Sixty-five-year-old John Washington pick up his great grandson, Rayshaun Cates, at Samuel Morse Elementary School, a Chicago school closed in 2006.
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.)
The New York filing, signed by Zakiyah Ansari from the Coalition for Educational Justice and Jorel Moore from the Urban Youth Collaborative, notes that the 117 schools closed between 2003 and 2011 had greater percentages of English Language Learners, students in special education, and students receiving free or reduced-price lunches than the citywide averages. The city’s school board—the mostly Bloomberg-appointed “Panel for Education Policy”—has never voted down a school closure.
These data-driven arguments stem from years of heated protest at the local level. In Chicago, ten parents and teachers were arrested in November for sitting-in at Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office to protest the district’s slash-and-burn, displace-and-gentrify school closing policy. Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett is planning a five-year freeze on the closing of school facilities—but only after shutting down 100 “underutilized” schools this year, and with no promise not to authorize further turnarounds or closures based on performance ratings. Meanwhile, district officials have successfully entreated the Illinois state legislature to extend the city’s deadline for announcing school closings from December 1 to March 31. Officials argue that this will allow more time to collect input from city residents; for community groups and the Chicago Teachers Union, who have demanded an immediate moratorium on all actions, the extension means less time during the school year to wage organized pushback.
Title VI has bureaucratic hurdles of its own. After 2001’s Alexander v. Sandoval Supreme Court ruling, private petitioners—that is, everyone besides the federal government—lost their ability to press Title VI charges against defending parties directly. (This goes for cases of “disparate impact,” as distinct from “intentional discrimination”; the conservative court held that plaintiffs, in this case a woman alleging that Alabama’s English-only drivers’-license test policy was discriminatory, had no “private right of action” to pursue their charges.) As a result, activists in the current campaign must file complaints with the OCR, which can decide whether or not to pursue them.
Under the Bush administration, the feds “were not viewed as an ally of civil rights advocates,” says Ted Shaw, the head of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund from 2004 to 2008, and coordinated filings like the current ones “would not be productive.” Now, it’s up to Obama appointees—from the same department that trumpets turnarounds and closings—to take action.
What do the feds think?
“Each of these complaints is being addressed on a case-by-case basis,” a spokesperson from the OCR wrote in an email. Officials are staging “grassroots impact tours” in Chicago, Detroit, and New Orleans to meet with people in communities where schools have been closed. On January 29, the department will be hosting what it calls “a community meeting in our building held at the requests of the groups,” where Secretary Arne Duncan is scheduled to speak.
For Jitu Brown, the department’s response thus far has been underwhelming. “The feeling was that a lot of their immediate [delay] was out of concern about it being an election season,” he says. “The concern is, are they really the Office of Civil Rights, or is it just a bureaucracy that’s there to maintain the status quo?”
Molly Hunter, the director of Education Justice for the Newark-based Education Law Center, lays out the following possibilities: “Worst case: the OCR could more or less sit on [the complaints], and nothing happens. On the other end, OCR could pursue them and find a lot of good data to support the claims and pursue the claims aggressively, and perhaps win. The policy implications are that, not only could this help individuals in entire cities, but it could potentially change some of the policies at the federal level.”
“The best case scenario is that public pressure moves an investigation,” Brown says. “We also have a complete set of demands that I think these civil rights complaints have put in the light.”
Last year, a number of groups involved in the filings converged on Washington to promote the “Sustainable Success Model,” an alternative to the four intervention measures required under School Improvement Grants. The alternative centers on four themes: “comprehensive needs assessments” undertaken in partnership with grassroots stakeholders; “research-based” curricular and organizational reforms; wrap-around services to address students’ holistic needs; and a commitment to parent and community engagement.
These demands are a rebuttal to the civil rights rhetoric bandied by moneyed scorched-earth reformers—Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates, Eli Broad, Mitt Romney, and their far-flung bases of support. They also remind us that the Civil Rights Act—whose Title VI took an extra decade of litigation to be enforced by federal education officials—is a vehicle for civil rights struggle rather than the one-off win that school textbooks often make it out to be.
While Title VI has been used to varying degrees of success to equalize education funding and desegregate schools, its application to school closings is seeing its first test.
“Unfortunately as parents of color, we’re elevating this because [for] community groups in the city, every time being turned away, this is kind of it,” says Ansari about New York. “Our voice—the parents and youth—it’s not to grandstand, but to tell the story that has never been told.”