Give credit to Education Secretary Arne Duncan for showing up at a hearing last week where hundreds of irate students and parents complained that the department's position on closing schools has resulted in harm for low-income students of color.
Allegations of civil rights violations and the legal-speak "disparate impact" are too tame to reflect the raucous, angry tone of the meeting. "I came here to demand. I ain't asking for, not a damn thing. I am telling you that I am demanding an education for our children. We pay the money. We send our money to the schools. They are our schools. They are our children. It is our money. That is our attitude," cried Helen Moore, an education activist from Detroit. Her speech was greeted by cheers.
The meeting in Washington D.C. made an unusual splash for a close-to-the-ground grassroots movement, dubbed "Journey for Justice," that spans 18 cities. The group's members are protesting school closings, "turnaround" school reorganizations, and the expansion of charter schools in communities of color. They say the "top-down" decisions to close schools, because they are under-enrolled or otherwise deemed as "failing," has had devastating impacts on poor students and kids of color. The coalition is asking the Education Department to stop school closings by instituting a national moratorium and demanding a face-to-face meeting with President Obama to make their case.
The timing couldn't be better. The meeting came in the wake of an announcement by District of Columbia School Chancellor Kaya Henderson that she plans to close 15 schools, most in the city's poorest neighborhoods. Other cities like New York and Chicago are facing similar dilemmas.
Duncan, meanwhile, is a strong supporter of turnaround efforts for failing schools, which the administration generally defines as those with the bottom 5 percent in achievement scores. Duncan argues that if a dramatic reorganizing of the schools doesn't work, the school should be shuttered. Those are tough words to hear for a community that is invested in its local schools, particularly if there aren't other convenient options.
Are the activists right when they say that school closings are civil rights violations? Do school closings disparately harm disadvantaged communities? How can the impacts of school closings be mitigated? What are some good reasons to close a school, and who should decide? Are dramatic turnaround efforts that don't involve closure harmful? Are there examples of productive turnaround efforts? Is there any way to address failing schools without someone getting hurt?