Activists fighting school closings across the country converged at the U.S. Education Department on Tuesday to demand federal action to stop the shutdowns, which they say disproportionately affect poor and minority students.
In a raucous meeting, parents, community organizers and students from as far away as California detailed how school closings are disrupting lives and destabilizing neighborhoods.
“I have been denied the right to a quality education,” said Gavin Alston, 12, whose Chicago school was shuttered last year. “We have no middle or elementary schools in my neighborhood anymore.”
Gavin is now home-schooled because he did not want to travel 22 blocks by bus to his reassigned school, which is in a different neighborhood across gang turf lines.
The pace of public school closings has been increasing during the past decade, driven largely by dwindling enrollments in urban districts hit hard by budget pressures and competition from public charter schools.
In the 2000-01 school year, 717 traditional public schools were closed across the country, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That figure rose to 1,069 schools a decade later in 2010-11. The data do not include public charter schools or specialized public schools such as vocational schools.
The Education Department is investigating complaints — filed under the 1964 Civil Rights Act — about school closings in six cities: the District, Newark, Philadelphia, Detroit, New York and Chicago. Seth Galanter, acting assistant secretary in the department’s civil rights division, promised to make the investigations a priority.
But Galanter told the crowd Tuesday that while school closings can be harmful, they are not necessarily civil rights violations. Since 2010, his department has investigated 27 other complaints about school closings and none resulted in a finding of a civil rights violation.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who closed dozens of schools as chief executive of the Chicago school system, pledged to close or revamp 1,000 schools a year for five years when he joined the Obama administration in 2009. At the meeting Tuesday, Duncan said he wanted to work alongside the activists but acknowledged that school closings are complex.
“I don’t know any educator who wakes up in the morning and says, ‘I want to close schools,’ ” Duncan said.
The meeting was a high-water mark for activists trying to forge a national movement from rebellions that have been taking place largely at the local level.
“What’s happening to Oakland is also happening to all of us across the nation,” said Joel Velasquez, a father of three. “This is decimating our communities, and it can no longer be allowed to happen. Today, a national movement begins.”
The testimony from more than a dozen activists was interrupted frequently by audience members shouting and chanting encouragement in the form of “That ain’t right!” and “Sure was!” and chanting “You say cutbacks, I say fight back!”
In the District, Chancellor Kaya Henderson announced this month that she is closing 15 schools, all of them east of Rock Creek Park and many of them east of the Anacostia River in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
In New York, the nation’s largest school district, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has closed approximately 140 public schools since 2002, and he announced plans this month to shutter an additional 17 schools.
The Education Department has no legal authority to stop school closings nationwide, spokesman Daren Briscoe said.
“We don’t have the mechanisms to affect a nationwide moratorium of school closings of any kind,” Briscoe said. “These closings happen for myriad reasons. . . . We can’t just push a button and say ‘Stop.’ ”
But critics say the Obama administration has encouraged closings through its education policies, which call for states to fix the weakest schools by choosing from among four turnaround methods, one of which is shutting them down. So far, 18 schools have been shuttered under this process, Briscoe said.
There is little research about the impact of school closings on student achievement, according to Barbara Gross of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, a nonprofit educational research and policy group that has been giving technical help to the activists.
A 2009 University of Chicago study found that most students displaced by school closings between 2001 and 2006 showed no academic impact.