For US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the explosive consequences of urban school closings should be nothing new.
In February 2005, a student at Englewood High School asked Duncan, then-CEO of Chicago Public Schools, a series of tough questions: “You renovated Comiskey Park and renamed it US Cellular Field. Did that make the [White Sox] any better? Did that make the team any worse? If you close down Englewood, rename it, turn it into a smaller charter school, will that make the kids any better or any worse? All this money…invest that in some books, invest that into computers, invest that into high speed internet within our schools.”
Englewood became one of dozens of schools shut down during Duncan’s eight-year tenure. Upon entering the Cabinet in 2009, Duncan announced his ambition to close 1,000 schools per year for 5 years nationwide.
Recently, as the secretary was in West Virginia wrapping up his two-week Education Drives America bus tour, student and community groups from Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans, and cities across the East Coast converged on the US Department of Education with passionate testimony about the desperate plight of so many public school students today.
The marchers, on a self-billed “Journey for Justice,” got part of what they wanted: a commitment from US Department of Education officials to hold hearings in January on the impact of federal school policies on communities of color. These hearings follow on the heels of Title VI civil rights complaints filed by parents from Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Newark, New York, and Washington alleging that school closings, turnarounds, and phase-outs—encouraged by Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants—have had a disproportionally negative impact on people of color, English Language Learners, overage students, and students with disabilities.
The more ambitious demand of the march—a national moratorium on school closings and turnarounds—is as likely an outcome from Obama’s DOE as self-imposed dissolution. If unanimity from the US Council of Mayors around privatization-friendly parent trigger laws is any indication, the groups’ most moderate ask—“a process for transforming schools that engages parents, teachers, and communities as long-term partners in school change”—is a sufficiently heavy lift on its own.
Right to the Capital?
The groups at the march were the sort that make up the “community” half of “labor-community alliance” when teachers unions commit to such a coalition. The Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, for one, has joined with Chicago’s reigning Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators to protest school closings and fight for restorative justice in schools and a community voice in school policy.
On the sunny tree-lined boulevards of the capitol district, marchers carried coffin-shaped pickets to symbolize school closings—64 in Philadelphia alone between now and 2017, if a Boston Consulting Group-designed plan goes through.