Protesters from 18 cities gathered in Washington last week to tell officials at the U.S. Department of Education how school closings have affected their communities. At an event hosted by the department, the group called for a moratorium on shuttering buildings, action on civil rights complaints against the closings, and a new model for transforming schools that serve racial minorities.
While department officials acknowledged their concerns, they did not provide a promise of action.
The protesters, most of them African-American, say the closings—along with school turnarounds and charter schools, both tools that many policymakers see as important for improving schools—violate minorities’ civil rights.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who oversaw the closings of schools in Chicago when he was the chief executive officer there, gave a welcoming address at the event, which filled the department’s 200-person auditorium. More than 200 other people stood outside the building. During his brief remarks, Mr. Duncan highlighted the academic and financial reasons that lead local officials to close schools.
Many urban school districts have closed large numbers of schools in recent years, because of a combination of enrollment, financial, and academic factors. Chicago, Detroit, New York, and Philadelphia are among the districts that are considering still more closures in the upcoming school year.
Activists from those cities, as well as New Orleans; Oakland, Calif.; Newark, N.J.; Washington; Baltimore; Boston; and Atlanta, took the floor to describe both the divestments of resources from neighborhood schools that preceded the school closings in their communities and the consequences of those closings. The proceedings were emotional: Joel Velasquez, a parent from Oakland, grew teary as he described the loss of neighborhood schools in his city. Student presenters cited Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists, tying the issue to other struggles for equity and opportunity.
Seth Galanter, the acting assistant secretary for the Education Department’s office for civil rights, said the office has opened investigations on school closing complaints in Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, Newark, and New York. But department spokesman Daren Briscoe said that such investigations so far had not found evidence of civil rights violations.
James Shelton of the department’s office of innovation and improvement, referring to 18 school closings across the country that have happened through the federally funded School Improvement Grant program, said that the guidelines for turning around or closing those lowest-performing schools “call specifically for the engagement of communities,” but he acknowledged that execution is often imperfect.
A version of this article appeared in the February 06, 2013 edition of Education Week as Protesters Decry School Closings in Nation’s Cities