Category Archives: School Closings

Continued schools closings, privatization, and what it means for cities

Privatization

Yes Magazine put together this infographic on the reasons why private entities want public schools.

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.

 

 

Talking about the fight for schools in West Baltimore

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These are the folks I was with yesterday talking about schools in Baltimore at the Imagining America conference. This year the conference was held in Baltimore, and our panel, featuring Dayvon Love from Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, Helen Atkinson from the Teachers Democracy Project, and George Mitchell from the Park Heights neighborhood association and Langston Hughes Elementary School.

Our conversation was about the ways in which decisions were made to keep certain schools open and to close others in Baltimore. Twenty-six schools were slated for closure under something called the 21st century plan which is a plan to renovate some schools in Baltimore. The agreement, which was made with the state legislature, provided funds for school reconstruction if the district agreed to “right size” itself, which meant school closures. Even though school closure has a negative impact on communities, the city agreed– the positives outweighed the negatives for them.

Hearing the story of Langston Hughes Elementary school’s closure, however, sheds light on the plan for closure. As George Mitchell reported, the plan for closure was riddled with problems. The school was small, but served Park Heights, a low income black neighborhood, well. It was higher performing than other schools in the area and had a thriving after school program for children. The school was also in a renovated building which had technology, air-conditioning, and a facility that would rival any school serving a more affluent community. So why close the school? Charter operators had their sights on the location for one of their schools. Mitchell started getting calls two years ago and continues to get calls about turning over the school to private operators. He and others have tried to fight the closing, but once the city announced the list of school closures, parents began to pull their children out of the school, causing it to have declining enrollment and weakening their case to keep the school open. Many people started to see the closing as inevitable and even elected officials withdrew support from the school.

Children who attended Langston Hughes are now going a mile down the road to Pimlico Elementary, a school built in 1910 without the air conditioning, technology, and modern facilities. They have a bus to transport them there, but the research tells us that the children will face other problems integrating into the new school. Anecdotal reports have confirmed that the children are not fitting in at the school and struggling academically. Some parents have pulled their children out of that school  as a result.

What does this mean for Baltimore? For urban schools? The Langston Hughes story is one which tells us that the improvement of urban schools is not always about looking at genuine successes and building upon them, but deal-making. The closure of Langston Hughes was agreed upon by city and state officials long ago. The success of the school and the broad support that it had in the community meant very little to those folks. Their plans were made. However, this does not mean that all is lost in Baltimore or in urban schools, it means that the resistance to these plans needs to be more forceful. Plans to close Dyett High School in Chicago were finally abandoned because of a group of supported that launched a hunger strike for that school. They built a broad coalition, got a lot of media attention, and forced the city to compromise. Those will be the kinds of actions that teachers, parents, students, and community members will need to take in order to resist plans for urban school improvement that are guided by interests outside of low income communities of color.

Another map of inequality in Baltimore

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In a previous post, I showed a map of the closing schools in Baltimore. Here is another map created by Hedgeclippers, a group that tries to expose the unjust the operations of hedge funds. This map is surprisingly (or unsurprisingly) similar to the map of school closings in Baltimore. Here we see the red dots in the same communities where schools are closing. The red dots on this map indicate places in which Fortress Investment, a hedge fund, has bought debt. These debts could be as small as a $250 overdue water bill. The collection of debts is owned by Fortress which charges, in some cases, over 18% interests to its borrowers. These are folks that are Baltimore’s poorest residents, who will likely lose their homes as the result of this situation.

The city of Baltimore, one the few cities to do this, sold off its tax liens to the highest bidder. Fortress, in this case, which describes itself as a “garbage collector,” won the bid, and will likely make a fortune off of the debts when residents are unable to pay. They will reclaim houses, property, and even wages of Baltimore’s poorest.

This is all happening in the neighborhoods where Baltimore’s schools are closing. School closings, in this case, seem to be symptomatic of a much larger problem to squeeze out the poor in Baltimore. While the hedgefunders make no claims to any wrong-doing, they are clearly profiting off of the destruction of Baltimore’s neighborhoods. No reform plan to improve schools or to augment community services will be able to combat this plan to gut the communities that house Baltimore’s poor.

It may not be long until profit is made on the closed schools as well.  Milwaukee is getting ready to sell its closed school buildings, which housed low performing schools just like in Baltimore. Selling off the resources of the poorest communities will inevitably eviscerate those communities. Perhaps that is the intention.

Update on Langston Hughes Elementary, a closing Baltimore school

Langston Hughes elementary school is in the Park Heights section of Baltimore. It was a small school with a devoted principal, teachers, and community. The building, unlike many others in the city, had air conditioning, technology, and contained murals and art produced by students. It was a welcoming place to be. In the spring of 2015, the community rallied to support the city’s decision to close it, but failed. The city stuck with its decision which it based on under-utilization and under-performance. In a June 2015 letter, the city reiterated its decision to close the school. They were operating under a commitment to close 26 schools mandated by the state of Maryland.

Today, young people who would have attended Langston Hughes, go back to school on busesBuses from LHE to Pimlico provided by the district. They will go to one of two elementary schools in the area that are slated for renovation. The schools will be under construction while students attend them. They will have to make new friends, find new connections with teachers, and deal with more students in their classrooms. This may be the least of their worries as they may also face health risks in a school under construction, a safety risk among students who may or may not welcome them.

The teachers and principal will have to incorporate these new students into their school, and teachers will have more students to instruct. All of these changes can impact the environment of the school and the ability of kids to learn.

