PI Original Ellyn Fortino Tuesday May 20th, 2014, 6:50pm

Report: School Closures, Charter Expansion Causing 'Catastrophic' Harm To U.S. Minority Communities

On the heels of the 60th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, which declared state-mandated public school segregation unconstitutional, dozens of grassroots organizations across the country say the push by education "reformers" to close and privatize schools is having a devastating and disproportionate impact on communities of color. Progress Illinois takes a look at a new report on the matter released by Journey for Justice Alliance, a national network of grassroots community groups.

On the heels of the 60th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, which declared state-mandated public school segregation unconstitutional, dozens of grassroots groups across the country say the push by education "reformers" to close and privatize schools is having a devastating and disproportionate impact on communities of color.

The Journey for Justice Alliance (J4J), a national network of 36 community organizations in 22 U.S. cities including Chicago, released a new report which states that public education systems in predominantly black and Latino communities are "dying." 

"Instead of going forward and moving for equality, we have gone backwards," said Helen Moore, a Detroit education activist with J4J, a group dedicated to community-driven school improvement. "The people (who) are responsible for it will not even try to help the traditional public schools (or) the children that go to those schools get a quality education." 

The report, "Death by a Thousand Cuts: Racism, School Closures, and Public School Sabotage," examines the "catastrophic harms" communities in 13 U.S. cities have faced due of the national "epidemic" of school closings, charter school expansion and other "corporate-led" policies, such as school turnarounds, phase-outs and co-locations.

"Not only are these policies failing to produce education outcomes for our children, they're actually doing harm in our community," said Jitu Brown, J4J's national director and an education organizer with the Chicago-based Kenwood Oakland Community Organization. 

"We see good neighborhood schools destabilized as a result of being a receiving school for school closings," Brown continued. "We are seeing young people being put in harms way ... because they're being bused out of their neighborhood or forced to go to a school out of their community. We're seeing the rights of teachers of color shrink in many of our schools. We are seeing entire communities of color disenfranchised to where they don't have a voice to impact the public institutions that they pay for."

The report follows three complaints the Advancement Project, a national, multi-racial civil rights organization, filed last week on behalf of J4J under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in the use of federal funds, alleging "racially discriminatory school closings" in Chicago, New Orleans and Newark, New Jersey. 

The complaints were filed with the Office for Civil Rights of the Department of Education and the Educational Opportunities Section of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. The Chicago-focused complaint was filed "on behalf of African-American students who are enrolled at Dyett High School and Mollison Elementary School, and for all similarly situated African-American students living in the Bronzeville area in the South Side of Chicago who are bearing the harm of racially discriminatory school closings, phase-outs, turnarounds and consolidations."

The Chicago Board of Education in 2012 voted to phaseout Walter H. Dyett High School due to poor academic performance. Dyett is expected to close completely in 2015. A coalition of Chicago educators, parents and South Side activists are vehemently opposed to the closure of Dyett High School. The "Coalition to Revitalize Dyett High School" has put together a proposal to keep the school open and transition it into a "Global Leadership and Green Technology" neighborhood high school. Chicago school district officials, however, have said there is "currently no plan to keep Dyett High School open beyond its scheduled closure next year." 

The other school mentioned in the complaint, Irvin C. Mollison Elementary, is the designated welcoming school for displaced students from nearby Anthony Overton Elementary School, which was shuttered last year as part of a record number of Chicago public school closings.

Brown said J4J and the Advancement Project are currently working to get a meeting with Attorney General Eric Holder regarding the concerns cited in the complaints. Brown said the groups "feel confident" that a meeting with Holder will take place. 

Meanwhile, the J4J report noted that Detroit, New York and Chicago have each seen more than 100 public schools close in recent years. Last year alone, the Chicago Board of Education approved the closure of 50 public schools in the city, mostly located in areas on the South and West Sides serving predominantly African-American and Latino students.

And several urban cities including Columbus, Ohio; Pittsburgh; St. Louis; Houston; Philadelphia; Washington, D.C.; Kansas City; Milwaukee, and Baltimore have each seen the curtain dropped on at least 25 public schools over the last few years. New Orleans' Recovery School District, meanwhile, will soon become the first all-charter school district in the United States. The district's remaining traditional public schools are set to close in September.

The J4J report points out that "there has been a massive shift in resources from public entities to private organizations, especially within low-income communities of color," across the country in recent years. At the same time, urban public school districts in particular have been "shrinking rapidly." 

Proponents of charters say the schools, which are independently run but receive public money and often raise private funds through foundations and philanthropists, provide families with alternative school choices.

But J4J members say the national charter expansion movement is led by "education profiteers" and targets neighborhoods of color. Critics of charter expansion say the movement has accelerated in such a way that it poses a "grave threat to the health of public education in our communities." There are some charter schools that do provide high-quality, well-rounded education, J4J writes in its report, but they are "far from the norm and typically aren't the schools that policymakers are seeking to replicate."

More often than not, the charters that have opened, particularly in communities of color, offer a "second-class education, if not worse," according to J4J.

Between the 2005-2006 and 2012-2013 academic years, the number of students enrolled in charter schools more than doubled in 13 of the 20 school districts analyzed in the report. Cities such as Indianapolis and Memphis have seen charter school enrollment at least triple over the same time period.

In Chicago, charter school enrollment more than doubled between the 2005-2006 and 2012-2013 school years. At the same time, overall public school enrollment in the Windy City declined by 14 percent.

Meanwhile, total public school enrollment dropped by 21 percent in Philadelphia, 25 percent in St. Louis and 32 percent in Cleveland during the same time period, to name a few examples.

"Public school districts are shrinking around the country and charter school enrollment is skyrocketing, not because parents are voting with their feet, but because school districts are basically sabotaging public neighborhood schools, and as those schools deteriorate, parents look for somewhere stable to send their child," Brown said.

In its report, J4J called on policymakers to take a number of "action steps" to help create a "truly just education system":

1. The U.S. Department of Education should replace its four school “turnaround” models with the “Sustainable School Success Model.” 

2. President Obama should call for a national moratorium on school closures and charter school expansion and spearhead the creation of a “Public School Bailout and Revitalization Fund.”

3. Congress should revoke all tax credits and other incentives for charter school investment and replace them with equivalent incentives to invest in public schools.

4. All charter schools that fail to both provide an innovative educational model that is unavailable in local public schools and demonstrate superior performance in educating all of their students should not have their charters renewed.

5. The White House Domestic Policy Council, United Nations, and Permanent Court of International Justice (or “World Court”) should participate in a “Grassroots Impact Tour” of the communities affected by mass school closures to hear from students, parents, educators, and community members, and witness the community-wide effects.

6. Due to the harm inflicted on our communities by corporate education interventions, the Journey for Justice Alliance seeks a Senate hearing on the impact of these policies.

Regarding action step number six, Brown said the alliance is "working on the logistics" with some supportive senators about a possible hearing in the U.S. Senate. 

As far as a federal moratorium on school closures and charter school expansion, Brown acknowledged, "That's a heavy lift."

"We are prepared, as the people directly impacted [by these policies], to do the work ... that it's going to take to show the public disgust with these policies," he said. "We have people power and we are going to mobilize to make sure that we kill the privatization movement."

"We understand that community-driven school improvement and education for profit cannot coexist. They can't," Brown stressed. "So our goal is to make sure that these entities are held accountable and that the schools that exist in our communities are accountable to the people who fund them."

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