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School closures as a civil rights struggle

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    Photo: Harvey Finkle




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Across the country and here in Philadelphia, schools are being closed, schools that are disproportionally concentrated in poor communities of color and that serve urban students with the greatest needs.

Chicago is the most dramatic example. African American students make up 42 percent of the school population but nearly all of the enrollment at schools that are being closed or phased out.  

In Philadelphia, both last year’s school closings and the current planned closures reflect this pattern. While 55 percent of the overall student population is African American, 79 percent of the students in schools projected to close are African American.

This has not gone unnoticed. In September, students from Youth United for Change, Philadelphia Student Union, and their allies rallied on the steps of School District headquarters with coffins for closed schools. They were part of an eight-city Journey for Justice that traveled to Washington to press their case that school closings are a violation of civil rights law. The demonstration was organized by members of the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS), a labor community alliance that is fighting school closings here.

ACTION United, a PCAPS member that advocates for low-income residents, filed a complaint under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, citing data that closing the targeted schools would hit poor African American and Latino families, as well as special needs students, the hardest. The Justice Department has agreed to investigate.

It’s not only organized groups who are raising this issue. At a huge rally at Dobbins High School in North Philadelphia, parents and students charged the District with singling out their community. Twelve schools in North Philadelphia are targeted for closing. Why, speakers wanted to know, were their schools being shuttered? For some, this was a rhetorical question. Unequal treatment in education is not exactly unheard of in a community that has never known anything but segregated, under-resourced schools.  

Is the verdict in on neighborhood schools?

Superintendent William Hite had an answer of sorts. Enrollment has declined, he has said, because parents have voted with their feet, leaving neighborhood schools to attend charters. The District has no money and can’t keep open schools that are, in some cases, more than half empty and in poor condition.   

There is no question that many parents have pulled up stakes and moved to charter schools. But, as the response to closures demonstrates, this does not mean that the community wants to do away with neighborhood schools. Rather, it reflects popular frustration with the quality of education at these schools.

Charters have marketed themselves as alternatives and have created a perception that they are, at the very least, safer. But the surveys and listening sessions conducted by PCAPS suggest that, all things being equal, most parents would rather send their children to traditional neighborhood public schools. Treating the choices that parents make as education consumers as political choices is misleading.

Charter schools' gains, many suggest, depend on an uneven playing field with policies that allow for selective admission and retention. The present system of school choice has drained social capital from neighborhood schools and increased social segregation, with the children who have the greatest needs concentrated in these traditional, neighborhood schools. Meanwhile, magnet and charter schools skim off large numbers of engaged parents and motivated students.

Although the charter school lobby trumpets school choice as a civil rights slogan, the fact of the matter is that urban school systems, charters included, continue to fail the same children, the same families and the same communities that have been historically disenfranchised by Jim Crow segregation and institutional racism as it has evolved in the post-Brown decision school world.    

While poverty and institutional racism drive educational outcomes in America, corporate school reformers, like Michelle Rhee, instead focus on an agenda of eliminating tenure and weakening teacher unions.

Education apartheid

School closures exacerbate the problem, but they are only the tip of the race and class iceberg. Virtually every measure of school quality reveals a gulf between the White and affluent, on the one hand, and poor, working-class people who are disproportionately Black or brown on the other. Schools serving this population are typically under-resourced and lack things like art, music, certified librarians, full-time nurses, security staff, state of the art technology. Buildings are, typically, old, lack air conditioning, and often have serious safety issues. Instructional staff is overburdened by large classes and minimal support. Teacher turnover is high, and there are fewer experienced teachers, a problem that is fueled by lower salaries and a management style that discourages innovation and collaboration. And while schools in affluent communities are governed by locally elected school boards, urban communities are more often than not shut out of governance by mayoral or state-appointed bodies. It is a homegrown version of education apartheid.

To some, like the Daily News, the notion that African American or Latino elected officials or school leaders could pursue policies that have a negative impact on families of color is unworthy of serious consideration. This ignores the whole post-civil rights movement experience in this country, which demonstrates that institutional racism is not ameliorated simply by replacing white faces with black ones. Surely, it is not news that some black leaders, like Adrian Fenty, former mayor of Washington, D.C., and Mayor Michael Nutter here, are more responsive to big business interests and White middle-class voters than working-class African Americans. 

To realize the promise of the Brown decision and insure real equality in schools is now, as then, a massive challenge that will require a political mobilization on both a local and national scale. It will require linking the fight for decent schools to the fight for jobs and against income inequality. It surely will not come out of closing schools, cutting budgets, and promoting privatization in the form of charter schools. 

Yes, demographic changes will require some school closings, but this must be done transparently with the participation of impacted communities and must ensure, at the very least, no harm is done to students and their families. That is not the case with the current plan, which is why the call for a one-year moratorium on closing schools makes good sense.

Ron Whitehorne is a retired Philadlephia teacher and is on the steering committee of the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS).

The opinions expressed in this guest post are solely those of the author. The Notebook invites readers to submit posts on current topics in education. Send submissions to


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