Activists to Meet with Duncan Over Closures, Civil Rights

Are decisions by city school districts to close local schools governed by civil rights rules in the Department of Education? That's what activists from Detroit, Newark and Philadelphia want to find out. Jon Hurdle reports in the New York Times that activists from more than a dozen cites are convening next Tuesday for a meeting with Education Secretary Arne Duncan to discuss whether school closures can be civil rights violations when they affect minorities disproportionately.

Any time districts close local schools, residents are usually unhappy. Kids' habits are disrupted, and they must all transition to a new environment. While some do as well or better, some have difficulty with the adjustment. In Philadelphia, residents have already been vocal in their opposition to planned closures. As many as 37 schools there may close next year.

Superintendents point to budget problems, saying that their city districts simply cannot afford to keep the same number of schools open, and that some must close. But, say activists, why are the schools mainly poor and often black? Action United, a community organization in Philadelphia, put out a press statement Monday that shows why they believe racism is at the base: while only 55% of the city's students are black, 80% of the students affected by school closings will be black.

"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.

Philadelphia spokesman Fernando Gallard, like many officials in other cities, claims that they are taking into account the best interests of minority students. Local schools just may not be the best the district can do for them. The same students may actually benefit from the reorganization by attending schools with better facilities.

Community activists aren't convinced that this is so. It's not only school closings that they protest, but a number of reforms and changes including charter schools placed in minority districts. Chicago's Jitu Brown said that he can't see any reason for the changes that takes into account the needs of the students. He plans to demand that the Education Secretary help them block district plans in all of these cities, including that he plans to:

"urge officials to halt school closings, stop plans to turn public schools over to private contractors, end "phaseouts" in which schools cease to accept new students so that numbers dwindle, and stop the practice of combining public schools with charter schools. "Racism is real in the U.S.," Mr. Brown said. "There are different rules for the students in our community."

But while activists can raise the profile on the issues they care most about, the Department of Education is not promising the help they most want. Federal control over state-run education is based in giving or withholding federal funding, and the system for enforcing federal standards is based in private litigation more than in declarations by the Secretary.

Daren Briscoe, an Education Department spokesman, said it has no power to put a moratorium on locally mandated school closings. The department's civil rights office has never substantiated a complaint based on such a program, he said. If a school district is found to have violated civil rights through a closing program, it can be taken to court or denied federal funds, but it is more likely that the parties involved will reach a settlement.

The civil rights complaints that have been filed in many cities will test the matter over the next year.

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