School Closures: A Blunt Instrument

Originally published in the Spring 2016 print issue of The American Prospect
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In 2013, citing a $1.4 billion deficit, Philadelphia’s state-run school commission voted to close 23 schools—nearly 10 percent of the city’s stock. The decision came after a three-hour meeting at district headquarters, where 500 community members protested outside and 19 were arrested for trying to block district officials from casting their votes. Amid the fiscal pressure from state budget cuts, declining student enrollment, charter-school growth, and federal incentives to shut down low-performing schools, the district assured the public that closures would help put the city back on track toward financial stability.

One of the shuttered schools was Edward Bok Technical High School, a towering eight-story building in South Philadelphia spanning 340,000 square feet, the horizontal length of nearly six football fields. Operating since 1938, Bok was one of the only schools to be entirely financed and constructed by the Public Works Administration. Students would graduate from the historic school with practical skills like carpentry, bricklaying, tailoring, hairdressing, plumbing, and as the decades went on, modern technology. And graduate they did—at the time of closure, Bok boasted a 30 percent–higher graduation rate than South Philadelphia High School, the nearby public school that had to absorb hundreds of Bok’s students.

The Bok building was assessed at $17.8 million, yet city officials sold it for just $2.1 million to Lindsey Scannapieco, the daughter of a local high-rise developer. On their website, BuildingBok.com, Scannapieco and her team envision repurposing the large Bok facility into “a new and innovative center for Philadelphia creatives and non-profits.” They describe the “unprecedented concentration of space” in the Bok building for “Do-It-Yourself innovators, artists, and entrepreneurs” to congregate.

In August 2015, Scannapieco launched Bok’s newest debut, a pop-up restaurant on the building’s eighth floor, which served French food, craft beers, and fine wines. The rooftop terrace was decorated with student chairs and other school-related items found inside the building. Young millennials dubbed the restaurant “Philly’s hottest new rooftop bar,” while longtime residents and educators called it “a sick joke.” Situated in a quickly gentrifying community where nearly 40 percent of families still have incomes of less than $35,000, there was little question about who would be sipping champagne and munching on steak tartare on Bok’s top floor.

When it comes to closing schools, Philadelphia is not alone. In urban districts across the United States—from Detroit to Newark to Oakland—communities are experiencing waves of controversial school closures as cash-strapped districts reckon with pinched budgets and changing politics.

The Chicago Board of Education voted to close 49 elementary schools in 2013—the largest mass school closing in American history. The board assured the distressed community that not only would the district save hundreds of millions of dollars, but students would also receive an improved and more efficient public education.

Yet three years later, Chicago residents are still reeling from the devastating closures—a policy decision that has not only failed to bring about notable academic gains, but has also destabilized communities, crippled small businesses, and weakened local property values. With the city struggling to sell or repurpose most of the closed schools, dozens of large buildings remain vacant, becoming targets of crime and vandalism throughout poor neighborhoods. “These schools went from being community anchors into actual dangerous spaces,” says Pauline Lipman, an education policy professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

African Americans have been hit hardest by the school closings in Chicago, Philadelphia, and elsewhere. While black students were 40 percent of Chicago’s school district population in 2013, they made up 88 percent of those affected by the closures. In Philadelphia, black students made up 58 percent of the district, but 81 percent of those affected by closures. Closure proponents insist that shutting down schools and consolidating resources, though certainly upsetting, will ultimately enable districts to provide better and more equitable education. It’s easier to get more money into the classroom, the thinking goes, if unnecessary expenses can be eliminated. But many residents see that school closures have failed to yield significant cost savings. They also view closures as discriminatory—yet another chapter in the long history of harmful experiments deployed by governments on communities of color that strip them of their livelihood and dearest institutions.

Today “the pain is still so raw, it’s not business as usual,” Reverend Robert Jones told me, speaking inside the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, the oldest black grassroots center in Chicago. Indeed, threats of further closures have not abated since 2013. Jones was one of 12 local residents to go on a highly publicized hunger strike late last summer, starving himself for 34 days to prevent another beloved school from being shut down. Their dangerous efforts proved successful; the district reversed its decision and pledged to reopen Walter H. Dyett High School, located on the South Side of Chicago.

