The Racism of School Closures

Jeff Bryant

As parents, students and teachers celebrate the start of a new school year, many communities across the country are facing the pain of having their schools permanently closed.

Politicians and policy leaders—Democrats and Republicans alike—support dealing with schools that show poor results on standardized tests by shutting them down.

School closings happen all the time, and the number of students affected is increasing at an alarming rate.

The total number of public schools in the country, which steadily increased throughout the 1980s, 90s, and early 2000s, has been drifting downward since 2007, despite an expanding student population. According to data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of students affected by school closures increased from less than 1,000 in 1994 to more than 1,800 in 2011.

Why are all these schools closing?

An Urban, Racial Problem

School closures are most common in urban school districts. As education correspondent Rachel Cohen recently wrote for the American Prospect,

“In urban districts across the United States – from Detroit to Newark to Oakland – communities are experiencing waves of controversial school closures as cash-strapped districts reckon with pinched budgets and changing politics.”

Part of what’s driving closures in these communities, Cohen reports, is the lack of financial resources to address decaying infrastructure. Many urban school buildings were built more than fifty years ago and need extensive repairs or upgrades to accommodate new technology and building requirements. “But the federal government offers virtually no economic assistance to states and local districts trying to shoulder the costs of building repairs,” Cohen explains. States have been withholding funds from these schools since the nation’s economy slid into recession in 2008.

But aging school buildings aren’t the only reason schools are closing. A 2014 report from the civil right groups Journey for Justice Alliance found that incidents of school closures correlated strongly with race. The report declares:”America’s predominantly black and Latino communities are experiencing an epidemic of public school closures.”

The report cites a “realignment of political forces” favoring rightwing politics as one of the “underlying causes.” A review of that report by Think Progress, notes that large-scale school closings in major urban districts—Detroit, New York City, Chicago, Baltimore, New Orleans, Columbus, Houston, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C. —have disproportionately affected black and brown students.

How Closures Became A Solution

Beginning with the passage of the federal No Child Left Behind law during the administration of George W. Bush, education policy has been guided by a “reform” philosophy based on standardized testing. The law mandated states to test every child and use the resulting scores to carry out all kinds of high-stakes decisions, including whether or not to close a “failing” school.

Under the Obama presidency, school closures due to this reform philosophy have increased. Obama’s education policies—both its signature Race to the Top and the conditions it imposed on states to avoid sanctions prescribed by No Child Left Behind—made school closings a cornerstone of federal policy by recommending closures as one of four “turnaround models.”

Research shows there is a high correlation between test scores and race and income. So reform policies have disproportionately harmed children of color. And as the nation’s public schools gradually became “majority minority”—an odd catch phrase that means “less white”—and students of color became more racially isolated in the system, even more schools were slated for closure.

Another factor driving school closures is the expansions of charter schools in urban districts. When charter schools compete with public schools for students and resources, there is a snowball effect. As students leave a school, they take money allocated based on number of students with them, which leads to teacher layoffs and program cuts, which results in more disenchanted parents pulling their children from the school.

Charter schools often close their doors, too. Leading charter school advocates actually point to charter-school closings as evidence that their model is working, since it proves that the marketplace will weed out “bad” schools. According to reports from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, the number of charter school closures continues to increase every year. Advocates for these schools say shutting school doors is “tough, necessary medicine.”

Negative Effects On Students

The rush to close more schools and embrace school closings is a perverse approach to “school improvement,” with the hugely negative effects on students and communities.

In an article for the progressive news outlet TruthOut, Mike Ludwig points to a study in Houston, which found “closures were not associated with any academic gains among these students besides some small, short-term gains in math.”

Ludwig also cites a study in Chicago that “yielded similar results” and “a 2012 study on an anonymous, urban school district” that found “displacing students can actually harm their academic performance if they don’t land in significantly higher-performing schools.”

Another researcher analyzing the effects of school closures in Philadelphia found, “School closings may hinder, and rarely help, students’ academic progress.”

Her statement, appearing at The Answer Sheet blog of the Washington Post, explained that in most instances, students from the closing school are transferred to lower or comparably performing schools where they “do not fare well academically, at least in the short term.”

Another study conducted by researchers from the University of Colorado, Boulder found that students forced to transfer to new schools due to the closure of theirs experienced “declines . . . in academic performance after transferring.” The researchers suggest that the declines could have been due to “added stressors to students who were already contending with challenges associated with urban poverty.”

University of California professor Julian Vasquez Heilig cites a study from North Carolina that found “students displaced by closure experienced negative effects in the announcement year.” A study from Chicago, according to Heilig, found 94 percent of students from closed schools were sent to schools that were not “academically strong.”

Creating ‘Education Deserts’

Even if some students benefit from changing schools, the effects of school closures are overwhelmingly negative on the community overall.

“Closing a school is one of the most traumatic things that can happen to a community,” authors for the Journey for Justice report argue. “One of the most likely outcomes from school closures is that additional ones will soon follow, to the point that many of our communities no longer have a single public school in them.”

Indeed, the widespread public school closings in Chicago have left some stretches of the community without any schools at all, according to an article by Trymaine Lee for MSNBC. Calling these neighborhoods “school deserts,” much like the food deserts many low-income communities know about all too well, Lee quotes community activist Jitu Brown: “This is not about school choice. If it was really about providing us with choices, we’d have the choice to improve our neighborhood schools.”

Chicago is not alone.

In cities such as New Orleans, which now has an all charter system, whole neighborhoods are bereft of schools, and it is now quite common for students to spend hours a day in transit as they trek from their homes to available schools across town.

A recent news story from Detroit tells of families having to go to extreme lengths to access schools. Nearly 200 Detroit public schools were closed between 2000 and 2015 while more than 100 new charter schools opened. “But the new schools weren’t placed around the city based on neighborhood need,” the reporter explains. So many students have to traverse miles across town just to get to and from school.

Conditions are similar in some areas of Houston, where parents have coined the term “education desert“ to describe “areas where a significant number or share of residents is far from schools.”

“This crisis has reached critical mass,” the Houston parents contend.

Calls For A Moratorium

Due to their negative impacts on students and communities, school closures are deeply unpopular.

According to results from a recent nationwide poll, “Americans overwhelmingly prefer trying to improve failing public schools rather than closing them.” The survey’s question asking respondents to choose whether to improve the school or close it resulted in a 70-point margin voting for improvement, the largest margin of difference found in any other question in the survey.

“This finding, perhaps more than any other, exemplifies the divide between the reform agenda of the past 16 years and the actual desires of the American public,” writes Joshua Starr, CEO of PDK International, who oversaw the survey.

Numerous parent and student groups as well as teachers unions, citizen boards, and community organizations, including the Journey for Justice Alliance, have called for moratoriums on school closures. Researchers have also come out in support of these moratoriums.

Declaring moratoriums is only one way to respond to the problems associated with school closures, but surely the idea that closing more schools is an effective strategy needs to be permanently shut down.

[This article originally appeared at The Progressive.]

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