A Lesson for Arne Duncan

A Lesson for Arne Duncan

 It’s one thing to stand for children, the ever-forgotten pawns of the so-called school wars. It’s another to take students seriously as interlocutors in policy debates dominated by columnists and wonk-bloggers from privileged backgrounds.


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.

“It’s hard enough for us to do everything in Detroit, so we came out to Washington,” said Quantrell Rose, 15. Though the city lost a quarter of its population over the most recent census period, its district enrollment has shrunk by a whopping sixty-six percent since 2003. The shutdown of Rose’s neighborhood school, Southwest High School, sparked a massive student walkout this spring. Now, displaced to northwest Detroit, “I have to watch my back,” he says.

The Children
For the march’s Philadelphia contingent, the morning began at local protest headquarters, the school district building. If Mayor Nutter’s shrug to the city’s school reorganization plan weren’t enough, Pennsylvania’s state education budget is also controlled by Republicans.
“At the same time that Governor Corbett is cutting school funding, he’s spending more money on prisons,” Andre Dunbar, a senior at Sayre High School, belted to a crowd of students and community activists. “This shows his perception of us as students.”
Dunbar is a member of the Philadelphia Student Union (PSU), which, alongside Youth United for Change, has been organizing students to lobby policymakers since the city ran its own district. Both are part of the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools, which held a citywide conference with several hundred people last week.
Alycia Duncan is a junior at West Philadelphia High School. Before Duncan’s time, PSU spearheaded a decade-long campaign to get a new high school building and stave off charter conversion. “When I heard ‘youth-led organization,’ it just had me amped,” she says. “I communicate with my teachers. I would like all students to have that.”
On the ride to DC, Dunbar and Duncan detailed a vision of school reform not too distant from that of the Chicago Teachers Union: more credit recovery classes, summer school classes, art classes, electives, re-engagement centers, assistant teachers, teachers, and those elusive air conditioners. 
It’s one thing to stand for children, the ever-forgotten pawns of the so-called school wars. It’s another to take students seriously as interlocutors in policy debates dominated by columnists and wonk-bloggers from privileged backgrounds. As Miguel Rodriguez, a social work student at CUNY’s Lehman College and an organizer with Sistas and Brothas United, puts it, “Neither Bloomberg nor our parents sit in our classrooms.” As yet, years of testimony and protest seem insufficient to teach the obvious.

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