Black Lives Matter—at School, Too

Black Lives Matter—at School, Too

In the wake of the Ferguson uprising, black students nationwide are indicting the state violence they face in American education everyday.


“Black lives matter! The EAA is killing me!” On December 5, students at Eastern Michigan University staged a die-in at their school’s Board of Regents meeting, after the board voted to continue its partnership with the Education Achievement Authority, the controversial state-run district which has taken over fifteen Detroit public schools since its inception in 2012. Almost two weeks later, on December 17, when Baltimore’s school board voted to shut down the first of five schools, high school students also staged a die-in, chanting, “Black lives matter!” and “The school board has failed us!” The board soon fled. Without missing a beat, the students took the commissioners’ chairs and held a community forum on the closures. The next day in an uncoordinated action in Philadelphia, public school student organizers staged a die-in in front of their district building, mourning the 2013 loss of 12-year-old Laporshia Massey, who died from an asthma attack after being sent home from a school with no nurse on duty.

Like most majority black school districts in America, the school districts of Baltimore, Detroit and Philadelphia regularly suffer school closures, high teacher attrition, understaffed schools and increasingly crowded classrooms. But while these deprivations are often written off as the inevitable result of urban white flight and depreciating tax bases, the reality is not so simple. In the neoliberal era, urban school districts’ financial woes have been aggravated by state takeovers, gratuitous budget cuts and wasteful privatization efforts. As black student activists nationwide have made clear in these recent demonstrations, public school austerity, like police brutality, is another form of racist state violence. Public school austerity, driven in part by the much-celebrated school reform movement, assaults these students’ central community institutions, crams them into over-policed schools, and reduces their education to preparation for the low wage workforce rather than democratic self-determination.

School Closures Are Part of a Political Strategy

In Philadelphia, where black students make up the majority of students in both district and charter schools, several students have died because schools cannot afford to fill basic positions like school nurses and counselors. This is not simply because the district is a poor community. One of Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett’s first moves in office was to cut about $1 billion in education funding statewide, leaving Philadelphia schools in a $629 million hole. Furthermore, because Pennsylvania does not have a standard education funding formula, black students’ education allotments are at the mercy of state lawmakers. A 2014 analysis, for example, found that, controlling for poverty, predominantly white districts receive thousands more in funding per pupil:


Will Daniels, an Eastern Michigan activist with the student labor organization USAS, argues this austerity from Philadelphia to Detroit is a deployment of state violence against black communities. “As a black student, my rationale for doing the die-in was that structural racism causes not only police brutality, but also the starving of majority black public schools. This is a subtler form of violence.” The state violence of austerity goes beyond inadequate resources within schools, however. Increasingly, it is threatening the very existence of urban black communities’ long-standing schools.

Like a country after wartime, the United States is home to thousands of empty schools today, standing in ruins. School closures nationwide, which rose to almost 2,000 schools in the 2010-2011 school year, exert a disproportionate impact on urban black communities as recently seen in Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore and, most notably Chicago. During the 2013–14 school year, for example, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel pushed through the shutdown of an unprecedented fifty-two schools. Fifty-three of the fifty-four schools served elementary school students, 90 percent of them black students, in a district with a 40 percent black population. And though Emanuel pointed to budget concerns to justify these massive closures, a few months later the mayor found $55 million to subsidize a Hyatt Hotel and a private university’s basketball stadium, almost half of which came from (and should have been spent on) Chicago public schools, according to the Chicago Reader.

As Fordham History Professor Mark Naison has argued, school closures in the name of education reform evoke the postwar era of “urban renewal” in which once lively working-class neighborhoods nationwide were destroyed. Dr. Mindy Fullilove has described how state assault causes inhabitants to suffer what she calls “root shock”: trauma related to the destruction of one’s emotional ecosystem. Thus, the destruction of long-standing black community institutions through school closures is, as Naison puts it, a form of “psychic violence” that hurts communities by breaking up historic community relationships and destroying a neighborhood’s sense of identity. Even more materially, as Tre Murphy, one of the Baltimore students fighting school closures, points out, school closures make neighborhoods less hospitable for families, clearing locals out faster and allowing developers to move in.

Black Disenfranchisement and the End of School Boards

Students like Murphy have their work cut out for them, because black communities have been effectively disenfranchised within urban school systems. In the eyes of the state and private education interests, democratic school boards are inconvenient roadblocks in the neoliberal era of unceasing budget cuts and privatization maneuvers.

