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The Racial Politics of School Closure and Community Response

Over the last decade, school closure has become one of the most publicly contested and emotionally embroiled reforms, with numerous examples in both the media and scholarly discourse of how policy and school district officials are at odds with teachers’ unions, students and families, and even grassroots community organizers over the imminent closure of neighborhood schools and the long-term impact it would have on the surrounding community (Diem & Welton, 2017; Lipman, 2011; Stovall, 2013; Welton & Freelon, 2018). Proponents view school closure as a possible fresh start for students and families in schools that are chronically struggling. They also consider it the most expedient solution to a number of district concerns such as declining student enrollment, repeated poor academic performance, budget limitations, and competition from other school choices such as private schools, charters, magnet programs, and selective public schools (Diem & Welton, 2017; Kirshner & Gaertner, 2015; Siegel-Hawley, Bridges, & Shields, 2017).

Irrespective of the reasons policy makers and district administration give for closing a school, in most cases the impact the final policy decision will have on students, families of color, and their neighborhoods ultimately is not the priority. Therefore, we find the typical justifications for school closure to be racialized as they focus on the bottom-line instead of examining the full complexity of the issues at hand, especially how high stakes school closure is for communities of color. This is in part why opponents of school closure and related market-driven reforms—namely, teachers, parents, and grassroots community organizers—continue to argue that the underlying intentions behind the reform strategy are in fact racist, and part of a larger scheme to gentrify low-income and working-class Black and Latinx neighborhoods to then monopolize the market with school choice and privatization (Diem & Welton, 2017; Johnson, 2012; Journey 4Justice Alliance, 2014; Kirshner & Pozzoboni, 2011).

Although the political battle over school closure is more likely to get played out amongst stakeholders at the local level, the policy’s origins are indeed federal. Previously, under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001, led by the Bush Administration, when a Title I school failed to achieve Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) for five consecutive years school districts were mandated to then initiate plans for restructuring by either closing the school and re-opening it as a charter, replacing all or most of the school personnel, or seeking out a private entity to manage the operations of the school (U.S. DOE, 2003). Later, the Obama Administration followed suit in 2009 by increasing federal funding for and expanding the scope of the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program, an initiative formerly established under NCLB (Trujillo & Renee, 2012). The SIG program aimed to “turnaround” the nation’s lowest-performing schools by requiring recipients to choose among four intervention models, and the first three models—turnaround, transformation, and restart—were similar to the corrective action provisions under NCLB. However, the Obama Administration took the already punitive nature of the SIG program a step further by adding complete closure of a school as the fourth option. Thus, school closure, like school choice, is by no means a partisan issue: both Democrat and Republican political leaders have endorsed the neoliberal principles underlying the educational reform (see Pew, 2011). In essence, the federal government has played a major role in creating a gateway for the private sector to gain a foothold in public education and benefit from widespread closure of public schools.

Though federal policies like NCLB set the national blueprint for school closure, the localized politics of school closures in urban, suburban, and even rural communities across the country all have one commonality—Black and Latinx students and families are most negatively impacted by the reform. For example, one of the most widely publicized series of mass school closures, which occurred in Chicago Public Schools (CPS), closed, turned around, or consolidated over 100 schools prior to 2013 (Diem & Welton, 2017). Then, in 2013, the mayoral-appointed Board of Education voted to close another 50 schools, all predominately in Black and Latinx communities, representing at that point in time the largest single sweep of school closures to occur in U.S. history (Lipman, Vaughan, & Gutierrez, 2014). Very few urban school districts across the country are immune to school closure as Black and Latinx students and families in Philadelphia, Detroit, St. Louis, Kansas City, Oakland, Houston, New Orleans, and numerous other cities continue to endure aftershocks of the reform.

One major color-evasive assumption of school closure policies is that once a school is closed its students will be able to move onto higher quality schooling options. Yet, school closure does quite the opposite, as research suggests most students affected by school closure relocate to an equal to or lower-performing school, thus experiencing little to no academic improvement (Barnum, 2019). Moreover, when a school is closed it disrupts its local community, depleting it of resources, especially young people’s social capital or valuable ties to their local community (Kirshner & Pozzoboni, 2011). Stakeholders most affected by school closure, such as students, families, and teachers, are more than often left out of the decision-making process when their neighborhood school is slated to be closed (Stovall, 2013; Welton & Freelon, 2018).

However, there are a number of grassroots activists of color that are leading the charge in interrogating school closure policies by offering more effective policy alternatives we consider to be anti-racist. Subsequently in this chapter we provide examples of ways in which local school parents and community activists across the country are organizing to keep their schools open, and how district and school administrators can learn from communities of color’s efforts to redress racial inequities in their neighborhood schools. Following an analysis of the number of color-evasive rationales educational administrators, policy makers, and even some researchers give for disproportionately closing schools in low-income, Black, and Latinx neighborhoods, we provide strategies for how educational leadership, when approached through the lens of anti-racism, can be a collective effort among administrators, parents, teachers, and students fighting to put an end to school closure.

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