Rather than shutter schools, residents argue, districts should reinvest in them.

Rather than shutter schools, residents argue, districts should reinvest in them.They point to full-service community schools, a reform model that combines rigorous academics with wraparound services for children and families, as promising alternatives. The effort to fight back against school closures has grown more pronounced in recent years, as tens of thousands across the country begin to mobilize through legal and political channels to reclaim their neighborhood public schools.

TO TALK ABOUT SCHOOL CLOSURES, one must talk about school buildings. The average age of a U.S. public school facility is nearly 50 years old, and most require extensive rehab, repair, and renovation—particularly in cities. None of the school buildings constructed before World War II were designed for modern cooling and heating systems, and many schools built to educate baby boomers in the 1960s and 1970s were constructed hurriedly on the cheap. Studies find that poor and minority students attend the most dilapidated schools today.

But the federal government offers virtually no economic assistance to states and local districts trying to shoulder the costs of building repairs. And things don’t look much better on the state level, either. Jeff Vincent, the deputy director of the Center for Cities & Schools at University of California, Berkeley, says that state spending has failed to keep up with the needs in schools following the recession, leaving local districts to take on those capital costs even if they can’t afford to.

Despite contributing next to nothing toward school facility spending, the federal government encourages public-school closure and consolidation as a strategy to boost academic performance. Such school improvement interventions for “failing” schools began during the controversial No Child Left Behind era, but financial incentives to close schools and open charters really ramped up under the Obama administration.

“Our communities have been so demonized to the point that nobody thinks they’re good. But no, our institutions have been sabotaged,” says Jitu Brown, the executive director of Journey For Justice (J4J), an alliance formed in 2013 that connects grassroots youth and parents fighting back against school closures. “These districts—Newark, Chicago, Detroit—they all cry ‘broke’ as they shift major portions of their budget towards privatization while neglecting and starving neighborhood schools.”

Besides pointing to low performance, districts often justify closing schools on the basis of the facilities being “underutilized.” This refers to buildings deemed too large for the number of students enrolled, and thus too expensive for districts to operate. Critics of school closures say that how districts determine “utilization” insufficiently accounts for the variety of ways communities use and rely on school facilities. Moreover, Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, says that urban districts tend to “completely underestimate” how much space is needed for special education and early childhood learning.

“When you’re resource-starved, you tend to take a defensive approach,” says Ariel Bierbaum, a Ph.D. student in the Department of City and Regional Planning at UC Berkeley. “You’re in a crisis mode, you’re looking to balance your books, so you’re not necessarily thinking the most creatively” about how to use some of the seemingly excess facility space.

PUBLIC SCHOOLS HAVE ALWAYS impacted communities in ways that go beyond just educating young people. Well-maintained school facilities can help revitalize struggling neighborhoods, just as decrepit buildings can hurt them. And whether it’s attracting businesses and workers into the area, directly affecting local property values, or just generally enhancing neighborhood vitality by creating centralized spaces for civic life, research has long demonstrated the influential role schools play within communities.

Yet most existing research on school closures has failed to explore the ways in which shuttering schools impacts these civic spheres; instead researchers have adopted a narrower focus on how school closures impact school district budgets and student academic achievement. On both of these fronts, though, the record has not been impressive.

Researchers find that what districts promise to students, staff, and taxpayers when preparing to close schools differs considerably from what actually happens when they close. For example, most students who went to schools that were closed down in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Newark—whether for fiscal reasons or for low academic performance—were transferred to schools that were not much better, and in some cases even worse, than the ones they left. In Chicago, for example, 87.5 percent of students affected by closures did not move to significantly higher-performing schools. Children also frequently encounter bullying and violence at their new schools, while teachers are often unprepared to handle the influx of new students.

Moving students around can negatively impact student achievement, and closures exacerbate such mobility. In some cities, students have been bumped around two, three, four times—as their new schools were eventually slated for closure, too.

Not all research casts school closures in a uniformly negative light. One study found that New York City school closures had little impact—positive or negative—on students’ academic performance at the time the schools were shut down, yet “future students”—meaning those who had been on track to attend those schools before they closed—demonstrated “meaningful benefits” from attending new schools. Another study found that while most children experienced negative effects on their academic achievement during the year they transitioned to new schools, such negative effects were impermanent, and student performance rebounded to similar rates as their unaffected peers the following year. Essentially, researchers find that there can be substantial positive effects if students are sent to much better schools than they ones they left; however, the reality is that most students do not go to such schools.

In addition to overselling academic gains, districts also tend to overstate how much money they’ll save from shutting down schools. When Washington, D.C., closed down 23 schools in 2008, the district reported it would cost them $9.7 million. A 2012 audit found the price was actually nearly $40 million after taking into account the cost of demolishing buildings, transporting students, and the lost value of the buildings, among other factors. Another study conducted by the Pew Charitable Trusts in 2011 found that cost savings are generally limited, at least in the short term, and such savings come largely through mass employee layoffs.

Bierbaum, however, has been studying Philadelphia’s school closures from a broader community-development and urban-planning perspective to understand how school closures, sales, and reuses are related to larger issues of metropolitan-wide racial and class inequality. This means examining school closures in the context of neighborhood change, like gentrification or disinvestment, and in relationship to the city plans and policies that help facilitate that change.

In some cases, Bierbaum says that residents feel closures are “necessary” responses to dramatic demographic shifts, even if “draconian”; city officials are “doing the best they can to deal with things out of their control” in terms of fiscal management, she says. But in other cases, residents see closures as yet another manifestation of systemic oppression, closely related to other kinds of disinvestment within neighborhoods. “In this way, not only closures but also school building disposition is actually experienced as dispossession,” Bierbaum explains.

A majority of closed schools are converted into charter schools, with a second significant chunk repurposed into residential apartments. Other buildings are demolished or left vacant. Interviews with experts in several cities reveal that school district officials have not prioritized urban-planning questions, like those Bierbaum is asking, when deciding whether to close schools.

Clarice Berry, the president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association and member of a state legislative task force focused on Chicago school facilities, says the Chicago public school district was simply uninterested in discussing those sorts of civic topics. “At no time have they wanted to study that, or even been interested in discussing it,” she says. “The district spends all their time trying to keep us from getting data [on school closures] that could show us how they could make improvements.” While the task force has repeatedly asked the district to track kids who have been shuffled around from school to school, by and large Chicago and other urban districts have not carefully tracked how school closures have impacted students, families, and communities.

SHORTLY AFTER J4J BEGAN ORGANIZING, another network formed—the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools (AROS)—comprising ten national organizations, including the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, and J4J. Through weekly email newsletters and support for on-the-ground organizing, AROS has helped mobilize individuals looking to fight for public education. Parents and community groups hope they can agitate districts to think creatively about facility space, and invest more in neighborhood schools.

In mid-February, AROS helped stage the first-ever national day of “walk-ins,” where students, teachers, and parents at 900 schools in 30 cities across the country rallied in support of increased school funding, local schools with wraparound services, charter school accountability, and an end to harsh discipline policies, among other demands.

Their action built on momentum that’s been brewing over the past two years around the idea of “full-service community schools,” or schools that offer not only academics but also medical care, child care, job training, counseling, early college partnerships, and other types of social supports. This school model, which dates back more than a century, can be particularly beneficial for low-income residents who face challenges like accessing transportation.

