

School closures were among the most problematic of Bloomberg’s reforms.  Ravitch explains: “As it elevated the concept of school choice, the Department of Education destroyed the concept of neighborhood high schools.  Getting into the high school of one’s choice became as stressful as getting into the college of one’s choice… Students were expected to list their top twelve preferences. Most got into one of the twelve, but thousands got into none at all. Neighborhoods were once knitted together by a familiar local high school that served all the children of the community, a school with distinctive traditions and teams and history. After the neighborhood high school closed, children scattered across the city in response to the lure of new, unknown small schools with catchy names or were assigned to schools far from home… As a high school for 3,000 students was closed down, it would be replaced by four or five small schools for 500 students.  What happened to the missing students?  Invariably, they were the lowest-performing, least motivated students who were somehow passed over by the new schools… These troublesome students were relegated to another large high school, where their enrollment instigated a spiral of failure, dissolution, and closing.” (The Death and Life of the Great American School System, p. 84)

In a stunning 2013 report, Over the Counter, Under the Radar, the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University tracked what happened to students who arrived in the district too late for that year’s school choice competition.  Others did not speak English, or for some reason did not participate in the choice process. These students who just showed up at school trying to register were dubbed in NYC, “over the counter students”: “Every year, some 16,000 students who enroll in New York City high schools without participating in the high school choice process are labeled as ‘over-the-counter’ or OTC students and are assigned a school by the New York City Department of Education. These young people are among the school system’s highest-needs students—new immigrants, special needs students, previously incarcerated teens, poor or transient or homeless youth, students over age for grade… OTC students are disproportionately assigned to high schools with higher percentages of low-performing students… OTC students are disproportionately assigned to high schools that are subsequently targeted for closure or that are undergoing the closure process.”

Under Bloomberg’s watch, several large comprehensive high schools, deemed failing for low test scores, were phased out one grade per year.  New ninth graders stopped being enrolled; then tenth grade was eliminated, then eleventh, and finally  the school closed.  Ravitch quotes education sociologist Pedro Noguera: “Pedro Noguera of New York University observed that the Department of Education failed to provide the large schools with the support and guidance they needed to improve. ‘They don’t have a school-change strategy… They have a school-shutdown strategy'”(The Death and Life of the Great American School System, p. 87)

In a stunning 2015, New Yorker magazine profile of Jamaica High School, in Queens, Jalani Cobb recounts the story of his own alma mater, its demise brought on by increasing residential segregation, poverty, and Bloomberg school reform: “Jamaica High School, in Queens, was once the largest high school in the United States… One evening in June of last year, Jamaica students wearing red and blue gowns gathered with their families and teachers and with members of the school staff at Antun’s, a catering hall in Queens Village, for the senior-class commencement ceremony, but it carried a particular significance on this occasion, because it was as applicable to the faculty and the staff, some of whom had been at the school for nearly three decades, as it was to the students.  After a hundred and twenty-two years, Jamaica High School was closing; the class of 2014, which had just twenty-four members, would be the last.  The New York City Department of Education had announced the closure three years earlier, citing persistent violence and a graduation rate of around fifty percent.  Accordingly, the department had begun to ‘co-locate’ four newly created ‘small schools’ in the old building… The schools tended to operate like siblings competing for bathroom time. Access to the building’s communal spaces was at a premium. Unable to secure the auditorium for a graduating class of two dozen, Jamaica High School found itself both figuratively and literally, pushed out.”

Cobb explains how the Bloomberg-Klein New York Department of Education phased out the school: “In 2004, in the name of greater choice, the Bloomberg administration revised the districting rules to allow students to attend any high school in the city. Given the realities of residential segregation and of school quality as a determinant of real-estate values, there was something almost radical in that idea.”  But the universal high school choice plan didn’t desegregate New York City’s public schools. “The demographic balance that characterized Jamaica during my years became impossible to maintain. In 2011, the year that the city formally decided to close the school, fourteen percent of the student population had disabilities and twenty-nine percent had limited English proficiency. In the year before the school closed, it was ninety-nine percent minority, a demographic that would not in itself be a concern were it not also the case that sixty-three percent of the students qualified as poor… The tacit belief that large schools were unreformable meant that Jamaica’s sliding numbers looked to some experts like predictable educational failure; to the faculty, those numbers looked like what happens when a school is asked to educate a challenging population without the necessary tools.”

