by Félix Pérez
Memphis, Tenn., is no stranger to school closures. The Shelby County School District closed four schools in 2012 and 2013 each. And the district, despite a wave of parent- and clergy-led protests and a petition that generated 6,000 signatures, voted last month to close nine schools and combine two others.
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At a recent school board meeting, the Rev. Dwight Ray Montgomery said, “If Dr. King were here today, he’d be standing where I’m standing today, unafraid.”
In Newark, N.J., parents and educators are organized and speaking out against a proposal by the state-appointed superintendent to close or consolidate more than a dozen schools.
Last week, special education teacher Marie Blistan, testifying before the state Legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Schools, called the plan “misguided, top-down and illegal.”
The proposal “poses a threat to the very notion of universal public education designed to serve every school-age child in New Jersey,” said Blistan, vice president of the New Jersey Education Association.
Whether in Memphis, Newark, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, or Chicago, communities hit by school closures bemoan the loss of a longstanding neighborhood asset. Residents say school board members and local elected officials give short shrift to displaced students, many of whom have to walk long distances through dangerous neighborhoods to reach their new schools, some of which have poor records on academics, discipline and safety.
In Chicago, where some 100 schools have been closed since 2001 and 88 percent of the affected students were black, students commute to their new schools through gang areas using “safe passage” routes designated by the police department.
Aside from the less-than-anticipated savings realized by school districts and the likelihood that many students are moved to academically underperforming schools, critics of school closures take issue with the influx of out-of-state for-profit charter school companies that benefit financially from distressed communities and siphon money from underfunded public schools. In many instances, these for-profit schools are not accountable to parents or school boards, have mixed records of academic success, and are exempted from many of the standards and requirements with which public schools must comply.
NJ special education teacher Marie Blistan testifies against Newark plan
The preferential status given to for-profit charter schools can be traced in large measure to the American Legislative Exchange Network (ALEC). ALEC, a corporate bill mill in which politicians let corporations vote on what bills to pass behind closed doors, with no public input, has promulgated several model bills in recent years that carve out special status for-profit charter school corporations at the expense of neighborhood public schools. Examples include:
The Virtual Public Schools Act
This “model” legislation states that “virtual” or online schools must be provided equitable treatment and resources as any other public school in the state. These schools would receive state per-pupil funding for each student without having to provide the services provided in traditional brick and mortar schools, including transportation and extracurricular activities. The senior vice president of Connection Academies, owned by British media conglomerate Pearson and one of the nation’s largest providers of online schools and classes, serves as the corporate co-chair of ALEC’s education task force.
The Special Needs Scholarship Program Act
This act stipulates that the maximum scholarship granted to an eligible student shall be equivalent to the cost of the educational program that would have been provided for the student in the resident school district, although the participating school is not required to abide by the student’s Individualized Education Plan.
The Innovation Schools and School Districts Act
Upon designation of a district of innovation, each innovation school and each innovation school zone in the school district shall be allowed to waive any provisions of a collective bargaining agreement.
Next Generation Charter Schools Act
This “model” legislation has taxpayers subsidize “charter” schools, from federal, state and local sources, while exempting these charter schools from complying with any of the legal requirements that govern public schools, such as teacher and principal qualification standards, intramural and extracurricular program requirements, or even construction or safety rules.
Parent Trigger Act
ALEC’s “Parent Trigger Act” would allow a small group of parents to close a school for current and future students and turn the school into a charter school or require the state to use taxpayer dollars for vouchers to subsidize private tuition.
Education Accountability Act
Under this act, a three-fourths vote of the state legislature or a majority vote of residents within the affected jurisdiction is required to have private schools abide by any regulation pertaining to health, safety, or land use imposed by any county, city, district, or subdivision of the state.
There is growing concern among some states that for-profit charter school companies have a fundamental conflict of interest: Are they more concerned about their stockholders or the education of children? New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island and Tennessee have banned them from operating schools.
Meanwhile, school closures continue to disrupt communities. “When you close a school, you’re disinvesting in that population,” said Jitu Brown, an organizer with the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization in Chicago.