In February, the Center for Popular Democracy released a report on the roughly 5,000 self-identified community schools across the country, lifting up particularly successful examples and offering strategies on how to replicate their success. One such school was Reagan High School, a poor and minority school in northeast Austin, Texas, which adopted a community schools strategy five years ago. In 2008, the local district was threatening to close Reagan due to its declining enrollment and its below–50 percent graduation rate. Parents, students, and teachers began organizing around a community schools plan to save Reagan from closure, and the district gave them permission to give it a shot. After expanding supportive services, like mobile health clinics and parenting classes, after changing its approach to discipline, and after expanding after-school activities, among other things, graduation rates at Reagan have now increased to 85 percent, enrollment has more than doubled, and a new Early College High School program has enabled many Reagan students to earn their associate’s degree before they graduate.

Implementing community schools can be difficult, particularly to the extent that it requires schools to adopt joint-use policies so that facility space can be shared with other public agencies and nonprofits, many of which have no prior experience working together. Some states and local districts have been much more amenable to these types of partnerships than others. “Yes, there’s complexity. But my response is ‘welcome to modern life.’ Stop whining, we know we can do this,” says Filardo of 21st Century School Fund.

Political support for full-service community schools is also on the rise.Philadelphia’s new mayor, Jim Kenney, has pledged to create 25 new community schools by the end of his first term. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio aims to create 200 community schools during his tenure. The new federal education bill passed in December even authorizes grant-funding for community schools, which has incentivized many other cities and states to begin thinking about how to take advantage of this opportunity.

I sat down with Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson, a member of Newark’s elected advisory school board, to learn more about her interest in expanding community schools. With more than one-third of Newark’s children living in poverty, Baskerville-Richardson says local leaders have been looking for ways to address the harms of poverty while also supporting student achievement and school success. After five years of controversial education reforms pushed by Republican governor Chris Christie and his appointed superintendent, Baskerville-Richardson says the Newark community is just plain tired.

“There was a period when all our efforts were basically just fighting against these reforms being imposed on our communities,” she explains. “At the same time, we realized that the conversation could not just be about what we were against, and we had to mobilize around what we were for.” And so, a little over two years ago, public school leaders and local advocates began to really home in on the idea of full-service community schools.

“We began to do a lot of research, we got in touch with experts, talked with people from the Center for Popular Democracy, the Children’s Aid Society, and people involved on the national level,” Baskerville-Richardson recalls. “We also started visiting community schools like in Paterson, New Jersey—which is also a state-controlled district—[and] in Orange, New Jersey, which has similar demographics as ours. We visited Baltimore, New York City; some of our people visited Cincinnati; we talked to people in Tulsa, Oklahoma. … We’re really looking to dig into a model that has been proven to work.” Starting in the fall of 2016, five full-service community schools are set to open up in Newark’s South Ward, its poorest area.

ON THE 60TH ANNIVERSARY OF Brown v. Board of Education in 2014, parents and community organizations in New Orleans, Chicago, and Newark filed federal complaints under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. They alleged that school closures in their cities have had a racially discriminatory impact on children and communities of color. The groups received legal assistance from the Advancement Project, a civil-rights organization.

Jadine Johnson, an attorney with the Advancement Project, says they chose to file Title VI complaints because they wanted to raise disparate impact claims. “When districts are making these decisions they don’t say ‘we’ll close black and Latino schools.’ They’ll say ‘we’ll close schools that are under-enrolled or under-achieving,’” she says. “But those decisions can still have discriminatory effects on black and brown students.” In Newark, for example, during the 2012–2013 school year, white students were nearly 20 times less likely than black students to be affected by school closures, despite what would be predicted given their proportions of student enrollment.

Ariel Bierbaum says her field research demonstrated that many Philadelphians understood school closures as symbols of continued and consistent disrespect and disinvestment for poor communities of color. “Many of my interviewees tied school closures to urban renewal, to their parents’ experience, … [to] the Jim Crow south and migrating north,” a legacy that dates back to slavery, she says. “For them, these closures are not a ‘rational’ policy intervention to address a current fiscal crisis. School closures are situated in a much longer historical trajectory of discriminatory policymaking in the United States.”