Among the Democrats running for President in 2020, I’ll be looking for a candidate who respects professional educators and who understands the importance of supporting the public schools, designed to serve the needs and protect the rights of all children. Public schools need our ongoing attention and support. My choice for President couldn’t possibly be Michael Bloomberg.

For the Poorest Rust Belt School Districts in 2019, June Is the Cruelest Month

States continue to impose punitive school closures and state takeovers on school districts that serve the poorest children.  While the Ohio Senate tinkers with language to embed a new state takeover plan for struggling school districts into the FY 2020-2021 biennial state budget, Michigan plans to shut down Benton Harbor’s high school before June 30, the date when the state is slated to lose control over this district which Michigan’s state-appointed managers have failed to turn around.

Ohio’s Senate pretends it is eliminating a four-year failed experiment in the state takeover of school districts, in which top-down, state-appointed despots have created chaos by wielding unlimited power to reconstitute schools and shake things up. But the substitute plan (buried in the Ohio Senate’s proposed state budget) merely inserts a local committee into the process and calls the new czar a School Improvement Director instead of a CEO. This new overseer, whose responsibility would be to enforce a plan already reviewed and approved by what would be a new Ohio School Transformation Board, would have the power to replace school administrators; assign employees to schools and approve transfers; hire new employees; define employee job descriptions; establish employee compensation; allocate teacher class loads; conduct employee evaluations; reduce staff; set the school calendar; create the budget; contract services for the district; modify policies and procedures established by the district’s elected board; establish grade configurations of the schools; determine the curriculum; select instructional materials and assessments; set class size; and provide staff professional development. The School Improvement Director would also represent the elected school board during any contract negotiations.

What is happening in Michigan is also about a state’s imposed governance, but Michigan’s pending action comes much later in the process.  Michigan has been imposing state governance on school districts and municipalities for years now. In Benton Harbor this June, we are watching what happens when years of state control have failed to accomplish what was promised. Michigan’s state takeover has not turned around the schools in the abjectly poor Benton Harbor community.

Wikipedia describes former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder: “Richard Dale Snyder (born August 19, 1958) is an American politician, business executive, venture capitalist, lawyer and accountant who served as the 48th governor of Michigan from 2011 to 2019. He is a member of the Republican Party.” Snyder was a businessman-governor who believed tight management practices could make up for the state’s paltry investment in public schools and municipalities. The poisoning of Flint’s drinking water was one result of Snyder’s pressure to cut costs. Now the new governor, Gretchen Whitmer, finds herself ill equipped to address the school crisis in Benton Harbor which has derived from years of misguided policy on state school finance, on school and municipal governance, and on the segregation of the state by economics as well as race.

Governor Snyder put in place a disastrous set of takeovers of poor communities and school districts. He blamed municipal and school district indebtedness on governance and management. For the Detroit News, Jennifer Chambers reviews some of this history: “In 2013, the state dissolved the Buena Vista School District and Inkster Public Schools. Several districts have been placed into the hands of emergency managers, including Detroit Public Schools and the districts of Muskegon Heights and Highland Park. Both Muskegon Heights and Highland Park now operate as charter districts only. Craig Thiel, director of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, said Benton Harbor is a unique case because it’s the only Michigan school district under a consent agreement. That agreement goes away June 30, when the state reform office closes. ‘All of the models dealing with finances of districts don’t involve additional state dollars.  They assume it’s management issues and they assume you can resolve it,’ Thiel said.”

