Pushing Arne Duncan to Fast-Forward

At a March 15, 2011, sit-down at the Children’s Defense Fund, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sent an unequivocal message to black community and faith leaders. “What we’re desperately missing in this country is parents who will demand better for their children,” he said. “I wish to God I had parents knocking on my door every single day saying, go faster, you’re not moving fast enough.”

On Tuesday, community activists from across the country did exactly that. Some 400 students and parents from as far as California descended on Department of Education headquarters to testify on the racialized impact of school closings, turnarounds, and other measures stipulated by federal education funding mandates. Statistically, actions like these tend to affect students of color more than their white counterparts in the same districts. Students displaced by school turnover are forced to cross myriad social boundaries, including gang lines, with little to no precedent of greater academic success in their new environments.

All told, 18 cities—from the East Coast to the West—were represented at the hearing. Activists from roughly 15 of these cities have filed, or are in the process of filing, Title VI civil-rights complaints with the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights. These groups are part of the Journey for Justice, a national movement to retake community control of schools. “This is our Occupy, this is our DREAMers, our LGBT equality, this is all of this wrapped into one,” says Zakiyah Ansari, the advocacy director for New York’s Alliance for Quality Education. “We want this conversation about closures and communities of color to be raised up.”

The Department of Education is by no means blind to race or class. Arne Duncan readily acknowledges the inequities faced by communities of color—fewer educational opportunities, poorly trained teachers, and harsher school discipline. The devil is in how elites appropriate crisis to assert newfound control over the populations that they claim to serve, opening space for managerialist bureaucrats and profit-driven firms at the expense of popular voices.

Tuesday’s hearing elevated these voices. Students and parents told endless stories of harsh school discipline, inexperienced teachers, missing textbooks, and untenable class sizes. The cause of all this, virtually every speaker claimed, is disenfranchisement: Stakeholders are buried by state and local receivers who have no interest in listening to their constituents, and the federal government seems more intent on experimentation than racial justice. “Racism is well and alive in this country,” said 76-year-old Helen Moore, co-chairperson of Detroit’s Keep the Vote-No Takeover. “We are the descendants of slaves. We are now reversing back to slavery.”

As school turnover and charterization accelerated over the last decade, the national movement for community control grew apace. The mid-decade announcement of Chicago’s “Renaissance 2010,” an ambitious school-privatization plan drawn up by the city’s business roundtable, the Commercial Club, was one flashpoint of intercity conversation. In October 2011, when Congress was considering reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (whose most recent incarnation is 2002’s No Child Left Behind), the 35-member Coalition for Excellent Public Schools came to Capitol Hill with the hope that Congress would incorporate into the law the Sustainable Success Model, which focuses on wraparound supports, culturally relevant and rigorous curricula, collaborative instruction, and sustained engagement with community stakeholders. The coalition proposes this model as an alternative to the four options for schools receiving School Improvement Grants under the 2009 stimulus deal, which range from charter conversion to outright closure.

The first “Journey for Justice” happened in September 2012, when students, parents, and allies from the South, Midwest, and Northeast converged on the Department of Education to demand thorough investigation of the Title VI complaints, a moratorium on school closings until community stakeholders are included in deciding the need and factors driving them, implementation of the Sustainable Success Model, and a meeting with the president. Since then, groups have met with department officials, consulted with congressional representatives, and made countless long-distance calls to organize the massive operation that was Tuesday’s hearing.

“We get so overwhelmed with our local work, the first instinct isn’t necessarily to call somebody in another city, or another state,” Ansari says about the growing national conversation. “It’s a different way of thinking.” In Ansari’s local case, New York schools slated for closure in 2012 housed more than double the citywide average of black students. Despite yearly pickets and testimony alleging that closings are used as a pretext to fire teachers and phase in charter schools, the mostly Bloomberg-appointed school board has never voted down a school closure.

Situating the Journey for Justice in Beltway policy risks obscuring these local and, in some cases, decades-long struggles. Race to the Top ideology has willing subscribers in urban elites who cry budgetary shortfall and “facility underutilization” while simultaneously spending hundreds of millions on charter schools. This local-national tension was clear at Tuesday’s hearing. The issues at the heart of school turnover are a politics of place, and of lived experience, that sit uneasily in a sterile federal chamber. The hearing was as much an action, the byproduct of months of organizing, as it was a presentation of evidence demonstrating widespread discrimination. 

The ball is now in the hands of the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights. On Tuesday, officials emphasized how seriously they approach racial discrimination—which, per departmental reports, mainly involves cases of individual rather than structural discrimination—and labeled the Title VI filings a “priority.” Still, the feds appear uncommitted to any bold intervention. As department official Massie Ritsch told me after the hearing, “The federal government doesn’t open schools. It doesn’t close schools.” Moreover, he says, the department isn’t likely to take up the Sustainable Success Model as a fifth option under School Improvement Grant funding, in that it’s “not all that different from what is allowed under the existing transformation models.”

Chicago organizer Jitu Brown counters that the Sustainable Success Model has “a very clear community-driven process” missing in the other models, which, he says, prioritize managerial change over actual engagement.

Upon returning to their respective cities, Brown says, groups will be staging coordinated direct actions and running their own community hearings across the country. In the next two weeks, organizers plan to talk further with Education Department officials about their range of demands. If these are shrugged off, he says, “we’ll start moving up the food chain with [Attorney General] Eric Holder, and then the president.”

Secretary Duncan, Brown’s former sparring partner as eight-year CEO of Chicago Public Schools, gave activists mixed signals at Tuesday’s hearing. He began by reaching out to the speakers: “We may not agree on everything walking out of here,” he said, “but we all come here with the same heart.” Then, barely a half an hour in, he left. This was a scheduled move, but one that the audience didn’t take lightly. Upon realizing that the six-foot-five former Australian basketballer had left the building for another engagement, scores of parents chanted, “Where is Duncan? Where is Duncan?”

Brown reassured the audience that Duncan was only scheduled to attend the first quarter of the hearing. Still, he said, “that doesn’t mean that it’s cool.” 

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