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Activism is the vehicle for school change

When I moved to Baltimore, in 2010, the prevailing wisdom was that in order to change the public schools, advocates needed to pursue one main course of action: To get more funds from the state. The schools and the city had been neglected and divested from for so many decades (which was certainly true), that the city was in desperate need of funds. Every spring there was a big push to mobilize parents, students, and teachers to ride to the state capitol and demonstrate for funds, lobby legislators, testify at hearings for  increased funding. Even locally within the city, advocates pushed for public and private partnerships and pressured the city to provide more funds for the schools.

Very few people involved in this advocacy work discussed what these funds would be used for, or publicly imagined what school should look like in the city. Maybe people were so busy describing the deplorable conditions to politicians, philanthropists, and the media, that they did not have much energy to imagining possibilities. But in reality, there was a lack of public imagination beyond some well worn, yet not so successful strategies, like expanding charter schools.

Years later, I can say that the landscape has shifted dramatically. The Baltimore Movement of Rank and File Educators (BMORE), a small group of teachers who have been dissatisfied with their union and have decided to organize a group of their own. Inspired by CORE in Chicago and the Caucus of Working Educators in Philadelphia, these teachers have both acknowledged that they are union members, but want to differentiate themselves from the traditional union leadership that has fought for bread and butter issues, and have  articulated a serious commitment to racial justice. This is something that we have seen in other teachers’ unions around the country, especially in Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and Los Angeles.  It has taken a while to get a foothold in Baltimore. This small group has grown slowly, but really started to hit their stride this year, and now they have taken off.

The recent crisis around the temperature in Baltimore’s schools has changed the context, and people who have been dissatisfied with the school system for many years have Black teacher matterdecided to get involved, attend meetings, go to events and demonstrations. When the schools had to close in January because there was no heat in many of them, and there was fundraising for space heaters and warm coats for students and classrooms people had had enough. BMORE was right there at the January school board meeting and testified about these unacceptable conditions. They are now working on a legislative agenda at the state level as well as ongoing activism within Baltimore’s schools to ensure that there are more teachers of color, more culturally responsive curricula, and more communication and transparency from the school district about decision-making.

This week BMORE is organizing a week of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, alongside similar events nationwide. Next on their agenda will be pushing for legislation to earmark funding that gets generated from a local casino to go to public schools. The momentum is building to ensure that the public commitment to education has some accountability to local teachers and students. By next year, there will be a new union election at the Baltimore Teachers Union, and BMORE plans to run a slate of teachers to challenge the incumbent leaders who have held office for decades. This is an exciting turn of events in which there is a movement to advance a positive and clear agenda for public schools, not one that simply criticizes. BMORE is working in partnership with the youth at the Baltimore Algebra Project, and has the power to grow much more, and more than anything Baltimore has seen in many years has the power to change public schools in the city.

Why is Baltimore closing schools?

This interactive map shows public schools in Baltimore. Schools designated for closure under the 21st Century Plan are identified by large red markers; other schools have blue markers. By clicking on the marker of any school, you can view census data about the neighborhood in which the school sits.

Baltimore City has embarked on a 21st century plan for its schools which entails, among other things, closing 26 of its public schools over the next few years. By closing schools, the system’s leaders say they will be able to do renovations and improvements to the rest of the schools in the system. On the face of it, it sounds like a good strategy- close a few schools and renovate others.The city school leaders say closing schools can cut costs, but according to research, there is little evidence to show that school closings would improve education for children and students attending the closing schools would likely attend schools no better than the ones they had attended. Meanwhile, closing schools may not even save money. An audit of school closings in Washington, D.C., schools showed closures costing, rather than saving the district money.  City school leaders say school closures are meant to improve school choice options, but we know that better schools are not guaranteed from new schools alone and, more importantly, they hurt low-income communities by closing anchor institutions that provide schooling as well as a host of counseling services and after school programs for youth in the community.

Under the plan more than 8,000 – almost 10% – of Baltimore’s classroom seats will be affected by closures. But some communities will be affected much more than others. For example, a few communities* will lose more than 40% of their classroom seats under the 21st Century plan. In these communities, the average rate of poverty is more than 50%, compared to the citywide average of 32%. This analysis highlights an all-too-familiar phenomenon: school closures are concentrated in communities with high rates of poverty, placing additional burdens on families that already lack resources and access to public services.

*Poppleton/ The Terraces/ Hollins Market, Highlandtown, Edmondson Village, Penn North/ Reservoir Hill

City school leaders say that the schools that are closing because of under-utilization. The State, which is the largest source of funding for education and school facility improvements, has mandated that the city close schools due to “excess space.” They claim that the city has lost tens of thousands of students of recent decades and thus, there are a ton of empty seats in these school buildings. But school buildings can serve as a community anchor, with a myriad of useful programs co-located in the building. On the school site, there can be social services, job-training programs, daycares, health centers, or even businesses. All of these things should be strategically integrated into school program to help kids and families to succeed.

Another reason that has been given for school closure is that the schools are underperforming. This is based on test score data that they collect, but we know that single largest determinant of test scores is family income not schools. So, in essence, this plan will end up punishing the city’s poorest communities by shuddering their schools. The school closure phenomenon is not unique to Baltimore. School closure is a strategy borrowed from cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, and Detroit, where massive numbers of public schools have closed. The results in those cities have been disastrous. In Chicago, 47 schools closed.  In Philadelphia, 23 schools closed, leaving 3000 school staff out of work. The schools opened this year without school aides, librarians, gym, art and music. There were no school secretaries. The state has not come into help Philadelphia schools but has invested in building a $400 million prison. So, research and experience from other cities tells us that school closure is not a winning strategy.