Closing Schools Violates Civil Rights, Targets Minorities, Protesters Say

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — January 30, 2013 5 min read
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In a crowded room in the U.S. Department of Education building in southwest Washington, protesters from 18 cities gathered to tell department officials how school closings have affected their communities—and to call for a moratorium on school closings, action on civil rights complaints against the closings, and a new model for transforming schools that serve racial minorities.

The department’s 200-person auditorium was full to capacity, and a long line of activists waited outside during the two-hour event, preparing for a march to the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial for an evening vigil. The message wasn’t subtle: “Education + Employment = Life,” read one shirt worn by hundreds of protesters. On its back: “No schools + no jobs = Death.”

The attendees at the “Journey for Justice” forum included many who attended a similar protest against closings in Washington in the fall and last spring’s Save Our Schools march. The protesters, most of them African-American, say the closings—along with school turnarounds and the growth of charter schools, two other tools many policymakers see as important for improving schools—violate minorities’ civil rights.

“We know and we are clear that the civil rights of our young people are violated every day,” said Jitu Brown, an organizer with Kenwood Oakland Community Organization in Chicago.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who oversaw the closings of school in Chicago when he was the superintendent there, gave a welcoming address at the event, which was referred to as a “community hearing,” on the fraught issue. Duncan highlighted the academic and financial reasons reasons that lead many local officials to close schools. He departed shortly afterward (prompting a few rounds of a “Where’s Duncan?” chant).

Students, teachers, parents, and community members from Chicago, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Oakland, Detroit, Newark, Washington, Baltimore, Boston, and Atlanta took the floor to describe divestments of resources from neighborhood schools that preceded the school closings in their communities. And they said the closings had led to violence and disrupted communities without necessarily leading to better schools. Many urban school districts have closed large numbers of schools in recent years, due to a combination of enrollment, financial, and academic factors. (The issues are slightly different in each case.) Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago are among the districts that are considering still more closures in the upcoming school year.

The proceedings were emotional: Joel Velasquez, a parent from Oakland, grew teary as he described the loss of neighborhood schools in his city. He called on President Obama to pay attention to the issue, which he said was ignored. Helen Moore, an activist from Detroit, said that current education reform was leading back to times of slavery. Student presenters cited Martin Luther King Jr. and civil rights activists as they described schools undergoing a series of leadership changes and losing music classes, art instruction, and other programs.

Karran Harper Royal, an activist from New Orleans, said that while closings might result in schools that look better on paper—though they often do not—students’ learning suffers along the way. “Let’s talk about improving children, not improving schools,” she said. She said that closing neighborhood schools takes away a choice from parents.

Roberto Rodriguez, a special assistant to the president on education policy, addressed the protesters, saying that they and the president “have a common vision in supporting communities and making sure they have a voice for change around their schools.” He cautioned the crowd that there are a “lot of decisionmakers in ed reform,” saying that not all change could come from the federal level.

Other federal officials responded to some of the charges at the hearing. Seth Galanter, the acting assistant secretary for the Education Department’s office for civil rights, said that the office has opened investigations on school closing complaints in Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, Newark, and New York. He emphasized that the department did not yet know if the school closings were discriminatory and violated federal law. “Sometimes people are going to be negatively affected by a decision, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to constitute discrimination,” he said.

Department spokesman Daren Briscoe said that investigations into school closings so far had not found evidence of civil rights violations.

But Galanter acknowledged the protesters’ anger, saying, “we know that race discrimination still exists in the United States.”

Jim Shelton of the office of innovation and improvement said that the protesters and the department were in agreement about many of the most important pieces. He said that the federal guidelines for turning around or closing schools “call specifically for the engagement of communities.”

While Shelton said that engaging communities was already encouraged by the federal government, Zakiyah Ansari, an advocacy director for the Alliance for Quality Education, a community group in New York City, said that was different than actually requiring community buy-in. “If you don’t require it, it won’t happen,” Ansari said.

Shelton acknowledged that the work is often less than perfect. “We can put out a framework for how that happens,” he said, but there is often tension between that framework and “how it translates on the ground.”

The event wasn’t the first time such complaints have been heard by representatives of the federal Education Department, including Duncan, said department spokesman Briscoe. He also emphasized that there was a distinction between the closings that have happened through the federally funded School Improvement Grant program—that’s only 18 closings so far—and those that have happened due to underenrollment or poor performance at the local level.

Photo: “Journey for Justice” demonstrators march through the streets of Washington on Tuesday, calling for a moratorium on school closings. --Jared Soares for Education Week

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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.