School Closures: A New Version of Separate and Unequal

Debra Jones, Jitu Brown
Students walk through the Loop March 25, 2013, to protest plan to close 50 Chicago elementary schools.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Saturday marked the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, which struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine in public schools. Long after this landmark civil rights victory was won in the courts, however, communities of color have continued the struggle to realize an equal education for their children. From fighting back against attempts to evade desegregation to challenging efforts to keep youths of color confined to underresourced and overcrowded schools, students and parents have been doing the work of building excellent neighborhood schools for all communities for decades.

Six decades after Brown, a new “separate and unequal” doctrine is producing the same outcomes for African-American children with a different playbook: school closures. Nationwide, under the guise of “education reform,” corporate profiteers and politicians have targeted public schools that serve communities of color. Our schools are being closed, with students shuffled around and re-enrolled in different schools away from our neighborhoods. Our schools are being turned over to private companies or swapped out for charters.


In the past school year alone, Philadelphia closed 24 public schools and relocated or merged five more. Black students, who are only 58 percent of all Philadelphia students, made up 81 percent of the students affected by the closures. In Chicago, 50 schools were closed. Black students account for 43 percent of all Chicago students but 87 percent of the students affected by the closures.

Not only have top-down, punitive policies such as school closings, turnarounds and charter expansions failed to improve education outcomes for our children, but they have actually done harm. These practices are destabilizing well-performing neighborhood schools when they become overcrowded “receiving” schools, while student displacement into different neighborhoods has caused spikes in violence. And when our schools show improvement, the response is often to disinvest in them, setting them up for actions that lead to their closure.

This week the Journey for Justice Alliance, a network of 36 community-based organizations across 22 cities, released a report on the far-reaching impacts of school closings and privatization. Titled “Death by a Thousand Cuts: Racism, School Closures, and Public School Sabotage” (pdf), the report illuminates how school districts set up our schools to fail through policies that leave them underresourced, undersupported and undermined for decades. So-called reformers then use “failing schools” to justify closing or privatizing them.

In the process of school closings and turnarounds, the reformers have also put public education under the control of a powerful few while taking away community accountability and involvement. We have seen school systems ignore measurable improvements through initiatives that strengthened public input and oversight, such as Chicago’s local school councils, and instead force punitive approaches, such as school probation and mayoral control. Meanwhile, education outcomes have not improved as a result of these initiatives, with children sometimes displaced multiple times and ultimately sent to schools that are no better than the ones that closed.


When schools close, people also lose their jobs, and their families suffer as a result. Residents lose community services housed in schools, such as pre-K programs and health clinics. Property values in the neighborhood often decline, and new residents become harder to attract because a boarded-up school is a sign of neighborhood deterioration.

In every city that has seen mass school closures, students, parents, educators and other community members have resisted vigorously, engaging in extensive advocacy and holding protests and sit-ins. This week, Journey for Justice community groups took legal action with the national civil rights organization Advancement Project by filing three complaints under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which prohibits discrimination in the use of federal funds), alleging discrimination in New Orleans, Chicago and Newark, N.J. Black children in all three cities have been deeply hurt by the school-closure crisis.


In New Orleans (pdf), for example, the dramatic rate of school closures and the expansion of charter schools has given rise to the city’s Recovery School District, which has just five traditional public schools left. As a result, mostly African-American students have been swapped multiple times between different big-box charter chains, with some waiting for buses as early as 5 a.m. to reach schools clear across the city.

In Chicago (pdf), there are only 69 students left at Dyett High School because of a refusal to admit any more before it closes next year. This decision was made even though the school led Chicago Public Schools with a 41 percent increase in college attendance and a decrease in suspensions. Students currently have no Advanced Placement classes and must take physical education and art online. This is clearly not the kind of education we would expect for children of color 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education.


These policies are clearly discriminatory, treating African-American communities differently from the way white communities would be treated. School “reformers” have shown this by being more willing to subject our children to unproven education policies; less concerned with providing experienced teachers, small class sizes and well-rounded curricula to our youths; and less willing to accept that our communities know what is best for our children. Meanwhile, African-American students’ chances of equal educational opportunities are being dashed.

We hope that the Title VI complaints will help move these cities, and our nation, closer to educational justice. As the country commemorates the Brown decision’s 60th anniversary, communities of color nationwide continue to engage in the fight for an equal educational opportunity. We will never stop our work until the promise of Brown is finally real for all our nation’s children.


Jitu Brown is the national coordinator for the Journey for Justice Alliance. Debra Jones is a member of the New Orleans organization Conscious Concerned Citizens Controlling Community Changes (C-6).

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