Black communities seek to stop school closings

WASHINGTON (Jan. 29) — Between 250 and 350 people from about 18 cities across America, most of them African-American and many of them students, came here Tuesday to show representatives of the US Department of Education their passion for both quality and equality in education.

Helen Moore, the granddaughter of a slave and a member of the Detroit, Mich., community, spoke at the US Dept. of Education on Jan. 29, saying racism is alive in America
Helen Moore from Detroit, a community member and the granddaughter of slaves.

Over the next few weeks, Voxitatis will examine several claims put forth by community groups that have organized themselves into a sort of grassroots education coalition—claims that school districts are violating civil rights and discriminating against blacks and Hispanics by closing schools attended mostly by low-income students of color.

This series, which coincides with African-American History Month, will describe a few school closings, as we heard at the hearing Tuesday, along with the coalition’s request for a moratorium on the closings. According to Jitu Brown, who organized the coalition known as “Journey for Justice,” these stories are chapters of the same book. Many of them are heartbreaking, involving the shuttering of buildings that thousands of students once called their homes away from home, where they saw their friends, where they played with science experiments and discovered little facts about their world, where they tried to fit in and learned many important life skills. All the school closing stories, in my opinion, merit an examination by federal civil rights officials. But most of them sound—to me, anyway—more like a sin than a crime.

The story of Helen Moore

In Detroit, for example, more than half the buildings that once served as public schools are now closed. The reasons for the closures are complex, coming in part from a loss of more than 100,000 students in the last 12 years and in part from deep budget problems. The rallying cry here is that school closures affect racial and ethnic minorities in an uneven way that is inconsistent with their proportions in the population.

In many cases, people have been pushed to the breaking point, and so they come here to make their point—people like Helen Moore, a community activist who has herself gone through the Detroit Public Schools.

Like many other speakers who addressed the department Tuesday afternoon, she drew applause and shouts that would have been “Amen!” if the hearing were in a church. Unlike many speakers, though, her group did not take longer to make their point than the agenda allowed. Just as Abraham Lincoln captured the moment in 10 sentences at Gettysburg, Ms Moore encapsulated the struggle on the part of our most African-American communities to get a quality public education in just a few sentences.

She has engaged schools since she started the “Keep the Vote: No Takeover” community organization in 1972. Her grandparents were slaves, but her grandfather so wanted to provide a good education for black children in his community that he actually tricked a property owner into believing he was white so he could purchase some land on a hill and build a school for black children.

“That’s why I have worked over 40 years to help our children get a quality education,” she told the crowd gathered inside the auditorium. Keep the Vote actually closed an elementary school 40 years ago, she said, because the district “didn’t want black students to have the same quality education that white children had. So we closed the school down for two weeks … by blocking the doors and saying, ‘Nobody gets into our school until we have a say-so about our children’s education.’ We had a choice: You aren’t going to put my children in nobody’s room that wasn’t teaching.”

She described the scene where she walked into the classroom of one teacher, closed the door, and chased him around the room until he left. Then, she said what’s happening in Detroit today is about as bad as the situation that motivated her to block a school’s doors 40 years ago.

“Time is of the essence. We don’t have time to talk about all this that we’re talking about. They know what’s happening in our schools. … We pay our taxes. We send our children to the schools. They are our schools. They are our children. It is our money. And that’s what I’ve been doing all these years.”

It doesn’t get much ‘worser’ than this

“I’m going to tell you about Detroit now, the worst situation you’ve ever seen,” she continued. US Education Secretary “Arne Duncan says we were the worst education system, and he comes along with all this experimentation, and he makes it even worser. I don’t know what ‘worser’ means, but that’s what he made it in Detroit.”

She said the “sabotage of public schools” in Detroit is “by design and not by accident” and that it has led to the “decay of entire communities. They don’t want our children to have an education, but we do. And we’ll fight to the death to get our education,” she concluded.

In Detroit, about 130 schools have been closed since 2005, all of them in communities with high proportions of Latinos and Blacks. A city that once had more than 200 public schools now has fewer than 90.

And more than half the students who were displaced still attend schools that get public funds. Charter schools now educate about about 41 percent of Detroit’s students, while schools run by the state take another 10 to 12 percent. According to a November 2012 report by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, fewer than half the students in Detroit attend traditional public schools.