“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: