This article was originally published by The American Prospect and is reposted with permission.
The watchword of austerity, “there is no alternative,” connotes painful cuts and layoffs adopted by fiscally shot local governments. In practice, though, this is a contradiction in terms: the politics of austerity are also a politics of imaginative restructuring, in which fiscal crisis is a cover for what Clintonites called “reinventing government” or, as partisans of Naomi Klein might prefer, “shock therapy.”
The lie is starkest in the realm of education policy, where the Obama administration prescribes a slate of options for impoverished communities receiving federal School Improvement Grants. These range from “turnarounds,” which replace the principal and at least half of school staff, to charterization or outright closure.
The catch with turnarounds and closings? Urban schools affected by them house more students of color than those left alone. As such, a growing national movement argues, the implementation of these policies systematically violates Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits race-based discrimination in federally funded programs.
In a coordinated effort, Title VI complaints have been filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) by plaintiffs from turned-over districts across the country: Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, D.C., Newark, New York, and Philadelphia. Coming soon, says Jitu Brown of Chicago’s Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, are filings from Austin, Cleveland, Kansas City, New Orleans, Oakland, and Wichita. That’s 14 cities (and counting) that see evidence of discrimination in federal education mandates.
Though the complaints vary city by city, the themes are common: school closings and turnarounds have a statistically disproportionate impact on students of color, and this impact is destructive: displaced students are shipped away from their neighborhoods and forced to cross many social boundaries, with little to no precedent of advanced academic success in their new environments.
The Chicago filing notes that black students make up 42 percent of the city’s public school population, but 82 percent of those affected by the 14 closings, phase-outs, and turnarounds in 2012. For the closings and phase-outs alone, the figure is nearly 100 percent. It goes on to say that the district “has no criteria which can justify these decisions”—rather, a list of non-academic “considerations” which have been described as “extremely vague” by the legislatively appointed Educational Facilities Task Force. What’s more, schools slated for turnaround are stripped of their Local School Councils—a key outlet for the voices of black and Latino parents in school policy—and may not get a funding boost even if the district anticipates a school action years in advance. (In a recent twist, teachers have filed a separate suit against the district alleging that turnaround policy has a discriminatory impact on black teachers.)