Chambers describes what is happening in Benton Harbor this month: “The future of 700 high school students and the fate of a southwest Michigan school district hangs in the balance this week as the people of Benton Harbor push back against a state plan to close the city’s high schools. The urban school district, whose 1,800 students are 92 percent black and 81 percent economically disadvantaged, has staggeringly low academic achievement and has been ravaged by years of declining enrollment. And despite the efforts of a turnaround specialist who was ready to move ahead with educational and financial reforms for the next three years under state watch, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has told the community the only course of action left is to close Benton Harbor High School and a smaller alternative high school. Whitmer wants to send the students to primarily white, rural, and more affluent districts to address the district’s $18.3 million debt, give high schoolers access to certified teachers and allow educators to focus on K-8 education. The prospect of disbanding the high school and sending hundreds of black students to finish their education in overwhelmingly white suburbs has put a decidedly racial tinge on what is unfolding as the first crisis of Whitmer’s governorship…  Whitmer came to Benton Harbor last week and told residents that dissolving the district is the alternative to closing the high school, given the district’s financial and academic crisis… Robert Herrera, the state-appointed CEO of Benton Harbor Area Schools, who was one year into a four-year contract to turn around the district, said he was shocked to learn the governor wanted to shut down the high schools, a decision he learned in late May. Herrera resigned from the district on Thursday, which is effective June 30.”

Chambers describes the state’s takeover of Benton Harbor Schools: “The district came under the eye of the state in 2014, when Gov. Rick Snyder agreed with the findings of a state financial review team that said a financial emergency existed in Benton Harbor.  In September 2014, the state of Michigan and Benton Harbor Area Schools entered into a consent agreement to address the fiscal emergency.  After the district failed to make any progress on its goals in a 2017 partnership agreement, Michigan education officials threatened to close the high schools.”  Currently, the school district, like many of the districts taken over by emergency managers under Snyder, is paying off an enormous long-term debt, which cuts its operating funds significantly. The debt is over $18 million and expected to rise to $21.5 million by 2020.

Many parents in Benton Harbor have moved their children to surrounding districts under inter-district open enrollment; enrollment has collapsed from 10,000 in  the 1970s to 2,000 today, The loss of state per-pupil dollars has exacerbated the district’s fiscal crisis.  Chambers explains: “The district’s difficulty attracting talent is something many people agree is a contributing problem. Salary levels for teachers are below the state average, Herrera said, and many leave Benton Harbor to get paid $7,000-$9,000 more a year. The starting salary in the district is $34,000 with an average of $47,000. Many point to the district’s high percentage of long-term substitute teachers who are not certified—40 percent fall into this category—as a contributor to low academic performance. These teachers can only stay in their positions for one school year before they must be reassigned.”

As a school district serving one of Michigan’s poorest and most racially segregated communities, Benton Harbor represents the problems of the many communities whose troubles have been defined by Governor Snyder and other politicians as management issues—without attention to the state of Michigan’s paltry school funding.  Last February, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss summarized a new in-depth study from Michigan State University: “According to the report, total K-12 education funding declined by 30 percent between 2002 and 2015, with 74 percent of that drop caused by declining state support for schools.” Strauss quotes the report: “Michigan ranks dead last among states in total education revenue growth since the passage of Proposal A (in 1994).  After adjusting for inflation, Michigan’s education revenue in 2015 was only 82 percent of the state’s 1995 revenue. No other state is close to a decline of this magnitude. In 48 states, 2015 education revenue was higher, often much higher, than in 1995.  Michigan’s real per-pupil revenues declined by 15 percent over this same period, ranking 48th among the 50 states.”

In Benton Harbor, two hundred people attended a recent meeting when Governor Gretchen Whitmer came to explain her plan to the community.  State officials appear to feel pressured by the expiration of the 2014 consent agreement on June 30, when control of the school district will revert to the local school board.  Chambers reports the state has given the school board an ultimatum. By mid-June, they must to come up with an alternative plan to the closure of the high school or face the state-imposed closure of the school district.  The local school board, however, appears to be intent on regaining local control by delaying any action past the June 30 deadline.

Chambers quotes Joseph Taylor, the school board’s vice president: “This is a bad plan for the community.  It gets rid of a high school…. High schools are the fabric of anyone’s community, and good high schools create good cities.”

Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad opposes the school closure: “It’s a total affront to the community. It’s not just a slap in the face, but to take away the high school would be like taking down our twin towers.”

Chambers quotes  Dadrainana McFall, a 10th grader and captain of the junior varsity girls’ basketball team: “I don’t have anywhere else to go… I have been in Benton Harbor. I have not been anywhere else other than Benton Harbor. This is my hometown. Benton Harbor created me. I don’t want the school to close.”

Last fall, Eve Ewing, a University of Chicago sociologist published an extraordinary book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard, which explores the impact of Chicago’s closure of 50 public schools at the end of the 2013 school year—many of them concentrated in the Bronzeville neighborhood. Ewing describes widespread community mourning in a Chicago neighborhood where residents experienced school closures very differently than the officials who had the power to make the top-down choices which are shaping the neighborhoods.

In several years of interviews, Ewing listened as people from the Bronzeville community described the loss of their schools as a death: “Understanding these tropes of death and mourning as they pertain not to the people we love, but to the places where we loved them, has a particular gravity during a time when the deaths of black people at the hands of the state—through such mechanisms as police violence and mass incarceration—are receiving renewed attention.  As the people of Bronzeville understand, the death of a school and the death of a person at the barrel of a gun are not the same thing, but they are the same thing. The people of Bronzeville understand that a school is more than a school. A school is the site of a history and a pillar of black pride in a racist city. A school is a safe place to be. A school is a place where you find family. A school is a home. So when they come for your schools, they’re coming for you. And after you’re gone they’d prefer you be forgotten.” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, pp. 155-156)

Ewing continues: “It’s worth stating explicitly: my purpose in this book is not to say that school closure should never happen. Rather, in expanding the frame within which we see school closure as a policy decision, we find ourselves with a new series of questions…. These questions, I contend, need to be asked about Chicago’s school closures, about school closures anywhere.  In fact, they are worth asking when considering virtually any educational policy decision: What is the history that has brought us to this moment?  How can we learn more about that history from those who have lived it?  What does this institution represent for the community closest to it?  Who gets to make the decisions here, and how do power, race, and identity inform the answer to that question?” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, p. 159)

Charter Grants from Arne Duncan Destabilize Under-Resourced Public Districts

There is growing evidence that we have a big problem with public money flowing to poorly regulated charter schools—schools that do a poor job of educating students and that find all sorts of ways to rip off the public and suck in tax dollars that are desperately needed by the public school districts in which they are located. But there is a bigger problem.  In school districts that are not growing demographically—the big cities where charters are expanding—the rapid growth of new charters is destabilizing the public schools.  Research continues to demonstrate that charter schools attract parents who are active choosers and children who do not present really expensive education challenges.  Charters are known to serve fewer English language learners and fewer students whose special education needs are complex—fewer autistic, blind, deaf, and multiply-handicapped children, and fewer homeless children and those who are living below 50 percent of the federal poverty level.  Traditional public school districts are being turned into school districts of last resort as they are expected to serve the children left behind by school choice while money is divided with more and more charter schools.

At the end of September, the U.S. Department of Education awarded over $157 million to seven states, the District of Columbia, and eleven charter school projects across the country for the expansion of charter schools.  The outrageous granting of $71 million to Ohio even as the state was locked in a political battle about establishing even the most minimal oversight of charter schools has been questioned in the press. But what about the other grants?

This week Linda Lutton, the education reporter at WBEZ Chicago, questions the five-year charter grant of $8,412,500 to the Noble Network of Charter Schools in Chicago.  She describes the astute reaction of Jesse Sharkey, Vice President of the Chicago Teachers Union: “Our neighborhood schools have a hard time just delivering a basic education program.  But at the same time there’s federal dollars and private dollars mixing together to privatize schools… It’s like we’re going on a privatization bender in our schools.  And we’re gonna wake up in the gutter and discover that we have sold off the asset of our public education system, and our schools are being run by private operators that don’t have our values.”

