Philadelphia moved to the center of the national debate on downsizing urban public school systems on Thursday when police arrested 19 protesters, including American Federation for Teachers president Randi Weingarten, outside a meeting wherein the fate of 23 troubled schools was to be announced.
The evening ended with Weingarten and friends in cuffs, and a vote by the Philadelphia School Reform Commission to close 10 percent of city schools, 23 in total.
Video made by the American Federation of Teachers.
School closures are a controversial and relatively new tactic in the attempt to keep cash-strapped school districts afloat while improving test scores and graduation rates in historically poor and minority districts. In Philadelphia, the call for closures came out of acute financial duress. This year the district — the eighth-largest in the country— had to borrow $300 million to pay its bill, bringing its projected five-year budget deficit to a yawning $1.35 billion, according to SRC chairperson Pedros Ramos. The commission has said that by closing schools with low enrollments and poor scores, the district will be able to better support better-performing schools.
“It’s heartwrenching to be in this position,” Ramos said at Thursday’s meeting.
Parents have a different word to describe the closures: discriminatory. Lawsuits filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights by parents in Philly, Newark, New York, Detroit, Chicago, Oakland and other cities allege that school closures in their districts target “poor neighborhoods of color,” according to a complaint filed last July by Newark parent activists Donald Jackson and Sharon Smith.
In Philadelphia, 80 percent of the students affected by the planned closings are black, though the district’s enrollment is 55 percent black, according to data from Action United, a Philadelphia group that opposes the closings.
“The district has not demonstrated why closing schools in predominately African-American neighborhoods with higher numbers of students with disabilities serves any educational necessity that could not be accomplished through less discriminatory alternatives,” the group said in a statement.
Weingarten, in an interview with Huffington Post, described the school closure plan as part of a larger scheme to reduce support for public schools while widening the opening for charter schools to set up in the district. “This was really a plan to eliminate public education,” Weingarten said. “This is not about how to fix public schools, but to close them — not how to stabilize but to destabilize public schooling.”
In their complaint to the federal Office of Civil Rights, Smith and Jackson charge that school closings fail to lead to the stated outcome of improving educational outcomes while also “destabilizing the community.”
At Thursday’s meeting in Philadelphia, the reform commission voted to give four lucky schools reprieves on their proposed closures. One of the imperiled schools, T.M. Pierce Elementary, was saved because advocates — including reform commission member Sylvia Simms, whose granddaughter attends the school — made the case that the closure would force children to attend schools that could not be safely reached by foot, but are still too close for bussing.
Simms took Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite on the walk the children would make twice daily, and Hite himself found it “long and dangerous,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
This is not a point to take lightly. As much as school closures distress families, they also leave physical holes in urban neighborhoods, where a once-busy school entrance often becomes just a facade. Schools have long done double-duty as community institutions, offering after-school care and services, networking for parents, and meeting places for boards of education or parent groups.
When city schools are closed and replaced by schools in far-off, unfamiliar neighborhoods (or by charters that draw on city-wide applicants), perilous walking routes can symbolize something even more hazardous: The sudden vaporization of the local school, one of the last stable institutions in a community.
Carly Berwick writes about education and culture for Next City, as well as The New York Times, ARTnews, and other publications.