Detroit, HP journey to D.C. for education justice
U.S. Department of Education hears Title VI grievances
By Tolu Olorunda
Special to the Michigan Citizen
WASHINGTON, D.C. — “We’re fighting for ourselves and our civil rights,” Helen Moore of Keep the Vote/No Takevoer, announced to the group of students, parents and public education advocates on the bus upon reaching the nation’s capital the morning of Jan. 29.
Turning to the students who attend Detroit Public Schools and the state district Education Achievement Authority schools — including Mumford, Cody, Central and Henry Ford — she continued: “You will be down in history just like Martin Luther King. And I want you to be able to say that I did what I was supposed to do.”
On Jan. 27, about 50 Detroit and Highland Park residents, which also included teachers and DPS board members, traveled by bus from the Dexter Elmhurst Learning Center to Washington, D.C. The group was part of a gathering of over 20 Black school districts across the country converging on the nation’s capital to protest the disproportionate, and many argued discriminatory, closing of schools in low-income communities of color.
Major cities have been hit hard. New York has lost 117 schools since 2003, Chicago 72 since 2001 and Detroit 130 since 2005.
The nationwide coalition of grassroots organizations, unable to secure local redress, rallied to the federal government to table their grievances. When schools are closed, they said, neighborhoods inevitably deteriorate.
Under the banner Journey for Justice, the first rally was held Sept. 20, 2011, demanding a moratorium on school closings, turnarounds, and phase-outs, as well as implementation of a Sustainable Schools Transformation plan rather than corporate reform.
For this year’s rally, “Journey for Justice 2: Our Children are Not Collateral Damage,” the same issues were at stake. Representatives from several organizations — including Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, Youth United for Change and Keep the Vote/No Takeover — had successfully petitioned the Department of Education (DOE) for a Capitol Hill hearing. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was in attendance briefly.
At the hearing, the stories told confirmed Detroit’s education struggles. However harrowing, they were not unique. Representatives from Atlanta, Boston, Baltimore, Chicago, Philadelphia, Oakland, New Orleans, New York, New Jersey and several other cities shared similar experiences of having their public neighborhood schools shut down arbitrarily and unjustifiably. Terms like “turned around,” “phased out” and “sabotaged” were common. Students from several cities spoke of attending classes with no teachers and textbooks. In the name of “reform,” participants of the hearing argued, low-income communities are being stripped of governance and input over the future of their children’s education.
The closing down of public schools in New Orleans post-Katrina, blamed on low performance, was part of a larger strategy to “get rid of our culture in our city, get rid of our heritage and strip us of our morality,” argued Terrell Major, a graduating senior from Walter L. Cohen High School. Major’s was one of two testimonies from New Orleans.
The other was Karran Harper-Royal, a parent and co-founder of the national group Parents Across America, who spoke at length of the Recovery School District, imposed by the state to effectively replace the New Orleans Public Schools system after the storm that displaced significant portions of the city’s low-income communities.
In 2005, Harper-Royal explained, a change in law to redefine “failing schools” was used to take over 107 of the city’s then-128 public schools. As a result, the schools were absolved from the duly-elected school board and placed into the Recovery School District (RSD), an imposed order controlled by the Louisiana Department of Education. The majority of schools were chartered, closed or simply never reopened, affecting 90 percent of Black students and only 1 percent of white students in the city.
“African American students are more likely than their white counterparts to experience schools that are at risk of being closed down, phased-out, turned around or co-located,” Harper-Royal told the DOE. “To guarantee me a seat in a failing school system is not ‘choice;’ it’s racist is what it is.”
She argued that parents don’t have “choice” when of the 42,000 students in New Orleans today, 80 percent attend charter schools — many of which run a lottery enrollment process. Parents, as a result, are forced to apply to multiple charter schools to secure a seat for their children in the classroom.
These schools, however, have failed to yield promising results. A hundred percent of the 15 direct-run RSD schools are currently rated “D” or “F” as are 79 percent of the RSD charter schools, Harper-Royal explained.
Helen Moore, during her testimony, argued on similar grounds.
“Racism is well and alive in this country,” Moore said, tracing the struggles back to the earlier days of the Civil Rights Movement. “We are the descendants of slaves. We are now reversing back to slavery. All the things that are happening to us are by design, by design, by design. They don’t want our children to have an education, but we do, and we’ll fight to the death to get our education.”
Daesha Ashmore, a sophomore at Mumford, spoke after Moore against the longer calendar of the EAA, which equals “less time to do community work and find summer jobs.” She also spoke of the punitive culture in some of the schools: abusive security guards and a tardy policy that treats students “badly by locking us outside the school because we were late for our first-period class.”
Cheyenne Walker, a senior at CODY, formerly at Central High, also testified against the EAA. She spoke of starting school in September with only three teachers for her seven classes, some of which held 67-73 students. For four hours, students took attendance, roamed the hallways, listened to music, played cards.
“I feel like those four hours we could have been reading, writing, doing math, learning computers,” she said. “I hear people say all the time that this generation is lost, that this generation is failing. But this generation is not lost — this generation has been neglected. And if we’re failing it’s because you guys have failed us.”
After a few brief words from DOE officials, who promised to keep investigating complaints, the hearing was closed out by Chicago-based Jitu Brown, education organizer with Kenwood Oakland Community Organization. Brown, looking to the future, urged all the gathered communities to keep fighting and growing.
“Our children deserve to stand on our shoulders, not to be buried in policy that considers them less because of the color of their skin,” he said. “This is just the beginning, 22 cities and counting. Next time we come back, we gon’ have three-fourths of the United States with us.”