Supporters Fight for Public Schools Survival

Six Decades after Brown Ruling, Education Gap Widens

Barrington M. Salmon | 5/21/2014, 3 p.m.
Sixty years after the U.S. Supreme Court scrapped segregation in America's public schools, hundreds of demonstrators gathered at the steps ...
D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton joined hundreds of demonstrators on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court to call for greater support of beleaguered public schools on May 13. The rally and march to the Department of Justice was sponsored by the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools and other groups. Photo by Roy Lewis

Norton calls the Brown ruling the most important court decision of the 20th century.

“It established that separate but equal was unconstitutional and that any use of state funds for segregation purposes was also unconstitutional,” said Norton, who served on the staff of the 1963 March on Washington as a law student, and enforced both the 1963 Equal Pay Act and the 1964 Civil Rights Act as the first female chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “It opened the way for all the laws we have today. It signaled to African Americans a change that led to the mass Civil Rights movement that followed.”

“Before Brown, our struggle was carried on mainly by lawyers. There was no resurgent movement. Brown allowed this to happen.”

A 38-page report, titled “Death by a Thousand Cuts: Racism, School Closures and School Sabotage,” released to coincide with the May 13 demonstration, offers a stark look at the manner in which school districts, mayors, local elected officials and school reform organizations have discarded, dismantled, defunded and closed hundreds of schools across the country. And they have directed money that would have strengthened public schools into charter schools.

Teachers at the rally said educators are under siege to ensure that children pass standardized tests and they are often expected to be teacher, social worker, psychologist and parent all wrapped up in one. Often, young teachers from organizations like Teach for America replace experienced educators. And failure to “teach to test,” leads to the unemployment line.

Jitu Brown said those pushing school reform are methodically producing a system that’s separate and unequal.

“The privateers make it seem as if they did everything they could and they had no choice, but it’s institutional racism,” said Brown, national director of the Journey For Justice Alliance.

“The report is a mirror. We will not stand by as you steal our schools. We’re on a journey for justice,” he told the crowd.

Brown said the demonstration wasn’t an event but the launching of sustainable schools across the U.S.

“We’ve presented a fifth option. We want to replace school closings,” he said after his remarks. “... This isn’t about bad teachers or children who don’t want to learn … it’s racism and they think they know what’s best for us.”

Brown, a Chicago-based activist, said Journey for Justice is comprised of 36 organizations in 21 cities and boasts a membership of 750,000.

“You know, the president, as a former organizer should be listening to us. But he’s championed policies that we’re against. There is still time for him to act on this though,” he said.

The report’s authors say the real reason for the school closures comes from a realignment of right-wing political forces who 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 billion dollar boon.

Brown and others say what’s happening in public schools is all about class and race. But public schools, they argue, are too big and too important to fail. Demonstrators lamented that those in charge seem unconcerned with the fact that closures have thrown students’ lives into disarray, marginalized others and decimated black and brown communities.

New Orleans, Chicago, Philadelphia, New Jersey and Washington, D.C., are just a few of the cities where administrators or mayors have shuttered schools.

“New Orleans is the model for school reform. So far, they have closed 120 schools and are closing the last six,” said Debra B. Jones, a teacher who has taught World History in New Orleans schools for the past 14 years. “Leslie Jacobs, the woman leading the charter school effort didn’t live near a public school, never went to one and her children certainly never went to one. So how in the hell would you be trying to close public schools? Stop letting people say that charter schools work. That’s a lie from the pit of hell.”

“… It’s strictly about money. When we had none, white folks didn’t fool with us, and when the money’s gone, they’ll leave.”