Last December, for example, the ACLU sued the Ferguson-Florissant school district, where Michael Brown was once a student, charging that its at-large school board elections violate the 1963 Voting Rights Act. The Ferguson-Florissant school district’s at-large voting system, which makes every school board seat election district-wide, has historically allowed the majority white population to dominate the school board, despite the fact that black students make up 77 percent of the district’s student body. Currently, there is only one black member on the seven member school board, an improvement from the last three years in which the board was all-white.

But the Ferguson-Florissant school district’s selection process seems almost progressive in an era in which democratically elected school boards in black communities are increasingly under attack by corporate-backed education reform groups. As New Jersey City University education professor Lois Weiner argues, “Mayoral control and state takeovers of school boards are really a form of domestic colonization. Schools are still the most important institutions that locals control. Part of the neoliberal project is to fragment the their collective oversight in order to privatize them.”

In the last two decades, there has been a significant campaign for mayoral control over the school board, allowing the mayors to appoint school board members and doing away with any electoral process. Boston ignited this strategy in 1992 and was followed by most major cities like Chicago in 1995, New York in 2002, and Washington, DC, in 2007—moves that have facilitated unprecedented school closures, charter-school expansion and teacher layoffs. For this reason, some school service vendors, charter school operators and lawmakers hell-bent on busting teachers’ unions are pushing to adopt mayoral control.

In Dallas, for example, the business communities’ multiple Super PACs and an Enron billionaire, John Arnold, have thrown hundreds of thousands of dollars into school board elections and a campaign to put the district under mayoral control. Speaking at a California Charter Schools Association conference in March, Netflix founder and online education investor Reed Hastings echoed these statements, calling for the elimination of democratically elected school boards, whose lack of “stable governance” makes long-term planning for charter school investors more difficult. In his speech, Hastings admitted the potential state takeovers may cause: “Now if we go to the general public and we say, ‘Here’s an argument why you should get rid of school boards’ of course no one’s going to go for that. School boards have been an iconic part of America for 200 years.” For this reason, in their quest to privatize public school systems, education reformers have sought less overt ways to disenfranchise communities from a say in their schools. Thus far, majority black school districts have been the hardest hit targets.

The case of Detroit’s recent forays into education reform reveals how seemingly less insidious technologies like accountability standards and standardizing testing have been used to transfer control of school districts from democratically elected school boards to state technocrats. In 1999, state lawmakers unilaterally replaced Detroit’s locally elected school board with a “reform board,” appointed by the mayor. But after failing to improve the district’s results, a voter referendum returned power to an elected school board in 2005 with four members chosen at large and eleven chosen by district. After the financial disaster, however, the state swooped in again, imposing a financial manager on the district in 2009—a move that has deprived the people of Detroit any say in their schools’ finances. The racial implications of this austerity authoritarianism are clear: the majority black population of Detroit cannot responsibly manage its schools’ finances, therefore disqualifying it of democratic process. Ironically, state control over Detroit schools has facilitated unprecedented corruption and waste, driving the district into a $121 million deficit.

The EAA was created by Republican Governor Rick Snyder in 2011, an unelected state agency that would scoop up and turnaround schools ranking within the bottom 5 percent of state standardized tests for two consecutive years. Given the well-documented relationship between test scores and poverty, this seemingly neutral proposal amounted to little more than a seizure of Detroit’s poor schools from its elected school board. Thus far, the EAA has taken over fifteen schools, all of them in Detroit.

Broken Windows Policing Comes to Elementary School

As the ACLU points out, school districts have a perverse incentive to push out, rather than work with “problem” students, who may not contribute to schools’ primary concern in the age of education reform: high test scores. A further incentive is provided by the mass closing and consolidation of community schools, caused by state austerity. Detroit’s EAA is now experimenting with cramming 100 kindergartners into one classroom with three teachers, despite the fact that education researchers consistently recommend a 10:1 student-teacher ratio. Furthermore, in 2012, Detroit Public Schools’ emergency manager upped the class size limits for fourth and fifth graders from thirty to forty-six and for middle schoolers and high schoolers up to sixty-one students in classrooms that can only safely hold thirty-five.