There is also the school building that Langston Hughes Elementary is vacating. What will happen to it? Will it remain vacant? The community would like to see a community center, but there has been no commitment to that plan.

This is what we might call the collateral damage when we close schools. The video below conveys the need to consider this collateral damage. While it is too late to save schools like Langston Hughes, we need to think about what is next? What happens to the children? What happens to the neighborhood?

 

From Freddie Gray to closing schools, structural racism is revealed in city policies

Freddie Gray is now a household name. Gray died on April 19, 2015 at the hands of the police, which set off a firestorm of protests in Baltimore. Protests were focused on ensuring that the police officers involved in his case were brought to justice, but were also a direct response to the conditions under which Gray lived.

Freddie Gray’s life was spent in Sandtown-Winchester, a West Baltimore neighborhood that has the highest incarceration rate in the state of Maryland. Over 47% of its children live below the poverty line. The unemployment rate is 22.7%. It is a neighborhood that has faced economic devastation. Freddie Gray’s death was horrific and unjust, but also revealed a much larger problem than just police brutality. It exposed a system of structural inequality so deep that it will not go away with the imprisonment of the police officers charged in Gray’s case.

Structural inequality is built into the fabric of Sandtown-Winchester. It is a neighborhood that has faced divestment for years in the city of Baltimore from housing segregation to deindustrialization. The neighborhood has been left racially and economically isolated, without life. While there has been private investment in the neighborhood, to the tune of $130 million in public and private funds to rebuild the housing stock, the same kind of investment was not made in the economy and into  jobs. This has left Sandtown-Winchester in the same place, without economic opportunity.

Rather than invest in turning around the depressed neighborhood, the city has focused  on economic development in more affluent areas of the city. Hoping to attract new residents to downtown, and other gentrifying sections of Baltimore, the city has given tax breaks to developers and poured resources into luring middle class people into city living. While it attracts residents, it wants to keep taxes low and to do that has decided to turn to privatization. The city recently made plans to privatize its public housing, calling it an opportunity for Baltimore residents. The mayor and other public officials tried to convince residents that this approach would enable the cash-strapped city a chance at public dollars to rehabilitate its old buildings. The city tried the same tactic with its water, trying to privatize it, but Baltimore residents saw through the scheme and demonstrated until the city abandoned its plans.

Despite this win, the city has been successful in moving forward with its privatization plans and its plans to cater to new residents of Baltimore. For example, a planned charter expansion is moving forward which, many believe, are more attractive to middle class families than traditional public schools. Charter schools  can be innovative, but are also not accountable to the communities in the same way that public schools are. Many are run by private operators and can avoid the public scrutiny that public schools cannot.

Charter expansion is made possible by a recent plan to close down 26 public schools. By eliminating public schools, the city has room for charters to come in.  School closings have impacted the poorest neighborhoods in the city, including Sandtown-Winchester which is losing one school under this plan. Claiming that it cannot afford to maintain buildings that are “under-utilized,” below a state-determined number for capacity, and “poorly performing,” defined narrowly by test scores, the city has even argued that closure will be good for the city’s neighborhoods since it will save funds and will allow more schools access to state dollars for renovation and improvements.

Closing a school is never good for a community. Even when it is not producing high academic achievement, it is a public institution that serves a community’s children food and offers a space for democratic participation. The closures are an opportunity for educational management organizations though. They are beginning to lay claim to some of the closing schools, hoping to access dollars being made available for charter schools and renovation. Langston Hughes Elementary, for example, is one of those schools. Situated in a neighborhood, Park Heights, that struggles economically, Langston Hughes is a school that is well-regarded by the community. The school is slated for closure at the end of the 2015-2016 school year. George Mitchell, a local activist, has already been contacted about putting a charter in the Langston Hughes building. For him, moving a charter into the building means the end for the community. He said, “Closing a public school that is working for the community is just wrong.”

Consequently, the neighborhood is resisting the school’s closure. For Mitchell and fellow activists, the fight is not just about Langston Hughes Elementary, but it is about maintaining control over the neighborhood that they live in. It is about resisting policies and plans that ignore the poorest residents of the city in favor of new, more affluent ones. It is about maintaining the one public institution left in their communities, public schools. In neighborhoods like Park Heights and Sandtown-Winchester, the public school is the one place where opportunity can thrive. Without it, inequality wins, racism wins and a system that produced devastating outcomes for Freddie Gray wins.

 

 

 

 

 

School’s Out shows at PATOIS in New Orleans

Over the weekend, School’s Out,  a film about Baltimore’s school closings, screened alongside A Perfect Storm, film about the privatization of New Orleans schools, at PATOIS: A human rights film festival in New Orleans. The screening was a special session on educational justice. The panel included Jessica Shiller, producer of School’s Out from Baltimore, as well as A Perfect Storm producers: Karran Harper Royal, Raynard Sanders, and Phoebe Ferguson.

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The discussion was lively and included questions about how to engage teachers in the struggle to preserve public education, how gentrification schemes intersect with privatization of schools, and how more short videos can be made to highlight the challenges faced by public education now.

Although Baltimore and New Orleans are different contexts, they are majority black cities that face similar struggles around public education. Both have had school closures and charter schools opening in their place. They both face politicians who have implemented policies that have shrunk public voice in educational decisions and have delivered poor quality schools to the children of their cities. By working in solidarity across cities, the dots began to get connected and people can begin to see that there is a strategy in cities to privatize public schools and to limit voice and choice for the families trying to access schools for their children. Ultimately, what needs to happen, according to the panel, is organizing. Organizing to return public education to the public.

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