CHICAGO — A South Side community organizer is leading a national effort to fight school closings on civil rights grounds.
"Regardless of the results of their civil rights investigations, we know that our civil rights have been violated," said Jitu Brown, education organizer for the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization. "Our children know it, and our communities know it."
Brown recently attended a Washington, D.C., hearing that included Education Secretary Arne Duncan and senior policy staff at the White House, he said, along with representatives from four other cities who presented case studies on how school closings unfairly target downtrodden African-American neighborhoods. Chicago was featured along with Detroit, New Orleans, Oakland and Philadelphia.
Brown said sometimes the local education districts target "underachieving" schools, sometimes "underutilized" schools — the standard Chicago Public Schools only recently shifted to — but in any case those closings tended to fall in large part on poor, African-American areas. Critics have charged that this only serves to blame the victims of poverty.
"It really doesn't matter what their rationale is, because it changes from year to year, it changes within the year. I think the overall goal is to empty these schools out," Brown charged. "The common denominator in all of it is it's being done without any real community input."
"CPS sets guidelines for school actions to ensure that every student in every neighborhood has access to high-quality school options," countered CPS spokeswoman Marielle Sainvilus. "Last year’s guidelines were about academic performance. This year, the guidelines are based on utilization.
"Some of this is being done keeping in mind that we have a significant achievement gap that needs to be closed that disproportionately affects African-American students," she added. "And we cannot close that gap if we don’t address that too many schools with too few children are taking resources away and could be better spent by being reinvested in all students to support their needs."
CPS said community activists previously have tried to file suit on this argument in Cook County Circuit Court, only to have the case thrown out. CPS Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett has said she wants to make community involvement a large part of the process in deciding which schools to close before next fall.
Yet Brown hopes that by showing a consistent pattern of race-based closings across the nation, he can get the federal Department of Education to impose a moratorium on school closings or at least exert pressure against them. "They say they don't have the power to do a moratorium at the federal level," he said. "But you've inspired the culture of school closings through racist policies. You can inspire school closings. You can also inspire a different direction."
Brown said community representatives presented a counterproposal to closings called "sustainable school transformations" that is "backed by research and backed by experiences." They hope to sell the U.S. Education Department on that program and keep schools open.
"We're seeking a meeting with Secretary Duncan within the next two weeks to hear the plans to implement our proposal," Brown added. "If we don't have that meeting with Duncan, then we'll go to [U.S. Attorney General] Eric Holder," where the group will press a federal civil rights case against school closings.
The activists are facing a late-March deadline in Chicago, where the state has mandated that CPS has to release a list of all schools it intends to close this year. "So we are going to exert local and national pressure," Brown said.