More news continues to emerge across the country of budgets shrinking, neighborhood schools closing, and charter schools opening in their place. Four more schools were put on the closing list in Baltimore last week. In Philadelphia, Chicago, Memphis, we see closings followed by the proliferation of charter schools, leading one to conclude that this is a very deliberate strategy of outsourcing public schools to private operators. The Broad Foundation’s effort to get control of Los Angeles schools is the most recent plan to address budget woes with a plan to privatize the schools.
Research has shown that these practices do not yield much success. Not only have privately operated schools not produced better outcomes for students, but the combined strategies of privatization, high stakes testing, and accountability have failed to produce better learning and better outcomes for children. Seeing these poor results, there has been resistance to market-based strategies all over the country. From Chicago’s hunger strike to save Dyett High School from closing to Philadelphia student protest against budget cuts to the Seattle teacher strike for recess and better salaries, people across the country have resisted. Meanwhile, superintendents who favored neoliberal policies are under fire. Chicago may be the best example of this with calls for mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s resignation and superintendent Barbara Byrd Bennet’s scandalous exit.
Yet, resistance has not stopped school from closing or privatization of public schools. What will this mean for cities? What will the impact be? I argue that closing schools and privatization will just worsen conditions for poor children and will continue to underserve them. The best schools- charters or not- will continue to serve the most affluent children. Inequality will be reproduced.
It’s time to propose a plan that is an alternative to neoliberal strategies. I continue to believe that what happens in schools is very important, but we also have to turn our attention to what sociologists have long told us for a long time is the cause of poor academic outcomes, poverty. Sociologists and economists like William Julius Wilson, Richard Rothstein, Pedro Noguera, and Doug Massey have all linked poverty with poor achievement in school. Their studies can be traced back to James Comer’s ground-breaking study that linked social class to academic achievement in 1966. For more information on this see this link from the Economic Policy Institute.
There has been some policy to address poverty including Title I which emerged under the Civil Rights Act to address poverty in schools, but it has not been enough. In my local context, Baltimore, politicians, education leaders, and private developers have put more energy into fighting poverty. The biggest efforts to date have included a federal grant for social workers in schools, a renovated transportation plan, and a state-funded plan to knock down vacant housing, and a plan to develop more waterfront property. Whether these will work has to do with the answers to these questions:
- What problem is the plan meant to solve?
- Who will the plan benefit? Who will lose out?
- Will the plan leave inequity in place?
- How will the plan change the lives of poor people?
The plans to address poverty have to benefit those in poverty. What we have learned over many years of trying is that means putting those most impacted at the table when decisions are being made. No grants or policy-making will sustain itself until they are included in decision-making.