Are school closings the ‘new Jim Crow’? Activists file civil rights complaints.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of the Advancement Project’s Judith Browne Dianis. This version has been corrected.

Arguing that school closures in cities across the country disproportionately affect African American students, community activists filed three federal civil rights complaints Tuesday challenging closures in Newark, New Orleans and Chicago and called on the Obama administration to halt similar efforts elsewhere.

“Children are being uprooted, shuffled into schools that are no better than the ones they came from,” said Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, one of several organizations that are calling their effort the Journey for Justice Alliance. “In each city, African American children’s hopes of equal educational opportunity are being dashed.”

The complaints, sent to the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights and the Justice Department, charge that students of color from Newark, Chicago and New Orleans have been disproportionately affected by school closures and charter-school expansions. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination in the use of federal funds by schools and other institutions.

In Newark, 13 public schools have closed since 2009. In Chicago, 111 schools have closed since 2001. In New Orleans, all the traditional public schools except five have shut down since 2003. The District of Columbia has closed 39 traditional public schools since 2008.

Those shuttered schools have been replaced by public charter schools, which are funded by taxpayers but are privately operated. Teachers in charter schools typically are not unionized.

In New Orleans, 79 percent of students attend charter schools, the highest rate in the nation. Next in line is Detroit, where 51 percent of students attend charters, and the District, where 43 percent of public-school students are in charters.

The activists called on the Obama administration to halt school closings and stop the spread of charter schools.

That seems unlikely for an administration that has consistently promoted the expansion of charters, making it a requirement for states that want to compete for Race to the Top funding or receive a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law. In 2010, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Hurricane Katrina was the “best thing” to happen to the New Orleans public-school system because so many neighborhood schools never reopened and were replaced by charter schools. Duncan later apologized for his remarks, calling them “dumb.”

Congress, too, has supported charter schools. Last week, the House approved a bill to encourage the growth of charters.

In the cases the complaints cite, schools that were closed overwhelmingly served African American students while public schools attended by significant numbers of white students remained open.

States and school districts cited, in most cases, dwindling enrollments or chronic underperformance as reasons for closure.

Activists said local and state governments neglected and starved the neighborhood schools of resources, guaranteeing their poor quality. They argue that the charter schools that opened as replacements generally were not academically better.

Meanwhile, the shuttering of neighborhood schools has damaged African American communities, they said.

“It’s ironic that those pushing school choice as school reform are taking away our choice,” said Karran Harper Royal, a New Orleans parent and a public education advocate. “Most African American parents in New Orleans don’t have the choice of neighborhood schools, unlike their white counterparts. If you’re white, you have a better chance to attend a neighborhood school you can walk to. If you’re black, you have very little chance.”

“This push to close schools in predominantly African American communities is the new Jim Crow,” Harper Royal said.

Families displaced by school closings enter a lottery in New Orleans, where they can compete with other families for a chance to attend one of eight charter schools, Harper Royal said. “You have a chance, not a choice,” she said.

After filing their complaints in the morning, the activists held an afternoon rally on the steps of the Supreme Court, where they were joined by leaders of the nation’s two major teachers unions.

Lyndsey Layton has been covering national education since 2011, writing about everything from parent trigger laws to poverty’s impact on education to the shifting politics of school reform.
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