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EDITORIAL: Separate and Unequal

5/21/2014, 3 p.m.
Courtesy of loc.gov

Last week, students, those in education circles, civil rights activists, organized labor and other heirs of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision participated in observances to mark the 60th anniversary of the ruling.

Some ceremonies were solemn; others, like Tuesday’s demonstration in front of the U.S. Supreme Court and the subsequent march to the Department of Justice by hundreds of concerned groups and individuals, were passionate and vocal.

Marchers were protesting the concerted attacks against public education.

For the past several years, those describing themselves as reformers – armed with enormous amounts of money – have seized control of the public school debate, cowed or co-opted school boards and ushered in the rise of alternatives to public schools.

The Journey for Justice Alliance published a report, Death by a Thousand Cuts: Racism, School Closures and School Sabotage” to coincide with the Tuesday, May 13 demonstration. The report details how school districts, mayors, local elected officials and organizations who’ve embraced school reform have abandoned public schools, de-funded and closed hundreds of them around the country, killed off programs and channeled money that could have made public schools more robust into charter schools.

The authors of the report say that the true underlying reason for school closures is a realignment of right-wing political forces. Right-wing conservatives, the report says, have long sought to eliminate public education, and dismantle public unions, especially teachers’ unions. The goal is to replace public schools with non-unionized, privately managed schools that receive public funds, either through vouchers or charter schools. And outsourcing education to private management is a financial boon.

Whatever the reformers assert, speakers at the demonstration said, this issue is about class and race. They rightly contend that public schools are too big and too important to fail.

There are stories of school closings in New Orleans, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and others around the country. After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans became ground zero for the school reform movement and since then, 120 of the city’s 126 schools have been switched over to charter schools and the final six are slated for a similar fate.

Veteran teachers are and have been shunted aside in favor of fresh, young and often inexperienced teachers from organizations like Teach for America. And instead of focusing on giving children a well-rounded education that prepares them for a 21st century marketplace and world, the focus is on testing, testing, testing. Talk to teachers who have been in the classrooms for years and they’ll tell you of the intense pressure they’re under to teach children to pass all these tests. Failure to do so means, they’ll be on the unemployment line.

In our city, former Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee – the poster child for school reform – rammed through her version of school reform and the District hasn’t recovered. She let go teachers, brought in their young replacements, placed the blame for schools’ poor performance primarily on teachers and advocated the closure of several schools. So far, 15 D.C. schools have been shuttered, the majority located in communities east of the Anacostia River.

Opponents of this national reform plan have been mobilizing and are fighting back. Groups such as Empower DC and Journey for Justice, the American Federation of Teachers, and the National Teachers’ Association are leading the charge.

Empower DC is still legally challenging the constitutionality of the decision by Mayor Vincent C. Gray and Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson last year to close the 15 public schools. The plaintiffs are arguing that Henderson’s justification for closing the schools was false.

Public school supporters promise to fight relentlessly so that 60 years from now, public schools in America will be unified and truly equal. It’s a struggle worth fighting.