- Written by Dorothy Rowley
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.
Henderson, who has been mum about the closings since her January announcement, was contacted for updated comments, but had not responded by WI press time.
Meanwhile, other community advocacy organizations are rallying behind Empower DC’s efforts, pointing out that closing schools east of the Anacostia River near the Maryland state line, is a front for gentrification and the eventual privatization of the DCPS system.
“They’re talking about closing schools in wards 6, 7 and 8, which are predominantly African-American populations, where at the same time, gentrification is taking place,” said Ayesha Fleary, a member of the grassroots coalition, Black is Back. “There’s already violence, poor teacher performance and [ineffective] programs in District public schools – and it’s not because the city doesn’t have the money to make improvements,” she said. “The education budget is there. They just chose not to spend it in those schools. They decided to close those schools because they decided that our children are disposable.”
Tim Baldauf-Lenschen, from the online-based UrWorld News and Media, cited capitalism as a root source for the closings.
“What we see going on is a privatization of the people’s common goods. Privatization even takes place with our drinking water with people around the globe having to pay. Just like privatization is taking away our natural resources, these school closings are taking away the right to public education.”