J4J has also helped to bring a racial-justice lens to the school-closure conversation, namely by forcing the public to discuss it within the context of discrimination, segregation, underfunding, and marginalization—both inside and outside of schools. In some respects, there’s a seeming irony around efforts to save schools in poor and racially segregated neighborhoods—these are the same schools that were treated as expendable during the desegregation era. But residents understand that their schools aren’t closing for integration purposes, and if one looks closer, it is clear that aims to create more diverse neighborhood schools are still very much on the table.

In December, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the Department of Education reached a groundbreaking resolution with Newark Public Schools to aid those who may have been negatively impacted by Newark’s closures. Johnson, the Advancement Project attorney, says she believes the Newark OCR resolution “sends a loud message” to school districts that may be considering similar types of school closures. “We see this [as] a multi-year strategy,” she explains. “This resolution is hopefully the first of many agreements, and the first step to sounding the alarm for why public schools should remain public.”

Meeting with some parent activists who helped to file the Newark Title VI complaint, I wanted to see how they were feeling about the OCR resolution. Sharon Smith, the founder of Parents Unified for Local School Education (PULSENJ), thinks that irrespective of whatever remedies their superintendent proposes, it will take generations until Newark’s South Ward heals.

“It’s always very scary to me when people who are guilty of something, like the district is, say ‘Yes, we are guilty, but we’re going to fix this our own way without the input of the people who were hurt,’” says Darren Martin, another parent involved with PULSENJ. “We’re happy the OCR took our complaint seriously, but it feels almost like the police are policing themselves. How do you allow the person who helped design all these destructive policies [to] also design the remedy?”

IN FEBRUARY, I VISITED KELLY HIGH SCHOOL, a full-service community school on the southwest side of Chicago, serving a student body that’s more than 90 percent low-income. Kelly used to draw a large Italian, Polish, and Lithuanian population, but now predominately serves Hispanic students. With the help of the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, a local community organization, Kelly offers all sorts of programs for parents and children, ranging from tax-prep classes and English-language instruction, to tutoring and political organizing. The academic improvement Kelly students have shown over the past decade has also been substantial—targeted interventions have helped more at-risk students stay on track to graduate, and the school is now ranked as a Level 2+ in the district’s rating system—where the highest possible score is a 1+ and the lowest is a 3.

But Kelly’s progress, both academically and as a civic institution, is threatened by increasing budget cuts, declining student enrollment, and the growth of charter schools in the surrounding area. In July 2015, the Noble Network of Charter Schools, the largest charter chain in Chicago, submitted a proposal to open a new high school a few blocks away from Kelly. Students, parents, and teachers began mobilizing against the proposal, concerned that this new project would siphon even more resources from their already-pinched school, which had been forced to slash programs and teaching positions over the last few years. In October, 1,000 Kelly High School students walked out of class to protest the proposed new school. Yet despite overwhelming local opposition, the unelected Chicago Board of Education voted unanimously to open the new charter.

It’s possible that over the next few years, Kelly High School’s fiscal strain will become just too much to manage, and the school will be slated for closure, too. “The narrative to close schools is essentially a budget one, which can be extremely powerful,” says Filardo. Even if the budget savings turn out to be fairly small, or nonexistent.

One way to reduce budgetary pressures on schools, thereby helping prevent school closures, would be for states and the federal government to pay more, particularly toward local capital budgets. Decades of social-science research have shown how unsafe and inadequate school facilities can negatively affect students’ academic performance—particularly when a school has poor temperature control, poor indoor air quality, and poor lighting. Researchers also find that the higher the percentage of low-income students in a district, the less money a district spends on the capital investments needed to keep school facilities in good repair. The most disadvantaged students tend to receive about half the funding for school buildings as their wealthier peers. And often, low-wealth districts spend more from their operating budgets on facilities—paying for large utility bills, more demanding maintenance for old systems, and the high costs of emergency repairs. It’s not a coincidence that affluent communities invest more in their public school buildings. “They improve and enhance their school facilities because it matters to the quality of education, to the strength of their community, and the achievement and well-being of their children and teachers,” says Filardo.