Such crowded conditions in Detroit have set the stage for what many scholars call the school to prison pipeline: policies and practices that push students out of schools and into the criminal justice system. In 2011, for example, Detroit schools issued 25,534 suspensions in a district that had only 70,000 students. This high number of suspensions can be attributed to the district’s zero tolerance policy, which punishes students for everything from guns and knives to IDs and uniform violations.

Zero-tolerance policies disproportionately target tens of thousands of students of color in low income school districts nationwide. According to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, during the 2009–10 school year, over 70 percent of students involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement were Hispanic or African-American. And though black students only made up 18 percent of schools sampled, they made up 35 percent of students suspended once, 46 percent suspended multiple times, and 39 percent of students expelled—punishments that research demonstrates increases the likelihood of contact with the juvenile and criminal justice system. While white commentators have claimed this is because black students are inherently more violent, the reality is that just as in the criminal justice system, black students are targeted disproportionately for subjective offensives like loitering, disrespect and excessive noise and are punished more severely for committing the same offenses as their white peers:

Source: National Education Policy Center

The mass targeting of black students for minor offenses is made possible by the rapid influx of sworn law enforcement officers into school districts, brought on by public outcry against school shootings in the 1990s. From 1997 to 2007, the number of these armed guards, called school resource officers, increased by 38 percent, reaching an all time high of 14,337 in 2003. In the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, lawmakers once again called for more armed patrolmen in schools and the Obama administration poured $45 million into the hiring of more school resource officers. But while high profile shootings in suburban districts like Newtown and Columbine create national outcry for increased security, black students in urban school districts are often the ones that must endure the consequences. As the Justice Policy Institute noted in a 2011 policy brief, in 2003 Chicago Public Schools sent over 8,000 students to law enforcement, despite the fact that 40 percent of these “assault” and “battery” cases resulted in no serious injuries. This mass delivery of students into the hands of law enforcement was only possible because Chicago Public Schools had approximately 1,700 security staff in that year, including armed, uniformed Chicago police officers in every high school and off-duty Chicago police officers in every K-8 school.

Numerous cases from New Jersey to Georgia indicate that the presence of SROs in schools actually exacerbate violence; research has shown that it is students who enjoy structured and supported environments that experience the lowest levels of victimization. After Clayton County, Georgia tried reducing the involvement of SROs in schools and experienced an 87 percent decrease in fighting and a 36 percent decrease in disorderly behavior.

As Baltimore student activist Tre Murphy argues, “This is part of systematic oppression. When I walked inside my high school the first person I saw was an SRO. This is how we keep folks with the idea that they are constantly under constant threat. Coming to study with a book in your hand, do you really need to have an armed police officer watching you 24/7? Oppression begins in the mind.” This extreme disciplinary apparatus replicates the police-state environments inner city black students face outside of school. Some of the most shocking experiments in the control of black student bodies are gaining popularity due to the efforts of the charter-school movement.

As assistant professor of education Beth Sondel and education researcher Joseph L. Boselovic detailed in a Jacobin Magazine investigation,the “No Excuses” disciplinary approach, promoted by KIPP, the largest charter school chain in America, has transformed schools into totalizing carceral environments. Sondel and Boselovic write:

There were, for example, specific expectations about where students should put their hands, which direction they should turn their heads, how they should stand, and how they should sit.… Silence seemed to be especially important in the hallways. At the sound of each bell at the middle school, students were expected to line up at “level zero” with their faces forward and hands behind their backs and, when given permission, step into the hallway and onto strips of black duct tape. There they waited for the command of an administrator: ‘Duke, you can move to your next class! Tulane, you can walk when you show me that you are ready!’ Students then marched until they reached the STOP sign on the floor, where their teacher checked them for hallway position before giving them permission to continue around the corner. Throughout this process, students moved counter-clockwise around the perimeter of the hallway (even if they were going to a classroom one door to the left).

This extreme control over the movements of black students teaches them that they neither have, nor deserve control over their own bodies—a disturbing message to send in a country still shaped by the legacy of slavery. Furthermore, it perpetuates the normalization of surveillance and domination that law enforcement authorities inflict on black communities every day. Indeed, as the education writer Owen Davis points out, this “no excuses” disciplinary approach is a direct adaption by schools of the “broken windows” policing theory.

