Massive demonstrations. Eighteen arrests, including students, parents, and American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten. Tears and sobbing as entire communities learned they would no longer have a school. What happened in Philadelphia yesterday could be happening in Pittsburgh very soon. Last night the state-imposed School Reform Commission (SRC) voted to close 23 more schools in the city of brotherly love. Citing financial woes and population loss all too familiar to those of us here in the steel city, the SRC considers school closings its only option. No matter the devastation to neighborhoods. No matter that Philadelphia’s student population loss problem is largely due to charter schools siphoning students away.
The SRC has justified these school closings by saying that students in “low performing” schools would be better off in “better” schools. But this is a line right out of the corporate-reform playbook and not based on any evidence. In fact, this strategy has been tried over and over again in other cities and evidence indicates that students do not do better in different schools. And school districts do not even save money: “research shows that it’s hard for school districts to recoup the closure savings they project, and a study from the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute found that only 6 percent of students displaced by closed schools performed better in their new academic environments.” [Huffington Post, 3-7-13] Six percent. Six.
With that data, you cannot seriously suggest that closing down neighborhood schools is a strategy for improving student performance. Worse, these school closing plans fail to acknowledge the civil rights and equity issues involved, since poor communities and people of color are disproportionately affected. To close schools overlooks the critical importance of those institutions in struggling neighborhoods. It is a failure to see the larger ramifications in a city and a failure to think carefully about alternatives.
Our colleague, Philadelphia parent activist Helen Gym, points out that it is a failure of imagination and vision that is really killing public education. Inadequate resources have created enormous problems for the Philadelphia school district, “But it has been mortally wounded by a lack of vision to combat a relentless effort by corporate education reformers to declare the death of the neighborhood school.” Gym explains that Philadelphia’s school closing plan is really about:
“collapsing failing schools into failing schools, with no promises of investment and, perhaps even more alarming, with the likelihood of even greater disinvestment. Cheering on the sidelines will be private organizations that funded and contracted with the consultants driving many of the proposals. In their “vision” of a new school landscape, going to school is as simple as choosing your brand of soda. Corporate ed reform-speak labels the defenders of public education as “emotional” and “sentimental” while they claim the language of data and logic. In fact, there is plenty of data to show that the shift we have seen from neighborhood schools toward an increasingly choice-based system is not serving the city’s most vulnerable students. Data from around the country show that school closings minus a vision for re-investment are little more than self-cannibalization, where closings tend to breed more closings.” [The Notebook, 3-7-13]
Does any of this sound familiar? Pittsburgh has hired consulting firms to help it plan for the future amidst warnings that it will deplete its entire reserve account by 2015. [“PPS: Planning a Privatization Scheme?”] What seems clear is that this plan will feature another round of school closings for our city. We need to re-think the assumption that school closings are inevitable. As another Philadelphia colleague and parent activist, Rebecca Poyourow, warns: “mass closings of … public schools undermine our children’s educational prospects, compromise kids’ safety, contribute to the drop-out crisis, uproot communities, and destroy jobs and neighborhoods—all for little to no savings.” Consider Poyourow’s pointed questions to their mayor, substituting “Pittsburgh” for “Philadelphia”:
- Why does Philadelphia have to pursue such cut-rate, imitative policy?
- Why are we being forced to buy into this mass school-closing plan, copied from other cities where it has already flopped?
- When we have data from other cities where such plans have proven disastrous, and when we have local data that the receiving schools are no better (and sometimes worse) than the schools Philadelphia students are being forced from, why do we have to travel down the same road? [Parents United, 3-6-13]
What Philadelphia is doing is essentially divesting in its own neighborhoods. It is a stunning lack of vision on the part of the city as a whole and a refusal to acknowledge the central role that schools play in the life and vitality of their communities. Pittsburgh needs to pay close attention to what is happening in our sister city across the state and think carefully about our vision for public education here. Rebecca Poyourow suggests:
“We need to find a way to harness the capacity for schools to be hubs for neighborhood cohesion and economic development, perhaps through the joint use of schools that are currently under-enrolled—arrangements in which non-profit or for-profit entities, public agencies, or civic groups pay rent to share the use of school buildings and grounds. Considering such an idea is exciting, but it would take collaboration and innovation among city government officials, the school district, and neighborhood groups. It would mean combining discussions of policy with the local knowledge of students, teachers, parents, and neighborhood residents.” [Parents United, 3-6-13]
Pittsburgh has the time right now to have that conversation and to consider such big ideas. We have to start questioning the inevitability of school closings and challenging the faulty underlying logic that claims that hurting neighborhoods will somehow save us money and improve student learning. But we have to start now. Otherwise, as Philly goes, so goes Pittsburgh.