School & District Management Opinion

Civil Rights Leaders Condemn Privatization of Prisons and Schools

By Anthony Cody — August 26, 2013 2 min read
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Speakers at this weekend’s March for Justice in Washington, DC, drew attention to the failed war on drugs, and called for its end as one step towards reducing the number of people incarcerated in America. On the Melissa Harris-Perry show, a former Baltimore circuit judge named Billy Murphy spoke out as well.

The war on drugs is the 800-pound gorilla that must be killed. The private prison industry is sucking the life out of the black community. ... it is the enemy of progress for black people.

Murphy drew attention to a speech earlier this month by the nation’s Attorney General, Eric Holder, who called for dramatic changes as well, including ending mandatory sentencing laws. Holder also said it was time to:

...confront the "school-to-prison pipeline" and those zero-tolerance school discipline policies that do not promote safety, and that transform too many educational institutions from doorways of opportunity into gateways to the criminal justice system. A minor school disciplinary offense should put a student in the principal's office and not a police precinct.

One of the most remarkable speeches in Washington last weekend was nine-year-old Asean Johnson. Here is what he had to say:

I am marching for education, justice and freedom. All over the country public education is under attack. Public schools are closing in African American and Latino communities. In Chicago we have 50 school closings in African American and Latino communities, budget cuts in all public schools and an increase in charter school budgets, and new charter school openings. Every child deserves a great education. Every school deserves equal funding and resources. I encourage all of you to keep Dr. Martin Luther King jr's dream alive. Help us fight for freedom, racial equality, jobs, and public education, because I have a dream that we shall overcome.

Asean Johnson first came to our attention when he called out Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel for his decision to close public schools. This policy is being repeated, with tacit and overt support from the Obama administration, in communities of color across the nation. These communities are losing one of the anchors they need to thrive. Civil rights leaders have begun to speak out more forcefully on this issue. How can “education reform” be the “civil rights issue of our time” if its proponents are closing schools in African American and Latino communities?

A press release arrived this morning with news of a series of actions by the Journey for Justice this week:

As the nation marks the 50th anniversary of the March On Washington, Journey for Justice Alliance (J4J) members agenda is similar: racial justice and equal opportunity for all children - regardless of color, class or community - to a quality and safe education.
Across the nation leaders will hold actions demanding a stop to school closings that destabilize communities, create school deserts with no right-of-access to public schools, and do not improve low-income students academic performance.
National Journey for Justice Alliance demands include:

  • Moratorium on all school closings, turnarounds, phase outs and charter expansions
  • Its proposal for Sustainable School Transformation to replace failed intervention strategies for struggling schools.
  • U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to be held accountable for discriminatory, top-down policies that target communities of color and have not improved student outcomes.
WHEN: Events will be held Tuesday, August 27th - Thursday, August 29th, 2013
WHY: A clear pattern of documented racial and economic discrimination has demonstrated that while there have been advances in the nation, as shown by the election of the nation's first black president, the federal administration's policies have embodied education strategies that continue to perpetuate racial and class bias and support inequality in education.
Despite research showing that closing public schools does not improve test scores or graduation rates, the federal agenda has incentivized the privatization of schools with primary fall out on low-income communities of color. Explosive school closings resulting from this agenda violates the United Nations proclamation of 1948, Article 26 establishing the inalienable human right of every child - regardless of race, income or community -- to receive a quality education in a safe environment.

The Journey for Justice folks organized young people to testify about the terrible impact of school closures on their communities last spring. Their Facebook page is here.

This is one more piece of evidence that the edifice of corporate reform is crumbling. The Civil Rights movement of our time is confronting the War on Drugs and the privatization of prisons and public schools. Modern civil rights activists are opposing school closures, budget cuts and top-down test-driven reforms. Eric Holder has taken steps towards ending the War on Drugs. Will we see any shift in policy from President Obama’s Department of Education on these concerns about our schools?

What do you think? Are school closures in African American and Latino communities an issue of civil rights? Is it time to reject privatization of prisons and public schools?

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The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.