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Leigh Owens

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The Attack On Public Education Is A Civil Rights Issue

Posted: 01/30/2013 9:09 am

Sunday morning, on the Melissa Harris-Perry show the MSNBC journalist dedicated a segment to the school closings epidemic that has swept across the country in every major city, an epidemic that has -- up until Sunday been virtually ignored by national media.

Detroit alone has already shut down 300 public schools, followed by New York City with 140. Chicago, DC, and Philadelphia are all set to close down dozens of public schools this year, 18 cities in total are following this trend in predominantly neighborhoods of color.

The popular explanation for this assault on public education is that the schools chosen for closure are 'unsuccessful,' or are undeserving the students -- a claim that is mostly based on standardized test scores. The problem with placing this much emphasis on standardized tests is that it does not adequately depict the diverse ways in which students learn, develop and grow, educationally. Standardized tests can only measure how students retain the information given to them over a particular course of time and generally does not even gauge how well the information is actually understood. These tests do not take into account issues a student may have such as test anxiety, which could hinder a student from performing well on a test where the student was an expert on the subject matter.

In Philadelphia, where I formerly worked for an elected official, I saw first hand the city's most underperforming schools and noticed that they were always in poverty, drug stricken neighborhoods. I met with students who told me that they had not eaten all weekend, yet are expected to perform on the same level as students who have every tool they need to succeed. There is no doubt that a school's surroundings have a direct impact in its students' performance. When a child has to worry about being robbed or jumped on his way to school by the neighborhood thugs, or has barriers in their home which are counterproductive to the child's success they will almost always underperform.

Not enough efforts have been made in the city of Philadelphia to address the kind of social service related factors and criminal elements that prevent children from obtaining a quality education. Shutting down the schools has been the preferred method of how to 'help' these underserved boys and girls Yet, recently the city unveiled a brand new, state of the art youth detention center where they will undoubtedly house many of the students affected by these mass closings.

In Chicago, Philadelphia and Detroit, which in recent years have led the country in homicides it is frightening to think where the city's youth will turn when their schools are shut down. Proponents of these closings have offered alternatives like online education, or charter schools. However, unless you have reliable internet an online school is not an option, and for students in many neighborhoods, a charter school is equally unrealistic, given the random selections, or travel requirements that cannot be met. Additionally, charter schools were never designed to replace public schools, they were put in place as an alternative.

Among the many implications of shutting down so many schools in poor neighborhoods of color is the complete overhaul of public school desegregation, which is something that as an '80s baby I brushed shoulders with in grade school. I can remember in 1985 when I was just beginning grade school, being turned away from public schools in my neighborhood because they had reached the allocated number black children, yet the more underserved schools in the very same neighborhood was overcrowded, full of only black students and apathetic teachers.

The fight to save public education is an issue of civil rights, because the students who are being attacked are generally poor children of color. In cities like New York, where "stop and frisk" laws give police authority to harass and detain innocent young blacks and latinos or in Philadelphia, where the message is that incarcerating students is more important than educating them, or in Chicago, where a student's education could be the difference between life or death, so far they have failed our children miserably. A country that does not invest in its children's education is a country that does not desire longevity.

 

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