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The Color-Evasive, Market-Based Agenda Behind School Closures

Typically, the justifications policy makers and district officials give for closing schools are either declining student enrollment, budget shortfalls, building underutilization, and/or persistent low academic performance (Pew, 2011). For instance, Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) policy outlined three explanations for closing schools: (1) nonacademic. space underutilization, poor building infrastructure, other competing priorities for building use, or converting the school to a charter; (2) academic, a failure to demonstrate academic improvement after being placed on probation; or (3) a change in educational focus: a re-orientation that may radically alter the curriculum and instructional programs for faculty and students (de la Torre & Gwynne, 2009). According to de la Torre and Gwynne’s (2009) study of school closure in CPS most schools were closed for either space underutilization or academic reasons.

Still, the problems anticipated to be resolved by school closure can still go unresolved. For example, the Pew Charitable Trust (2011) found in its study of large city district budgets that little money was saved from closing schools, and the only savings obtained were when school districts coupled school closures with substantial layoffs. In the six districts studied in the foundation’s report, the annual savings were less than $1 million per school closed. The process of closing a school came with additional unanticipated price tags such as

expenses associated with mothballing and maintaining sites; transitioning students; moving desks, computers and other district property; and making improvements to the remaining schools, particularly those receiving displaced students.

(p. 6)

Also, in terms of building underutilization, Pew found the urban districts that it studied procured hardly any, if at all, profit from the sale or leasing of school buildings due to their old age and poor condition.

In urban contexts there is a well-documented pattern of how the mass closure of schools creates a window of opportunity for the private market, including charter schools, voucher programs, and even state takeover (Good, 2016; Lipman, 2011). The national network of grassroots community, youth, and parent-led organizations, Journey for Justice (J4J, 2014), calls this mass closure of public schools in urban communities across the country an “epidemic” that is shrinking public school districts while, inversely, rapidly expanding the number of charter schools through the repeated “downward spiral” of events. First, underfunding and criticism of public schools pushes families away. Next, parents may seek out new charter schools, especially those promoted by the media and policy makers. Then, conditions decline in both public schools and their surrounding communities as they continue to receive fewer and fewer resources while seiwing higher-needs students. These deteriorating conditions in public schools also push away good teachers. Subsequently, schools that are labeled as “failing” or “underutilized” are closed. These initial closures then lead to additional attacks on public schools, more budget cuts, more deterioration of public schools and surrounding communities, and more quality teachers and families leaving (J4J, 2014). J4J underscores that it is up to policy makers to end this pattern by intervening and advocating for public schools.

As urban school districts continue to permanently close schools in mass numbers, there is fertile ground for charter school expansion. While we can’t address all cases of how charter expansion adversely prompted the closure of public schools in detail, we do highlight a noted few. In 2002 the State of Pennsylvania took over the Philadelphia public school system to resolve the district’s financial insolvency, a decision led by both a Republican governor and state legislature. The first 10 years of state takeover coincided with an increase in charter school student enrollment from 16,000 to 50,000, and a 25% drop in enrollment for schools still managed by the school district (Good, 2016). Subsequently, in 2012 the continued decline in student enrollment and fiscal debt, plus additional state funding cuts, prompted closure of one-sixth of Philadelphia’s schools still operated by the district (Good, 2016).

Similarly, Detroit Public Schools, under state emergency financial management (i.e., state takeover), faced a budget deficit of 30%, in addition to a 63% decline in student enrollment between 2005-2013 (Pew, 2011). As a result, well over 200 public schools in Detroit have closed since 2000, whereas charter school enrollment increased 63% between 2005-2013 (J4J, 2014). The school district’s extreme drop in student enrollment coincided with the city’s significant population decline. Detroit, a city where 81% of the residents are Black, between 1980 and 2014 lost approximately 500,000 residents (42%) and experienced its largest population decline between 2000 and 2014 with a loss of 255,000 residents (Pizarek, Rubin, & Schildt, 2017). At its peak in 1950, Detroit had a population of 1.5 million; it has now been reduced to approximately 670,000 residents. While a number of social, political, and economic issues contributed to Detroit’s population decline, the most noted was in 2013 when Detroit became the largest American city to file for bankruptcy (Davey & Walsh, 2013).

But it is New Orleans that represents the most unprecedented citywide occupation of charters, where in the aftermath of Hurricane

Katrina in 2005 the state-run Louisiana Recovery School District (RSD) fired 7,000 public school teachers and since 2003 has closed and reopened every public school as a charter, with the exception of five (Brown, 2015; J4J, 2014). Now RSD is the first 100% charter school district in the country. One commonality across Philadelphia, Detroit, and New Orleans is that the charter market took advantage of each city and its public-school district’s series of hardships to gain entry into the educational marketplace. Hence, privatization capitalized off of the distress of these urban cities and their school districts, and by default the families and students of color they mostly serve.

We recognize that any policy decision district administrators must make to protect the learning and well-being of all students as well as the interest of all communities in the district is no small task. Nevertheless, we still view policy makers and district officials’ justifications for school closure to be shortsighted [race-neutral] practicalities that fail to examine the full-picture of how and why the circumstances leading up to a school (s) being cast as “failing” or too much of a challenge to “save” perhaps transpired in the first place. Thus far, in all cases nationwide the decision to close schools has disproportionately not been in the best interests of low-income, students of color and families. There are a host of other complex problems tied to the “reasons” for school closure that continue to be ignored or not considered, like ongoing residential racial segregation/isolation linked to a history of housing discrimination and limited employment opportunities, commerce, and overall economic depletion in Black communities that unfortunately is still largely government sanctioned (see Anderson, 2016, pp. 115-116; Rothstein, 2017). Rather, in most cases, as we will discuss further, policy makers and district leaders’ decision to close schools is both a hasty and temporary remedy, that still does not address the underlying issues of institutional and structural racism and inequities that remain.

 
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