Education is the door to our collective future. It's distressing then that all across the country, children of color are being deprived this basic opportunity. The deprivation takes many forms; harsh school disciplinary policies, referrals to law enforcement, and police in schools. Another way that children of color are denied a high quality education is through systematic and targeted school closures.
We know this because we’ve been organizing against school closures, which are occurring in predominantly African American, Latino and low-income communities. Across the country, these communities have watched as their schools, teachers, friendships and shared history are eliminated. Many students are pushed out of one school only to be forced to attend another school that is further away, with less experienced teachers, similar resource inequities and instability.
The problem is so severe that two years ago we took our case to the United States Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. Our organizations, Advancement Project and the Journey for Justice Alliance, filed three civil rights complaints in New Orleans, Newark and Chicago on the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education opinion. The complaints challenged the disproportionate closures of traditional public schools in these cities. In New Orleans, the closures of the last five traditional public schools impacted over 1,000 African-American students and only 5 White students. In Chicago, Black students were 26 times more likely to be impacted by school closures than White students. In Newark, Black students were 51% of student enrollment, but 86% of students impacted by school closures.
The U.S. Department of Education has been investigating each complaint and a few months ago, finally reached a groundbreaking resolution with Newark Public Schools. The Newark agreement acknowledged, among other things, the disproportionate impact school closures had on Black students in Newark and that these closures “did not appear to afford affected students any measurable, improved educational outcomes.” It requires NPS to investigate whether students impacted by closures were negatively impacted in their (a) academics, which includes test scores, grades, attendance and discipline; (b) transportation, including safety; (c) availability of facilities and pupil capacity; and (d) access to special services for students with disabilities.
The U.S. Department of Education’s agreement with Newark Public Schools (NPS) is a step in the right direction. However, the agreement fails to address the many intangible harms of school closures — like the loss of critical relationships with teachers, staff and counselors. Chicago and New Orleans, the other cities where we filed complaints, deserve action as well.
Crucial analysis missing from this narrative is that for decades schools that serve predominantly Black students experienced intense and consistent discrimination through the disinvestment, over-policing, and unequal distribution of resources. It is clear that privatization and the courting of charter schools are the real goals — choosing these over any proven method of remedying educational racism. Several shuttered public schools had achieved consistent, documented growth yet were still closed because they failed to achieve an ever-shifting standard set by state officials.
These same officials, that “grease the rails” for school privatization by eliminating democracy through mayoral control, state takeover and other schemes never address the issue of equity in public education. We are asking the U.S. Department of Education to move courageously to resolve the cases in Chicago and New Orleans, where children and parents suffer every day a decision that holds systems accountable is not rendered.
Time and time again, experimental policies and practices are imposed on Black and Brown communities over the resounding objection by the same communities. We pay taxes and the return on our investment is intentional inequity, enriching politically connected school profiteers. This is an ugly practice that must stop.
Education inequity in the United States, amplified by school privatization is indeed a human rights issue. We respectfully urge students, parents and community members to continue to bravely speak out about the ways they have been impacted by school closures and to demand equity through quality, sustainable community schools.
Judith Browne Dianis is the Executive Director of Advancement Project, National Office in Washington, DC. Jitu Brown is the National Director of Journey for Justice.