The “broken windows” approach to policing, implemented by NYC police commissioner William Bratton in the Giuliani era, holds that a zero-tolerance approach to minor misbehaviors attacks the culture of deviance, preventing graver offenses in the future. This ideology, attributing crime to cultural practice rather than structural inequality, has been criticized in the wake of Eric Garner’s and Mike Brown’s killings for the alleged crimes of cigarette selling and jaywalking. “Some of the fastest-growing charter school networks explicitly draw on Bratton’s law enforcement methods to run their schools, which typically enroll mostly black and brown students,” writes Davis in Jacobin. “As practiced in schools, the theory becomes ‘no excuses’ discipline, in which teachers rigorously enforce an intricate set of behavioral expectations on students.” Despite the fact that this ideology is rooted in police violence, numerous education reform forces, from prominent charter school chains to Teach For America, promote “no excuses” discipline, resulting in carceral school environments, higher suspension rates, and increased traffic through the school to prison pipeline.

Experimenting on Black Students

As Curt Guyette of Michigan’s ACLU exposed in a recent piece for the Detroit Metro Times, the controversial Education Achievement Authority state takeover has thus far used Detroit’s students as guinea pigs for an online education prototype, called BUZZ, that Governor Rick Snyder eventually hopes to roll out to suburban districts across the state. “The EAA illustrates a familiar pattern in neoliberalism that we should understand is going on in the cities,” notes Professor Lois Weiner to The Nation. “Find the weakest most vulnerable location, tear out and privatize its core, then use what you’ve learned from that as a springboard to carry out elsewhere.”

According to internal EAA November 2013 e-mails, obtained by Wayne State education professor Thomas Pedroni, one of the companies behind BUZZ expressed “fear” to top EAA officials that other school districts may want to start using BUZZ, given the prototype’s numerous technical shortcomings. Other districts had been impressed by EAA students’ test-score improvements under the program, but, as ACLU investigator Curt Guyette pointed out, these results stemmed from the fact that EAA students were regularly made to retake state tests. Still today, numerous upgrades are currently needed to fix BUZZ’s glitches—a fact that did not seem to preclude its use by the EAA’s 10,000 students. The flawed software and its hastily formulated curriculum has reduced Detroit’s EAA classrooms to rows and rows of students staring at computer screens for most of the day, occasionally interacting with teachers, many of whom have been reduced to an entirely supervisory role. As former EAA teacher Delbert Glaze explained to Michigan’s NPR affiliate, “A computer can be part of the lesson, [but] not the whole lesson…where they’re like zombies looking at computer screens all day.” Such learning conditions have prompted mass disenrollment from the EAA, but still over 7,000 students are forced to learn under BUZZ.

California State University Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies Julian Vasquez Heilig argues to The Nation that this type of standardized education is designed to do little but prepare black students for the low-wage workforce: “What we are seeing is basically the rationing of high quality education, not only in Detroit but in all cities. What you see in high-resource schools is that students are still working in groups, learning collaboratively and engaging in critical thinking—the sort of skills necessary for elite jobs. Across town, however, Latinos and black students are provided with completely standardized test-prep education. What’s interesting is that a lot of low-wage jobs in retail, for example, you now have to take multiple-choice tests.… So they’ve made this whole approach to education that only provides access to low-wage jobs.”

As the non-indictments of Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo prove, the perpetuation of state violence against black Americans is made normal by portraying them as lesser political subjects—a painful insult that black Americans have struggled against since emancipation. Education reform, as former Goldman Sachs executive Robert Reffkin exclaimed, is seen as “the civil rights struggle” of our generation. But from the advocacy of chains like KIPP for “No Excuses” discipline, to the EAA’s reduction of teaching to a computer program, to the destruction of school boards, these forces work to undermine what Martin Luther King Jr. called the true function of education, namely, “to teach one to think intensively and to think critically.” In protesting the austerity destroying their schools through the lens of state violence, black students are reasserting their democratic voice in a country that works actively to disenfranchise, impoverish and jail them.

“It is such a mind-boggling idea for black people to control their own resources. When we, a group of black students, say we want to control our schools, they don’t even know what that means,” explained Jamal Jones, one of the Baltimore students, who organized the recent takeover of a school board meeting. “The same machine that allows for schools to close, allows for funding disparities in communities of color, is the same machine that allowed Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner to be killed. This machine is not for us, so we are organizing to get the power back to the black community.”


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