School & District Management Opinion

Devastating Report Condemns Corporate Reform as Civil Rights Fraud

By Anthony Cody — May 16, 2014 3 min read
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As the 60th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education arrives, a report has been released by the Journey 4 Justice Alliance, a coalition of community, youth and parent-led organizations, which declares corporate education reform a civil rights fraud.

Death by a Thousand Cuts: Racism, School Closures and Public School Sabotage, Voices from America’s Affected Communities of Color,” ought to be required reading for every citizen and policy maker in the nation. While the nation is capable of identifying racism in the words of an 80 year old basketball team owner, we seem to have lost the ability to stop the re-segregation of our schools, and those who claim to be “civil rights” leaders are sometimes contributing to the problems.

The report begins by explaining the source of destructive policies:

Right-wing conservatives have long sought to eliminate public goods such as public education, and dismantle organized labor, especially teachers' unions. Thus, for decades they have advocated - often successfully - for cutting spending to public schools. They have also long pursued the replacement of public schools with non-unionized, privately managed schools that receive public funds, either through a voucher system or a system of charter schools. Their privatization proposals received little support until they were joined by billionaires willing to invest heavily in education reform such as Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the Walton family; members of the business community, especially Wall Street and large corporations, who realized there is considerable profit to be made by outsourcing education to private management; and Democratic policymakers who bought into (or were at least willing to promote) the unproven assertion that privatization and "school choice" would create improved educational opportunities for students. As a result of this political shift, there emerged a well-organized and extraordinarily well-funded group of individuals and organizations that has exploited any political opening they could find to destabilize neighborhood public schools - almost exclusively within communities of color - and instead promote the expansion of charter schools.

These policies have resulted in school closures and the expansion of more selective charter schools in the communities represented by this coalition - predominately low-income communities of color. The report’s authors point out that in spite of prominent reformers donning the mantle of the modern “civil rights movement,” corporate reform is no ally.

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. Because we are the students they claim to be doing this for. We are the parents and fam- ily members that they claim to be helping. 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. Closing a school is one of the most traumatic things that can happen to a community; it strikes at the very core of community culture, history, and identity, and produces far-reaching repercussions that negatively affect every aspect of community life. It has been nothing short of devastating to the health and development of many of our children and youth, has put a strain on our families, has contributed to the destabilization and deterioration of our communities, has undermined many good schools and effective school improvement efforts, has destroyed relationships with quality educators, and has contributed to increased community violence. It also frequently triggers a downward spiral from which many school systems have yet to escape. Indeed, one of the most likely outcomes from school closures is that additional ones will soon follow, to the point that many of our communities no longer have a single public school in them.

The report describes this process in detail, drawing on the voices and experiences of people affected by these “reforms.” And those quoted make it very clear that the core problem is racism and systemic disempowerment.

We have seen school closures closely tied to the expansion of charter schools, which have become, in effect, parasitic in these communities. The dimensions and impact of these changes are described, with testimony from parents of disabled children who find themselves no longer “a good fit” for any school in their community. The link between “zero tolerance” charters schools and the school-to-prison pipeline is laid bare. As the report states, “While Secretary Duncan may want to eliminate the school-to-prison pipeline, the reality is that his policies are creating entirely new sections of that pipeline for our children and youth.”

It is hard to write about this report without simply quoting the entire document. The authors identify the problems, and also call for six “Necessary Action Steps,” which should be endorsed by everyone in the movement to support public education. Here are those steps:

  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.

The election of Ras Baraka this week shows that there is a new energy emerging in communities most affected by corporate reform. It is encouraging to see this clarity of purpose and upsurge of activism. One of the core concepts that will make it possible for this to grow is the healing of divisions that have been sown between teachers and community members. The report states:

To be sure, our public education system has never been as effective or as equitable as it should have been. Nevertheless, it took decades of unified struggle by students, parents, teachers, and other community members to achieve the admittedly flawed system that we now have. School closures undermine that unity and imperil future efforts to address our deep, structural barriers to education justice. For example, many "reformers" have attempted - and in many cases, succeeded - in driving a wedge between low-income communities of color and the teachers that serve their schools by placing the blame for budget crises and under-performing schools squarely on teachers' unions. Additionally, the emphasis on "school choice" - without providing high-quality choices for all - has exploited parents' desperation and forced communities to compete against each other for scarce educational resources.

When others seek to divide, we must seek unity. This week will see numerous actions across the country organized by various coalitions. The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools has listed events here. Another coalition of educators and parents is organizing the Taking Back Our Schools protest this Saturday in New York City.

What do you think? Does this report provide new insights for the movement for public education and civil rights?

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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.