Michael Masch, the former school finance chief of the School District of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, offered a very similar analysis recently to the Philadelphia Inquirer.  The reporter describes Masch’s worry about the the consequences for the public school district when charters are quickly expanded: “Masch expressed concern that the boom in charter expansion could reach a point of implosion, as the demand to finance new (charter) school buildings is derived mainly by the transfer of students out of traditional district schools. ‘There are no new students coming into the Philadelphia school district and yet we’re building all these new schools. At some point, you’re going to have to start closing schools.’ Masch also said that because charters get guaranteed funding based on the number of students they will enroll, their budgets stayed relatively stable while the district made deep cuts in response to a shortage of state education dollars.  As a result, construction of new district school buildings has ground to a halt. ‘Whether it’s a plan or a strategy or an unintended consequence, the reality is that you have brand-new buildings for charters while district schools are falling apart.  You’re starving one system to fund another.’”

Precisely how does the expansion of charters threaten the public schools in cities where charter networks are rapidly growing?  Lutton describes Chicago, where a district phase-out process leads to the closure of public schools: “Several Chicago high schools this year have freshman classes of just 20, 25, or 30 kids—that’s the entire freshman class.  There are more than two dozen district-run high schools—including neighborhood high schools Fenger, Harper, Hirsch, Manley, Richards, Robeson, and Tilden—with fewer than 400 students total.  A half dozen high schools have fewer than 200 students.  The under-enrollment problems have ballooned as the city has continued to open new high schools—part of its school improvement efforts—even though high school enrollment has been essentially flat.  Since 2004, the population of high school students has grown less than 2 percent, while the number of high schools has grown 58 percent—and that’s not including dozens of alternative schools the city has added.”

Community members and parents in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood mounted a 103 day hunger strike late this summer to preserve a neighborhood public high school at Dyett, a school that would be open to any student in the neighborhood.  After Noble Network Charters received the recent grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Patrick Brosnan, executive director in Chicago’s Brighten Park Neighborhood Council discussed with Lutton what he believes is happening in Chicago’s neighborhoods when charter networks expand: “Brosnan’s group has opposed the new Noble campus proposed for 47th and California for fear it will mean fewer students and thus less funding at nearby Kelly High School, which has seen its population cut by one-third and its budget slashed by $4 million in recent years, as five new schools have opened nearby. ‘It’s basically up for grabs.  They get to make these decisions and make these plans, and there’s really no public discussion about this… I mean, there would be a tremendous impact on existing schools.'”

Michael Milkie, the founder of Noble Network of Charters, has a very different point of view: “This grant can really help us start on that next phase… 20, 30, 40 high schools…. I foresee a day where—I hope—where a majority of the students are educated in either Noble campuses or campuses like that at the high school level.”

What’s going on here?  Over a year ago, Robin Lake, the Director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, creator of the “portfolio school reform model”—that actively supports school choice and whose strategy projects delivering a good choice of school for every child in all neighborhoods and encouraging city school districts to launch charter schools and expand school choice—went to Detroit to see how all this is working.  Last winter, Lake published a scathing analysis in Education Next:  “Whose job is it to fix the problems facing parents in Detroit?  Our interviews with leaders in the city suggest that no one knows the answer.  It is not the state, which defers oversight to local education agencies and charter authorizers.  It is not DPS (Detroit Public Schools), which views charters as a threat to its survival.  It is not charter school authorizers, who are only responsible for ensuring that the schools they sponsor comply with the state’s charter-school law.  It is not the mayor, who thus far sees education as beyond his purview.  And it is not the schools themselves, which only want to fill their seats and serve the children they enroll.  No one in Detroit is responsible for ensuring that all neighborhoods and students have high-quality options or that parents have the information and resources they need to choose a school.  ‘It’s a free-for-all,’ one observer said. ‘We have all these crummy schools around, and nobody can figure out how to get quality back under control….’”

