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Politicians = Color-Evasive Educational Leadership

Typically, in the case of school closures it is not school administrators with years of training and preparation to lead schools who have the most power to make key leadership decisions, but in fact politicians. Urban school districts are often taken over by the state or subject to mayoral control because policy makers aim to fix what they believe traditional school leadership has been unable to. Mayoral and state regimes have yet to live up to their promises of instant academic gains or financial recovery, but instead have managed to radically alter the urban public school landscape by shutting tax payers out of public school decision-making and leaving low-income, working class communities of color with little to no public neighborhood schooling options (see Pew, 2016).

Currently, there are 15 mayoral-controlled school districts in the U.S., and this governance structure typically limits local school community voice, and unfortunately for this reason is an opportune space for policies like school closures (Pew, 2016). Mayoral-controlled districts are managed using more corporatized structures where traditionally elected boards are replaced with a mayoral-appointed board. Also, under a mayoral-controlled structure the superintendent position, typically held by a certified and seasoned career educational administrator, who has been rigorously vetted, is replaced by and rebranded as a mayoral-appointed Chief Executive Officer (CEO) or Chancellor. In many cases appointed CEOs or Chancellors have limited prior experience in the education field, and some are even recruited from the corporate world or held other prior political positions. Even when a CEO/Chancellor does have some previous experience in education, they often have ties to foundations and organizations with neoliberal agendas, and brand themselves as educational “reformers” who have what it takes to rapidly execute policies and decisions that are usually steeped in the ideology of the market, and that they firmly believe will clean up what the public has deemed to be a broken school system. This type of unilateral organizational arrangement permits hasty approval and execution of widespread neoliberal educational reforms because there is no public input or approval, and so the educational policy processes under mayoral control are grossly anti-democratic.

One of the most controversial mayoral-appointed public school figures is former Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools Michelle Rhee, who resigned in 2010 after voters adamantly chose not to reelect her boss Mayor Adrian Fenty. Voters were disgruntled over a number of Rhee’s polarizing educational reforms—like closing two dozen schools—that Mayor Fenty gave her carte blanche to implement without community input (Hopkinson, 2010; Mead, 2017; Strauss, 2017). Another polemic educational reformer, former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, when serving as CEO of Chicago Public Schools under Mayor Richard M. Daley, on September 22, 2004 unveiled Renaissance 2010, which is a policy that forever changed the landscape of CPS to a “public” school system that is now dominated by privatization. The goal of the policy was to close 60 of the district’s worst-performing schools, the majority of which were located in Black neighborhoods, and replace them with 100 new schools (mostly charter schools) that were to be held to higher standards of accountability (CPS, 2016). Those supporting Renaissance 2010 gave the usual rationales for school closure like increased academic achievement and opening up more school choice to families via charters. However, opponents felt that the policy simply furthered gentrification, created an open door for privatization in public education, decreased community participation in schools, and subsequently severely disadvantage low-income Black students whose neighborhood schools were mostly likely to be placed on the chopping block as chronically failing (Lipman & Hursh, 2007). Subsequently, as we know, Duncan then replicated his Chicago educational policy platform, an agenda largely backed by corporate entities, at a national scale during his tenure as Secretary of Education in the Obama Administration (Carpenter, 2015).

In our final example of mayoral control, New York City Public Schools, the consequences of mass public school closure are not unlike other high-profile cases where political officials celebrate in the media the immediate improvement in student achievement due to the policy decisions, but the residual racial disparities go unresolved and relatively unmentioned. Former Mayor Bloomberg, along with school district Chancellor Klein, launched a series of interrelated reforms that involved closing over 40 high schools between 2000 and 2014, opening more than 200 new, small, themed high schools, and a school choice program accessible to all students in the district (Kemple, 2015). The politicians anticipated that eliminating high schools with high dropout rates, i.e., “dropout factories”, would increase graduation rates and provide more schooling options for students typically assigned to low-performing schools based on where they lived (Kemple, 2015). There were immediate signs of improvement, as students displaced once their high school was closed did transfer to higher-performing schools (Kemple, 2015). Also, students who entered high school post the school closure reform had higher attendance, on-track rates, higher graduation rates, and were more likely to obtain the more rigorous Regents diploma when compared to those who entered high school before the reform.

Unfortunately, though, the improvement post-school closure in NYC Public Schools was short-term. Although students displaced by closure did better at their new school, it was not by much. In the end, only 56% of these students actually graduated from high school, and there were a significant number of students “being left behind” post the implementation of school closures (Kemple, 2015, p. 52). Overall, only 30% of New York City’s high school students graduate in four years, and this statistic is worse for Black and Latinx males, of whom only slightly over 50% graduate at all (Kemple, 2015).

 
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