by Félix Pérez
The formula is straightforward: shutter public schools to deal with budget shortfalls, transfer the affected students to other under-resourced public schools ̶̶ putting them at greater risk of being labeled underperforming ̶ and clear the way for politically connected companies to open charter schools that operate with little or no public accountability.
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Communities that have experienced or are going through the process get battered and bruised. Examples include Chicago, where outraged community members were forcibly removed from a school board meeting, and Philadelphia, where 19 people were arrested at the city’s school system’s headquarters. In Newark, NJ, the latest front in the school closure wars, more than 3,000 residents have signed a petition in opposition to a proposal by the state-appointed superintendent to close or consolidate more than a dozen schools. A plan in Memphis, Tenn., to close as many as 13 schools this school year has ignited long-simmering frustrations about disinvestment in school programs and the growing presence of charter schools.
A universal complaint by parents, educators, community leaders and others is that black and low-income students are disproportionately hurt. In Chicago, 87% of affected students were black and 94% were low income. The affected students in Philadelphia were 81% black and 93% low income. And in New York City, 53% of the students were black, 93% were low income and 41% were Latino.
School district officials and mayors point to the budget savings generated by closing schools and selling the buildings. Research has shown, however, that sale prices are “frequently well below initial projections.” Empty schools, the study found, “can cast a pall over their neighborhoods and be costly to seal, maintain and insure.”
More than 405 of the sold, leased or reused properties have gone to charter schools, according to a study by The Pew Charitable Trusts. The exodus of students to charters can further reduce enrollment in district-run schools, exacerbating under-enrollment in district schools and making them candidates down the road for closure. Selling school buildings can also breed resentment among community residents, who “view local schools as community assets and have a sense of ownership and investment in them.”
School closure proponents claim that students benefit academically by moving out of underperforming, under-enrolled schools. Yet in Chicago, at least, class sizes grew larger, adding strain to receiving schools. Other studies concluded that only that only a very small minority of students will be transferred into substantially better school environments.
“Shutting the doors and abandoning schools sends a very clear message: your community, your neighborhood and your children are simply not worth the investment,” wrote Arizona math teacher and National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel in response to the Chicago closings.
“Our children deserve more. The whole purpose of public education in America is to level the playing field and provide opportunities to all children, regardless of their background. As educators, we ask ourselves: “What is best for our students?” We all know the right answer — it’s literally right in front of us. All children deserve high performing public schools in their own neighborhood, preferably ones that don’t require crossing what is effectively a war zone.”
Next week: Which charter companies benefit financially from school closures and who is behind the laws that provide charter school companies preferential status when purchasing empty school buildings?