Just perhaps, depending on how the politics play out, there is hope for some containment in Chicago.  Lutton reports: “Chicago’s Board of Education will still have to approve the eight new schools Noble wants to open.  And the hurdles to that have never been higher.  The district is in a financial crisis.  Forty-two aldermen have called for a freeze on charter schools… But the network has the mayor and the governor on its side, along with tens of millions of dollars in projected philanthropic donations.”

One would wish that the U.S. Department of Education, which is making these multi-million dollar grants for charter school expansion, would do something about regulating the schools being launched with federal money.  Last spring the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools wrote a letter to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan demanding a moratorium on the expansion of charter schools until the federal government establishes some regulation.  The Alliance noted a 2012 report from the Department’s own Office of Inspector General that documented the need for far more federal oversight.

During the Senate debate in July on the reauthorization of the federal education law, No Child Left Behind, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown introduced an amendment to provide some oversight of federal investment in the expansion of at least the for-profit charter schools.  Brown declared: “There’s no sector that misspends tax dollars more than these for-profit charter schools.”  “I’m curious that the people that complain about waste, fraud and abuse in government are now standing up to defend these for-profit charters.”

Lead Poisons Children, School Test Scores and Neighborhoods In Vicious, Tragic Cycle

The Rev. John Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ and now a professor and administrator at Chicago Theological Seminary, blogged last week about a Chicago Tribune report on alarming lead poisoning of children in Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods due to reduced public investment in programs to test children for lead poisoning and in abatement programs.

Rev. Thomas writes: “For public school administrators and so called education ‘reformers’ who have fallen in love with testing and metrics…  here’s some data that ought to be of urgent interest.  One: Lead poisoning lowers I.Q. and is associated with lower standardized school test scores, increased rates of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, and increased anti-social behavior.  Two: Lead poisoning among children remains a problem for many of our nation’s children.  Three: Lead poisoning is concentrated in neighborhoods afflicted with high poverty rates while in more affluent neighborhoods lead poisoning is now almost non-existent.  And Four: While investments in school testing have grown over the last two decades, federal, state, and local money for lead testing and abatement among the most at-risk families and neighborhoods has plummeted.”

According to Rev. Thomas, while from 2005 to 2010 Chicago received federal funding of $1.2 million per year for programs to test for and prevent lead poisoning among children, last year federal funding for these programs dropped to $347,000, enough for only eleven inspectors and three nurses.  Today, “Less than half of the children under six in Chicago are tested for lead poisoning.”  Cuts are due to the merging by the Obama administration of lead poisoning and asthma prevention programs, followed by Congressional cuts for such programs through the Centers for Disease Control by 94%.

“Untested children with high levels of lead,” writes Rev. Thomas, “arrive at school with diminished I.Q.s, increased behavioral problems, and a statistically significant propensity to fail standardized tests.  The schools trying to educate these children, as a result, have lower test scores and are subject to punishments of various kinds, including draconian turn around and closure processes.  Closed schools further erode the quality of already distressed neighborhoods… Children from these neighborhoods with high levels of lead poisoning are increasingly concentrated in fewer schools, depressing their test scores, and the cycle continues.”

Rev. Thomas asks the moral question: “What kind of society subjects its children to incessant school testing, with financial consequences for schools if they do not administer the tests, while at the same time neglecting to test those same children for lead poisoning that consigns them to failure on the tests that will determine much about their own educational outcomes?”

I urge you to read Rev. Thomas’s column.

Chicago Cuts Funding for Neighborhood Schools, Continues to Implement Unproven Reforms

Last week Chicago’s school board passed a budget for the 2014-2015 school year that, according to the Chicago Tribune, “cuts funding to traditional schools by $72 million while increasing spending by the same amount for privately run charter and contract schools.” The Tribune reports that this budget reduces funding for neighborhood schools for the second year in a row.

