WASHINGTON -- The standards-based education reform movement calls school change "the civil rights issue of our time." But about 220 mostly African American community organizers, parents and students from 21 cities from New York to Oakland, Calif., converged on Washington Tuesday to tell U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan he's getting it backwards on school closures.
Members of the group, a patchwork of community organizations called the Journey for Justice Movement, have filed several Title VI civil rights complaints with the Education Department Office of Civil Rights, claiming that school districts that shut schools are hurting minority students. While most school closures are decided locally, the Education Department's School Improvement Grant gives underperforming school districts money for shakeups or turnarounds, including closures.
The meeting became heated at times. "The voices of the people directly impacted can no longer be ignored," said Jitu Brown, an organizer from the South Side of Chicago. "This type of mediocrity is only accepted because of the race of the students who are being served." He called school closures "a violation of our human rights," since many communities are left without neighborhood schools after districts shut them down.
"We are not Astroturf groups," Brown continued. "We are not people who are paid by private interests to appear."
Helen Moore, an organizer from Detroit, said the current reform movement is tantamount to racism. "We are now reverting back to slavery," she said. "All the things that are happening are by design, by design, by design. They don't want our children to have an education, but we'll fight to the death."
Members of the Obama administration, including Duncan and Obama education advisor Roberto Rodriguez, were in attendance. The Obama administration has been repeatedly admonished for ignoring racial issues. Duncan opened the meeting by saying his job was to listen. "As populations go down, a lot of changes have to be made," Duncan said. He called for a recognition of common goals and intentions. But due to his schedule, he left the meeting after 45 minutes, leading to a quick "Where is Duncan? Where is Duncan?" chant.
Over the last few years, cities have used closing schools as a strategy to raise student performance or to save money. Philadelphia, New York and Chicago are among cities considering even larger waves of closures. Philadelphia, for example, is slated to close 37 schools by June. But organizer Brown argued that shutting schools hurts communities and poses major safety threats to kids who have to travel further to go to school.
The Office of Civil Rights, responsible for enforcing federal civil rights laws, is investigating school closings in cities that include Detroit and Philadelphia. From Oct. 21, 2010, to Jan. 1, 2013, the Office of Civil Rights has investigated 27 school closings, finding insufficient evidence of civil rights violations in every case. Currently, the office has 33 open cases involving 29 school districts in 22 states, officials said. Tuesday's meeting had no bearing on the investigation procedure.
The protest goal is a moratorium on school closures, phaseouts and turnarounds. Brown has met with Duncan and other Education officials before, and said he wants to take his case to Attorney General Eric Holder and President Barack Obama. Duncan's spokesman, Daren Briscoe, said the Education Department doesn't have the power to impose a moratorium. The department controls less than 10 percent of the nation's public school dollars, and most school closures are locally decided, he said.
Schools are closed for reasons ranging from cost to underuse. Brown argued that if Duncan suspended the School Improvement Grant program, he could stop some closures and turnarounds, while "changing the tone" surrounding closings. (School closures, though, are seldom done through School Improvement Grants.)
A Pew Foundation report on school closures found that "academic studies suggest that student achievement often falls during the final months of a closing school’s existence." And a recent audit of Washington's closures found that a recent wave cost $8 million more than originally projected.
But still, school districts are pressing forward with closure plans. Chicago is expected to decide on the number of schools it will close soon. Aquila Griffin, 17, spoke at the Tuesday event, saying she recently left a Chicago high school that was being "phased out." As the school lost students in its last days, it shed teachers, computers and classes that made it stand out, Griffin said.
"Now students are walking into the back of the school building like sharecroppers from the 1930s," Griffin said. She invoked the Martin Luther King Jr. maxim on judging people not on the color of their skin, but on the merits of their character. "My judgment of the [Department of Education] is, how do you plan to correct the wrong you let happen in the first place?" She received a standing ovation.