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Racial repercussions: Who bears the burden of school closures?

Policy makers and district officials in most cases during the policy decision-making process have given limited consideration of who will be disparately impacted by school closures. The disproportionate impact of school closure in the U.S. by race is not just an urban phenomenon, but also an issue in suburban and rural contexts as well (Gallagher & Gold, 2017). A research study from the Urban Institute found that between the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 school years, nationally Black students represented 31% of students in urban schools that remained open but disproportionally accounted for 61% of students in schools that were permanently closed; white students, however, represented 19% of students in the schools that remained open and only 7% of students in schools that were closed. In suburban districts Black students represented 29% of students in schools that were closed, which outweighed their representation of students (14%) in schools that remained open. Comparatively, white suburban students were underrepresented in their proportion of students in closed schools at 43%, when compared to their proportion (54%) of students in suburban schools that remained open. Finally, though white students represent the majority in rural school districts, Latinx students in comparison were still slightly overrepresented in schools that closed at 14% compared to their representation of students, almost 12%, in rural schools that remained open (Gallagher & Gold, 2017).

Although, the national discourse on school closures centers primarily on urban contexts, this same study from the Urban Institute counters this assumption with findings that suggest most school closures occur in suburban school districts. For example, in 2012-13, 53% of school closures were in suburban areas, 26% in rural, with slightly less school closures, 21%, in urban areas (Gallagher & Gold, 2017).

However, in urban areas there is a distinctive geography of race in terms of how school closure plays out, as it is an intersection of where someone lives and their racial background that unfortunately determines the probability of impact by school closure. One prime example is Chicago, where politicians and district officials presented their decision-making criteria for school closure as not being about race per se (i.e., race-neutral), but rather consisting of other factors like enrollment decline, low performance, and space underutilization. Yet, the effects of school closure are indeed racist. Black students, who represent 40% of the student population in CPS, but 88% of the students affected by school closure, disproportionately are the largest racial group impacted by school closures in Chicago (OTL, 2013). Latinx students, the largest racial/ethnic subgroup, represent 10% of students affected by school closure, and white students less than 1%. Then, when geography is coupled with race what is revealed is that the majority of schools closed are located in zip codes comprised of majority Black and low-income populations, as well as those schools located in zip codes on the South Side of the city (Johnson, 2012).

In our own research, we examined linkages between the geography of race and school closures in Chicago (Diem & Welton, 2017). In Figure 4.1 we provide a map of Chicago that substantiates the severity with which certain racial subgroups experience school closure. In the map, the dark grey areas represent a higher percentage of white students, medium grey areas for Black students, light grey for Latinx students, and white for Asian students. Each dot signifies a school that was closed, and is color-coded to represent the policy timeline in which the school was closed. Light grey dot schools were closed as a result of Renaissance 2010, which was a massive school restructuring policy led by then chief of schools Arne Duncan to radically alter public education in Chicago and introduce market-based approaches. Sixty schools were closed as a result of this policy. Medium grey dots represent the additional 50 schools closed in 2013 by the Board of Education appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Finally, black dots represent charter schools situated in the area. We will discuss later in this chapter the role school district leaders and city officials played in spearheading school closure policies. Hence, this map illustrates the geography of race and school closures, substantiating the notion that predominately Black communities are most affected by school closures.

Similarly, Lee and Lubienski (2017), using Geographic Information System data, created cartograms to investigate the level of equitable access to schooling after the mass school closures of 2013 in Chicago. While school closures caused moderate inequity in access for most students, the researchers found that in areas with a high density of African American and Latinx children aged 5 to 14 there is a negative change in access to schooling after school closures. Even more specifically, neighborhoods with a high cluster of African American children presented a small but significant difference in accessibility to schooling after closures. The researchers also considered the intersection of race and specific neighborhood location and found that African American children living in southern areas of Chicago experience a moderate change in access to schooling, whereas children in northern areas experience a significant increase in travel time and distance after school closings. School closure also affects other vulnerable populations. For instance, in 2013 homeless students represented 8% (2,615) of the 31,438 students affected by school closure in Chicago (Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, 2013).

There is also concern that students displaced by school closure will have to cross gang territories and risk violence en route to their new school (J4J, 2014), and Lee & Lubienski’s (2017) research corroborates

Chicago community areas by race and type of school closure Source

Figure 4.1 Chicago community areas by race and type of school closure Source: Diem and Welton (2017).

this concern. They found that children living in areas of higher incidence of dangerous and unhealthy factors (e.g., gang activity, vacant buildings, graffiti, crime) experience the most significant inequities in access to schooling after closure, and are more likely to travel to school through areas with high incidence of crime. In response to community concern about student safety post school closures, CPS initiated the Safe

Passage program to provide community escorts who protect students while traveling to their new school, but critics argue this program is not enough to safeguard students from gang violence (Ahmed-Ullah, 2013). Based on their findings, Lee and Lubienski (2017) conclude that the school closure policy not only exacerbates racial inequities in access to quality schooling but also reinforces racial segregation in Chicago.

CPS school closing policy—based on the capacity and the number of empty seats at schools—raised the likelihood that students in segregated, geographically discontinuous communities had less access to neighboring schools within the commutable travel time. In other words, the school closings bring educational inequality to predominately disadvantaged neighborhoods, which in turn exacerbates segregation and inequality in metropolitan areas.

(Lee & Lubienski, 2017, p. 70)

Similar to Chicago, the 2013 school closures in Philadelphia precipitated a pattern of racial and geographic inequities. That year 81% of African American students were impacted by school closures, yet they represented just 58% of the total student population, an evident disproportionality (Schott Foundation, 2013). In terms of geographic location, most of the school closures occurred in African American neighborhoods in Lower North Philadelphia and West Philadelphia. Unfortunately, school closure was just another disparity to add to the long history of “discriminatory investments and disinvestments” from predominately African American neighborhoods in Philadelphia (Good, 2016, p. 879). The disproportionate effect of school closures on Black and Brown neighborhoods extends beyond educational inequities. In communities of color, the neighborhood school is often a symbol of the community’s cultural history, and closing the school not only erases a community’s sense of identity but also the community ties that are a deeply important form of social and cultural capital (see Cobb, 2015; Johnson, 2012).

In addition, the Collaborative for Equity and Justice in Education (2014) at the University of Illinois, Chicago found that school closures in Chicago adversely affect parent involvement. Parents and caregivers reported that prior to closure they were deeply involved in their schools and filled many needed roles such as volunteer coaches, classroom aides, and community liaisons. In the Collaborative’s study several parents reported that they felt excluded, unwelcomed, and that they were not encouraged to be as involved in their new school. Moreover, parents felt CPS did not listen to their concerns about the decision to close their school, and as a result they had a growing mistrust of the district.

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