January 29, 2013

Dear Arne:

Don’t do it!  Don’t fall prey to those with whom, on most issues, we both agree.  Don’t fall into the trap they are setting by using terms like “racial disparities”, “inequities” and “segregation.”  Don’t listen to many well-intentioned but politically naïve people who do not understand how Washington works.  

Friends of Whitney Young High School
Let me be clear.  I am a strong advocate for equitable, good schools.  However, I believe that for decades, many public schools in urban areas, have experienced neglect, disorganization, lack of infrastructure, safety concerns and the like. Unfortunately, the suit being brought forth by community activists from 15 cities (including my hometown and yours of Chicago, as well as Philadelphia, where I currently reside) is without merit, has the potential to be detrimental to educational reform for decades and is not in the best interest of those with whom the plaintiffs think they are defending – young children of color from urban neighborhoods in this country. (see: Education Department to Hear School Closing Complaints - NYT 1-29-13)

Here is the simple assertion, in many urban areas, poor performing schools are concentrated, for the most part, in poor performing neighborhoods.  They are asymptomatic of bigger structural inequalities which exist throughout, but are best exemplified through the neighborhood school – specifically the high school since there are fewer high schools than other types of public schools.  Whether this is the “fault” of public schools or public policy is open for debate and interpretation.  What is clear is that as long as we have had public schools in this country there has been inequality.  The Supreme Court decision of Brown v Board of Education in 1954 did not “end” inequality; it ended legalized segregation of the races.  Brown did not integrate neighborhoods based on race, class or social standing.  In fact, some would argue that Brown did the reverse; it created inner cities which increasingly became populated with more people of color as “white flight” took place.  What is not discussed openly at least in this country, is that in addition to “white flight,” there was also class flight where middle class black and brown folk also left these neighborhoods as soon as they were able to become “upwardly mobile” with redlining and other restrictions being eliminated.

So what does this all mean for the current state of not just public education, but of urban areas in this country?  We have now, in the wake of the increase in accountability, social media and 24/7 news cycles, become incensed about a problem which has been in the shadows of public policy for decades.  Feigning indignation about this situation now is being tardy to the situation at best, and at worse being, in the words of Holden Caulfield, phony.

So Mr. Secretary, I implore you and Mr. Holder to acknowledge that while school closings are not the most desirable situation, they are an important component to restructuring and rebuilding infrastructures.  Not just for downsizing, or “right sizing” Districts, but also because after years of persistent failure (even before the NCLB era), we cannot afford to continue to do the same thing, change the chairs on the Titanic (by replacing administrators, teachers and the like) and expect students (namely students of color) to succeed.

Beverly Hills High pool/basketball court
Change is hard.  That goes without saying.  What needs to be acknowledged openly is that schools are perhaps the last vestiges of what used to be a cohesive, close knit community.  Schools have served as beacons and anchors of neighborhoods for decades, as in the decades of the 1950s and earlier.  In many higher socio-economic and higher social strata communities, they still do – which is why their schools are not called into question, or being closed.  If there is a “problem” in schools in those areas, the community possesses the social capital to make change happen – both politically and economically.  In many urban school districts however, those conditions of social capital change does not exist. Instead, these schools have been persistently, slowly eroding ever since the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s. 

How long, not long.  How long must we wait to create not just surface change, but long lasting meaningful change that, in the short term, may hurt, may be an affront to our “normal way of doing things,” but in the long run has the potential to transform lives?  Clearly the current structures and systems are inadequate and not working.  Why not take a chance and work together to not fight the closures, but to make sure that they never happen again by supporting good public schools from their inception.  Not only do we need “school reform” we need a serious discussion and commitment to “neighborhood reform” as well.  In order to achieve change, we need to eliminate these types of frivolous, attention grabbing law suits, and being the difficult task of working together.

Sincerely yours,

Stuart Rhoden

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