Earlier this summer, Pauline Lipman and researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago, released a report that examines the impact on Chicago’s families of the city’s school governance changes in the past two decades that have rapidly opened unregulated  charter schools while closing a mass of traditional public schools.  Here is the summary that begins that report:

“On May 22, 2013 Chicago’s appointed Board of Education voted to close 50 schools, turn around five others, and co-locate 17 elementary schools, affecting roughly 40,000 students.  This was the largest number of schools closed at one time in the U.S.  Since 2001, Chicago Public Schools has closed, turned-around, phased-out, or consolidated over 150 neighborhood public schools in low-income African American and Latino communities.  This policy has disproportionately affected African American students and communities.  At the same time, CPS has expanded privately run charter and turnaround schools.  These actions should be understood in relation to CPS’ ‘portfolio’ district agenda in which schools are part of a market of largely interchangeable public and private services, rather than stabilizing neighborhood institutions.”

Lipman and her colleagues conducted qualitative research based on extensive interviews with the parents whose children were affected by the most recent school closures and reassignments.  They conclude: “School actions have hit African American students disproportionately.  Some shuttered schools were iconic institutions of African American cultural and intellectual life… Closing a school is a drastic action.  Schools are stable institutions in communities facing the destabilizing effects of public and private disinvestment, poverty, high unemployment, and housing insecurity.  Closing a school may result in children traveling outside their neighborhoods, siblings attending different schools, trauma to children, and the loss of jobs for teachers, as well as other education workers who are often community residents… Nevertheless the trend of closing schools (and replacing public neighborhood schools with charter and ‘choice schools’) is increasing despite very limited data about either its effectiveness in increasing academic performance or the impact closings have on children, families, and communities.”

Another study released in June by a task force appointed by the Illinois General Assembly to study the impact of changes in school facilities and student reassignments raised similar concerns: “In both the 2012 and 2013 School Actions and Closings, communities of color and the most vulnerable students, including those experiencing homelessness and those with disabilities, were impacted the most by CPS’ Actions.  Approximately 90 percent of the students directly impacted by School Actions and Closings in 2012 and 2013 were African American.  An estimated 2,615 homeless students attended the Welcoming Schools and the schools that CPS closed in 2013; 2,097 Special Education students (those with disabilities and Individual Education Plans or IEPs) were impacted.”

The legislatively appointed Chicago Education Facilities Task Force Report concludes overall: “Since the Illinois General Assembly granted Mayoral Control over Chicago’s public school district in 1995, there has been a concentration of decision making about the nature and direction of public education in Illinois’ largest city, and the nation’s 3rd largest school system.  These decisions have had substantial and sometimes drastic immediate and long standing effects on students, families, neighborhoods and the city.  Once former Mayor Richard M. Daley announced his ‘Renaissance 2010’ initiative in 2003 to create 100 new schools by 2010, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has not only opened new schools (mainly charters); the district has also been closing neighborhood public schools and drastically reconfiguring the public school system in other ways.  Since 2008 alone, four different CPS administrations with average tenures of less than 3 years made far-reaching changes and decisions that Chicagoans will live with for generations.  These decisions have determined which students get to go to which schools; how to maintain school facilities; what the district’s capital spending priorities should be, and determined how and when to spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on school repairs, renovations, and new construction.  Yet Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has been making these decisions without adequate educational facilities planning or public input.”

The Sun Times reports that, ironically and perhaps understandably, in the new budget just passed Chicago Public Schools will be spending $1.8 million on its communications department.  One would hope this money will support extensive two-way communications with families and community leaders and not merely slick promotion of what has become known as Chicago School Reform—the type of portfolio school governance plan that Arne Duncan managed in Chicago and subsequently brought to us all, when as U.S. Secretary of Education he launched Race to the Top and a series of related “portfolio” school policies.

Feds Investigating Civil Rights Implications of School Closures in Newark

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.”

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.”