Friday, May 16, 2014

Death by a Thousand Cuts: Racism, School Closures, and Public School Sabotage

Journey for Justice has just issued a new report Death by a Thousand Cuts: Racism, School Closures, and Public School Sabotage. It’s well researched and heavily footnoted, but more than that, it is a powerful, moving piece of social and political commentary:

The move toward the expansion of charter schools, and away from public schools, in communities of color has been staggeringly swift, and it is accelerating, creating a grave threat to the health of public education in our communities. To be clear, we are not opposed to a small number of community-based charter schools offering high-quality, innovative services that cannot be provided by our local public schools. But we are adamantly opposed to the overarching agenda of the “reformers” pushing these policies, which is to have charter schools replace our public schools. Unfortunately, they have been remarkably successful in recent years.

The Perversity of “Reformers” Claiming the Mantle of the Civil Rights Movement

To justify this radical transformation to the public, the pro­ponents of these policies have taken to talking about them as matters of racial and social justice. In fact, many of the lead “reformers” – such as Secretary Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates, Rahm Emanuel, and Michael Bloomberg – have repeatedly attempted to justify their actions by claiming that school closures and the expansion of charter schools are a critical part of the “civil rights movement of our time,” and that they are primarily intended to benefit the students and families within low-income communities of color across the country. As the residents of the communities most affected by school closures and charter school expansion, we must take issue with this rhetorical deception.

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 family 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 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.

Meanwhile, the dramatic expansion of charter schools has done nothing to address the root causes of the challenges our communities face. Though it has created a whole set of new problems, such as the proliferation of highly-regimented and excessively narrow educational approaches, admissions and disciplinary practices that exclude students with the greatest educational needs, inexperienced teaching staffs with high turnover rates, and limited transparency and public accountability.

Third, while the proponents of these policies may like to think they are implementing them for us or even with us, the reality is that they have been done to us. All of these changes have been implemented despite widespread and passionate opposition from the affected communities. Time and time again, the extraordinary wealth and power behind these policies have been used to override the will of our communities; to bully our communities into accepting these changes. Why our communities? Largely because it was perceived that we lacked the political power to withstand such bullying, and that there would be limited public outcry over such dramatic changes within low-income communities of color.

Fourth, the policies being implemented have unquestionably been racially discriminatory. That is not to say that the individu­als responsible are “racists” who are deliberately closing schools in our communities and expanding the use of charter schools because they want to harm our children. What it does mean is that within the set of political, economic, and social forces that are producing these changes, there are strong tendencies to treat our communities differently than other communities would be treated.

Racism, in this form, has consistently and repeatedly manifested itself by the “reformers” being:
  • Less concerned about the harm caused by school closures to the people in our communities;
  • More willing to destabilize the democratic institutions in our communities;
  • More concerned about cost savings than the educational and developmental needs of students with respect to the schools in our communities;
  • More willing to subject our children and youth to unprov­en education policies;
  • Less willing to accept that our communities know what is best for our children;
  • Less concerned with providing experienced teachers, small class sizes, and well-rounded curricula to our children and youth;
  • More willing to subject our children and youth to standardized-test-driven curricula;
  • Less concerned about the massive number of students being pushed out of school within our communities because of school closures and charter school expansion; and
  • More willing to implement a privatized education system – that is not designed to educate every one of our children and youth – in our communities.

There is simply no way our communities would be losing our public school systems were it not for the pervasiveness of these biases. It is only possible because of how policymakers and the broader public view our communities. As a result, we face a legitimate crisis in our Nation’s communities of color, as the institutions that have long served as sanctuaries, as lifelines, and as our escape route from the oppressive conditions we face, are being taken from us as part of the “civil rights movement of our time”…

The Hypocrisy of the Reformers’ “Movement”

To be clear, we are the first to admit that there is an urgent need to improve educational quality in our communities, and others like ours around the country. Indeed, nobody has a bet­ter understanding of school failure than we do. And nobody is more invested in improving our schools than we are.

But when the so-called “reformers” use our “failing schools” as justification for closing them, or privatizing them, they claim that the primary failings exist within those schools. They act as if there were no underlying cause for the often-unsound educational practices, or frequently uneven teaching capacity, that exist within our schools. They confuse these symptoms of the problem with the problem itself, which is that our public schools have been persistently under-resourced, under-supported, and undermined for decades, including by many of the same people that now purport to “fix” them. The harsh reality is that the equitable education of our children has never been a priority for education policymakers. Thus, our school budgets have been slashed, our teaching and support staffs have been depleted, our class sizes have been increased, and our schools have been continually slandered in the media. Not surprisingly, our best educators leave for jobs where they are valued and supported. And the families with means also seek out better options, whether by leaving the district, going to a private school, or trying one of the brand-new charter schools that are being given preferential treatment in policy, glowing media coverage, and the resources that had formerly been in our public schools.

In other words, when our schools have been closed because they are “failing,” it has typically been the result of our federal, state, and local policymakers being unwilling to provide that school with the support required to meet the needs its students. When our schools have been closed because they are “under-utilized,” it has usually been the result of charter schools being put in direct competition with public schools or families being driven away from the district by the effects of under-funding or previous school closures. When our schools have been closed because of insufficient resources, the real ex­planation has been federal, state, and local funding cuts, and the lack of political will to save public schools.

Have the “reformers,” who are supposedly acting on our behalf, objected when our children and youth suffered as a result of public school budget cuts?

Have they protested the closure of schools that our communities hold dear?

Have they objected to the reality that the expansion of the charter school sector has come at the expense of students within the public school sector?

Rarely, if ever. They have been largely content to let our public schools die while praising the policymakers who killed them for being willing to “tighten their belts” and “refusing to accept failure.”

The reality is that while the “reformers” continually talk about their “movement,” it is led by – and largely comprised of – the super-wealthy and privileged class, with very little representa­tion from the communities they claim to be helping. In fact, there is hardly anyone who supports public school closures and charter school expansion who does not have a direct financial stake in school privatization (though there are, admittedly, individual students and parents who have benefited from placement in a particular charter school, and the “reformers” are quick to use them as spokespeople in defense of the much broader systemic changes). And the hypocrisy within their “movement” is becoming increasingly absurd:
  • The core premise of charter schools was that they were to be given increased freedom from rules and regulations in exchange for improved academic achievement, and yet we now have over 20 years of data demonstrating that they are no more effective, on average, than public schools (even if we judge them by the extremely-limited, standardized-test-based metrics they prefer).
  • The original charter schools were designed to be small “laboratories for innovation” that could generate new instructional strategies for use in public schools, yet after all of these years, they have been unable to point to any distinguishing characteristic of charter schools that produces improved educational quality. Nor that have identified a single education innovation that couldn’t be replicated just as easily in public schools if provided the appropriate resources.
  • The original charter schools were supposed to work with the students that the public schools had the hardest time teaching; now, we have ample evidence that they educate fewer of those students than the surrounding public schools.
  • Instead of the individual, community-based charter schools that were initially intended, the dominant trend is toward large corporate franchises of charter schools such as KIPP, Rocketship, and Green Dot.
  • “Reformers” view charter schools as inherently superior to public schools, but that appears to only apply to low-income communities of color, because attempts to replace public schools with charter schools in predominantly White areas are exceedingly rare.
  • “School choice” was supposed to provide parents with a multitude of high-quality options for their children, but after all these years, our parents still have nothing approaching a meaningful choice. We are still left fighting over crumbs in a thoroughly unequal, stratified system that undervalues the education of our children.

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