Are School Closings Discriminatory?

Chicago returned to the center of the national debate over the future of public education this week as the city’s school board voted to shut down 50 schools.

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Protestors march outside of the Bank of America building in the Loop Financial district calling on the banking giant to renegotiate interest rate swap deals with the Chicago Public Schools on May 7, 2013 in Chicago.

Chicago returned to the center of the national debate over the future of public education this week as the city’s school board voted to shut down 50 schools. The decision, which could be derailed by a lawsuit, would result in the biggest single round of school closings in United States history.

Closing schools that are deemed underutilized or underperforming and transferring the students to better-equipped schools is a major tenet of the Obama Administration’s education policy. Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, utilized the approach while he was running Chicago’s school system, but many other cities have embraced it.

Nationwide, 1,929 schools were closed in 2010-11, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Seventeen low performing schools are slated for closure in New York City, while Philadelphia officials voted in March to close 23 schools they said were underutilized. Last week, a judge in Washington D.C. declined to halt the closings of 15 public schools that the district has said are “half-empty.”  A lawsuit filed in March claimed the closures improperly discriminate against poor, minority and disabled students, but U.S. District Court Judge James Boasberg wrote in his 31-page opinion there was “no evidence whatsoever” that officials intended to discriminate in closing the schools.

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The decision to close schools is often based on the belief that displaced students will be moved to higher performing schools. But research in Chicago has shown that has not often happened. An Oct. 2009 study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago found that only 6% of displaced students enrolled in high-performing schools, while 42% of displaced students continued to attend schools with very low levels of academic achievement.

Pauline Lipman, a professor of at the University of Illinois at Chicago who has been studying school closures since 2004, said moving students from one school to another rarely improves the quality of education they receive. “I am baffled by this strategy, which is really an experiment, with no educational research to support it,” she said. In addition to not improving the educational experience for displaced students, it can actually have a damaging effect. “We know every time you move a child from one school to another it has a destabilizing effect on their education,” Lipman said, noting that some students on Chicago’s South Side have been displaced as many as four times.

The board’s vote in Chicago may not be the final word on the schools’ fate. Last week, parents affected by the closing filed two lawsuits. One seeks to postpone the closures on the grounds that the timeframe for the decision violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by unfairly hurting special education students. The other case seeks to stop the closures altogether and calls the proposed closings discriminatory because nearly all of the students affected by the closings are black.

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Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett pushed back against the suits in an email. “We have a shared responsibility to do everything we can to ensure a bright future for every child,” she wrote. “And, yet these lawsuits demonstrate that union leadership is committed to a status quo that is failing too many of our kids. Thousands of children in underutilized schools are being cheated out of the resources they need to succeed. It’s time to give these children the opportunity to attend higher-performing welcoming schools and put them on a path to thrive.”

There is evidence to suggest closings disproportionately affect black students. Lipman’s research found more than 90% of students displaced at the 72 schools the city has closed since 2001 were black, even though African American students constitute 42% of the city’s total public school population.

Despite those figures, proving actual intent to discriminate is challenging, especially in a district like Chicago where a large portion of students are black, said Brooke Whitted, a lawyer from Northbrook, Ill. who specializes in education law. “The defendants will say, ‘hey, no matter what schools we try to close, a big chunk of the affected students would be black’,” he said.

A lawsuit making similar claims was thrown out last year by a Cook County judge (it remains under appeal).

“These kids are being displaced over and over again,” said Tom Geoghegan, the lead attorney in both discrimination lawsuits. “There’s a pattern of picking out these schools for closing. The rationale shifts from year to year, but the result is the same.”

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