At Ford Foundation, a harsh critique of urban school closures

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

For many, the growing push to close underutilized and chronically low-performing urban schools sounds like a common sense plan.

But not Chicago’s Jitu Brown.

“School closings actually harm us in our communities,” said Brown, speaking Monday at the Ford Foundation in New York City.

As a longtime organizer for the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, Brown was speaking from experience. Between 2001 and 2009, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) closed 44 schools, decisions Brown argued were driven more by real estate prices in the surrounding communities than the educational needs of students. The results, he said, were a spike in school violence, the destabilization of schools receiving displaced students, and the awarding of several public schools to unqualified charter operators.

“They come into our neighborhoods with bad policy they force down our throats.” Brown exhorted the audience: “Schools are community institutions, not corporate craps games.”

Such sentiments abounded during Monday’s event, hosted by the Ford Secondary Education and Racial Justice Collaborative and attended by many who see the school closure push as thin cover for a broader effort to weaken public education.

“When we started to notice the rash of school closings, we started to recognize this as a major technology of privatization,” said Michelle Fine, a professor of social psychology at the City University of New York and one of the event’s organizers.

“[The event] was motivated by the sense of ravenous greed that we were witnessing here in New York, where [2,000] people show up to a meeting [about school closings] and [Mayor Michael] Bloomberg says ‘Go to hell, we’re going to close them anyway.’”

Beyond the anger, Fine said that the conference was primarily intended to help “educators and community to mobilize and generate rich democratic alternatives” to the school closings, turnarounds and privatization.

For instance, the contingent from Los Angeles talked about how grassroots organizers worked with educators to design Esteban E. Torres High School in East Los Angeles, the first new school there in 85 years. It includes small learning communities, a schedule that supports civic participation for students, and deeply embedded community services.

In recent years, influential organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and the Broad Foundation – not to mention wealthy celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg – have given tens of millions to the charter and school turnaround movements, both of which are closely linked to the push for urban school closures.

As a result, many of the 95 activists, academics, parents, and students at Ford on Monday say they feel marginalized from the public discussion about the seismic reforms that are underway. They were quick to warm up to fiery messages like Brown’s.

For its part, the Ford Foundation is agnostic about the specific reform strategies that participants debated, said Program Officer Jorge Ruiz de Velasco. Instead, he said, the venerable foundation is focused on promoting local accountability and meaningful opportunities for parents and community residents to make their voices heard.

“A great deal of the movement in school reform is animated by the language of efficiency,” said Ruiz de Velasco. “But a number of foundations, including Ford, have been very concerned with making sure that equity and racial justice are front and center in the reforms that we fund and support.”

Sharing lessons

Monday’s discussion featured delegations from Chicago, Los Angeles, Newark, New York, and Philadelphia.

Brown and the Chicago contingent took on the role of grizzled veterans of closings and turnarounds, sharing stories and battle scars while critiquing, from a variety of angles, the recent history of school closures in their city.

Marisa de la Torre, a Senior Research Analyst at the Consortium on Chicago School Research, shared findings from a 2009 study of 18 Chicago schools that were closed due to poor performance or underutilization.

“Very few [displaced] students went on to schools that were academically successful,” said de la Torre.

Pauline Lipman, a professor of education policy studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, presented a series of maps bolstering her contention that “school closings are a way of clearing out a neighborhood for gentrification.”

And Karen Lewis, the recently elected president of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), reprised the message that she said she’s been delivering to the Chicago Board of Education for years.

“When we first started going to the board meetings about school closings, the decisions were already made. They were done deals,” Lewis said. “We came in said to the board this process is illegal and immoral. You have to make it more inclusive.”

A large contingent from Newark, NJ was paying close attention.

Newark is currently in the throes of a significant restructuring of its public schools due to a combination of decreased state funding, declining enrollment, persistent poor performance, and the dramatic recent growth of the pro-charter and school choice movements.

“If you don’t have the students in your schools, you don’t have money,” said Junius Williams, director of the Abbott Leadership Institute at Rutgers University. “If charters begin replacing public schools, [reductions in staff and services] are what you get, and people are concerned.”

Those concerns exploded into public view in early February, when an internal Newark Public Schools (NPS) document was leaked. The draft proposal, prepared by NPS staff and an outside “diagnostic team,” contained a plan for the closure, conversion, or co-location of numerous Newark public schools, with both new district schools and charter schools filling in the gaps.

In response, both proponents and critics began organizing turnout for a March 22 meeting of the Newark Public Schools Advisory Board. Members of the Abbott Leadership Institute’s Youth Media Symposium, angry at the lack of public input into the development of the plan, helped produce a public service announcement, calling on parents, students, teachers, and residents to attend what ended up being a raucous meeting. “Once 1,000 people showed up, no one wanted to take credit for the proposal,” said Williams.

“This is all about space and dollars,” he added. “There has yet to be anything that addresses educational improvement. We absolutely need to make changes, but we don’t need to do it on a wing and a prayer. This is not the answer.”

Follow the money

Such rhetoric left CTU President Lewis and others feeling motivated to push their critiques forward.

“For some reason, business people, who have never cared about Black or Brown children in their entire history, all of a sudden are paying attention to what’s happening in public schools. Where did this largesse come from all of a sudden? It’s economic, and we know it,” said Lewis.

“We have to continue to connect the dots. People have to understand the funding of this so-called change, where it comes from [and] who’s behind it.”

Another panelist, Newark Public Schools administrator Daniel Gohl, however, took a different tack. Given the status quo, he argued, activists do their communities a disservice by automatically resisting all outsiders.

The “reactionary fear” from some community groups limits NPS’s ability “to improve education with the contributions of resources and expertise from outside Newark,” said Gohl, the executive officer for innovation and change in NPS.

“We need all the help we can get,” Gohl added after the event. “Unless we can demonstrate the ability to deliver a better education, we will be put on the same district death spiral as is being experienced in New Orleans, Kansas City, Detroit, and other communities.”

On March 31, the Newark Public Schools Advisory Board will hear community reaction to its final restructuring plan, which Gohl says is heavily focused on co-location and limited closures. On April 5, they will vote.

Two days later, School District of Philadelphia officials are expected to finally make public their recommendations for a first round of school consolidations and reconfigurations, although officials have said no schools will close in September.

Later in the month, Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission (SRC) is set to authorize as many as eight new “Renaissance charters” – public schools turned over to outside managers, a process that has caused several student walkouts and large protest rallies.

Though to some the outcomes in both cities have the air of inevitability, the discussion at the Ford Foundation made clear that the lines for future battles are just being drawn.

“This is a strategy for external political control, not school improvement,” said event discussant Stan Karp of the Education Law Center-New Jersey and the publication Rethinking Schools.

“Public accountability is being removed, and we need a public response.”