School Closings: Subtle Move toward 'Privatization'

Dorothy Rowley | 3/20/2013, 10:07 a.m.

Hundreds gathered for yet another rally last week to send a clear message to District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) Chancellor Kaya Henderson that her controversial plan to shutter 15 schools by the end of 2014 is a violation of civil rights.

Organizers provided an update during "The Save Our Schools Summit" on a lawsuit that will be filed next week to short-circuit Henderson's mandate. The rally was co-sponsored by education councils from wards 5, 6, 7 and 8 and the grassroots advocacy group, Empower DC. The event, which took place on March 14 and attracted more than 200, was held at the Temple of Praise in Southeast, where the majority of the targeted schools are located.

"The closings are a cycle of unjust and discriminatory tactics," said Daniel del Pielago, Empower DC education organizer. "... Under the previous administration, we've seen 29 schools close in the District, but with no notable increase in educational outcomes or savings to the city."

Henderson has been under mounting pressure from parents and other critics since November when she first revealed her plan. But she has insisted that the closings are in the best interest of the 2,000 students who will be impacted.

Del Pielago, 39, added that in all probability, there won't be any monetary savings with the round of closings slated to begin in August.

"The main problem that we see in this is that it's disproportionately affecting communities of color and low-income students in the District," del Pielago said. "The way they're trying to reform D.C. public education is by closing down schools - and no one on the D.C. Council, not even the mayor is doing anything to control the growth of charter schools which are growing at a much faster rate than our traditional public schools."

Empower DC initiated plans for the lawsuit which will be handled by former American Civil Liberties Union attorney Johnny Barnes, the self-described "people's lawyer." Barnes, 64, said in a recent interview that his strategy will be to stop the school closings altogether.

"Black and brown children are treated differently than others in this plan. Local and federal laws do not permit this."

When Henderson, 43, unveiled her plan in November, 20 schools across the city were slated for closure. She said all of them were either under-enrolled or under-performing.

At the recommendation of the Chicago-based Illinois Facilities Fund - which invests heavily in charter schools in the Midwest - schools on Henderson's list that were deemed under-performing would be merged with high-performing charter schools. That set off a flurry of public resentment, and following a series of community meetings - some of which Henderson attended - the chancellor returned to the table in January with a pared-down list of closings.

According to a report from the Northwest-based DC Fiscal Policy Institute, it's doubtful if Henderson's plan will be effective. The Institute reported that the two dozen schools that were ordered closed in 2008 by the former chancellor, cost District taxpayers more than $17 million and did not improve student test scores.