A highly-vocal and growing alliance of public education advocates have united to end what they describe as the discriminatory shuttering of schools in black and Latino neighborhoods.
In "Journey for Justice's" latest efforts to safeguard the future of inner-city public schools from threat of extinction due to the rapid growth of charter schools, increased availability of voucher programs, unequal funding streams and attacks on teachers' credibility, a cross-country march and speaking tour was launched, culminating on Jan. 29 with a hearing at the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) in Washington, D.C., where a representative from the department fielded complaints.
"The voices of the people directly impacted can no longer be ignored," said Chicago organizer Jitu Brown, who called the closures a direct "violation" of human rights. "This type of mediocrity is only accepted because of the race of the students who are being served."
The nearly two-dozen cities represented in the journey which attracted more than 500 students, parents and community groups, included New Orleans; Philadelphia; Chicago and Detroit. Members from District of Columbia organizations who voiced opposition to 15 school closings over the next 18 months, also attended, and officials for the Northwest-based, Empower D.C., who recalled the effects of 24 local school closings in 2008, said they plan to sue the District.
"Parents have really packed our forums with their complaints," said Dorothy Douglas, 68, a Ward 7 School Board representative, who attended the Jan. 29 hearing. "You just can't [fail] to inform people of [the school chancellor's] intention without proper notification . . . a lot of [rights] that also involve students with disabilities have been violated with these closings."
Helen Moore, 76, of Detroit added that the basis for the alliance's trek to D.C., was to convey how the closings that include both under-enrolled and under-performing schools violate civil rights [laws], and promote non-investment among underprivileged communities of color. Other issues, she said, center on how the closings would result in increased violence and destabilization at schools that receive the displaced students as a result of school building re-assignments.
"We're dealing with the same problems that all black and brown school districts face," said Moore. "It seems that the people who are making sure that we get no education are corporations that have made up their minds that they know what's best for us."
Moore alluded to organizations like the Illinois Facilities Fund (IFF) which was commissioned two years ago by the District to study its public schools.
The IFF reported back early last year to the District's deputy mayor for education that there were at least 20 under-performing and under-enrolled schools, and recommended some for consolidation with high-performing public charter schools. IFF, which is based in Chicago, has oversight over several charter facilities in the Midwest.
"Corporations like that just want to make sure they get the money that would otherwise be going to our school systems," Moore said.
Karran Harper Royal of New Orleans, founder of Parents across America, said the impact with school closings in her city is two-fold.
"It really impeded the rebuilding of some of the neighborhoods as we were rebuilding after [Hurricane] Katrina," Royal said. "Plus, it has taken away our rights as African Americans in a city that's majority African American, to have an elected school board govern the majority of our schools. It's putting that into the hands of private, nonprofit organizations that are not accountable through our democratic system."
Meanwhile, alliance members have demanded that DOE place a moratorium on school closings. While the department's civil rights office has reportedly investigated numerous complaints related to school closings, Daren Briscoe said no evidence has been found surrounding any violations of civil rights.
The alliance has also called for a meeting with President Barack Obama to discuss the impact of the closings – 37 school buildings in Philadelphia are slated for closure in June. Their plight, many public education supporters say, is fast becoming a civil rights issue.
"To a great extent, it's already evolved into a civil rights matter," said Moore. However, "we caught it before they completed the task of throwing our children into prison, and we're mad as hell about the fact that the Department of Education isn't doing anything about it."