In other words, increasing state and federal spending could both help struggling urban schools, and also help fortify communities more broadly. Filardo thinks districts should be able to leverage up to 10 percent of their Title I funds to help pay for capital expenses—right now, Title I funds can only go toward local operating spending. Or, even better, Filardo thinks the federal government should start contributing at least 10 percent toward district capital budgets, just as it contributes 10 percent to district operating budgets.

“Schools belong to the entire community, and it should be the state and federal government’s job to find the right policy levers so that we can really advance our educational and economic development together in the best, most equitable way,” she says.

Battles about how best to save and improve public education are sure to intensify in the coming months and years. No researcher has been able to conclusively say what the optimal policy intervention is for students in terms of boosting academic achievement. And some individuals are certainly more sympathetic to closing schools, particularly if it means their children could attend higher-performing district schools or charters. Even on the question of school governance, researchers have reached no clear consensus on whether state takeovers or local control is better for student outcomes or fiscal management. Nevertheless, there’s consensus that any system which generates uncertainty and distrust is a recipe for disaster.

Reflecting on the past four years in her city, Lauren Wells, the chief education officer for Newark Public Schools, notes that reform-minded leaders expanded charter schools quickly without really taking into account the impact such decisions would have on existing schools. A recent report from the Education Law Center, a legal advocacy group, found that the combination of the state’s refusal to adequately fund New Jersey’s school aid formula, coupled with rapid charter-school growth, has placed tremendous strain on district finances, forcing Newark to make significant cuts to district programming and staff. “We really want to move the conversation away from charters versus district schools,” Wells says. “We’re trying instead to build a coalition around this idea that we are the guardians of all children. That should be the basis of any decision that we make.”

 

Can Affordable Housing Help Retain Teachers?

Originally published in The American Prospect on November 18, 2015.
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On December 1, Allison Leshefsky, an elementary school gym teacher in San Francisco, will be evicted from the rent-controlled apartment she’s lived in for the past ten years. She and her partner pay $2,000 a month in rent, but if their place were put on the market, it would likely go for at least $5,000 a month—far more than any public school teacher could afford. As of August 2015, one-bedroom apartments in San Francisco rented for an average of $2,965 a month, and two-bedrooms for $3,853. Leshefsky’s landlord, who manages and partially owns nine San Francisco properties, has gained notoriety for evicting or allegedly forcing tenants out, in order to rent their units for more money.

Leshefsky has decided to finish out the school year teaching in San Francisco, even if that means paying jacked up prices for an air mattress she finds on Craigslist. “I’m making a commitment to get through the rest of the year regardless of whose couch I’m on or whose overpriced house I’m in,” she says. “I’m making a commitment to my students to finish this out.” But then, she says, she’ll have to leave.

In recent years, a growing number of researchers, policymakers, and philanthropists have directed their attention to the relationship between housing instability and student achievement. A great deal of evidence has shown how homelessness and housing insecurity can negatively impact a student’s behavior, which creates problems not only for them but for their classmates and teachers as well. A host of educational interventions are being tried in conjunction with local housing authorities, and some cities are even tying housing vouchers to specific struggling schools—in the hopes that such requirements will reduce student turnover and increase school performance.

Yet despite the perennial quest for top-notch teachers, less attention has been paid to the relationship between educators and their housing. It doesn’t require a great stretch of the imagination to think that teachers’ instructional capacities could be impacted by conditions they face outside the classroom, such as high rents, or unsafe housing. “There is no possible way the city can recruit talented people and maintain them with the housing crisis here,” says Leshefsky. “Students deserve teachers that are secure in their homes, and when a teacher is not secure, they can’t be the most effective educator.”

The city of San Francisco seems to agree. Last month, San Francisco’s mayor announced a new plan, formed in partnership with the school district and the teachers union, to provide housing assistance to some 500 public school teachers by 2020. Elements of the plan include forgivable loans, rental subsidies, housing counseling services, and the development of affordable housing specifically for teachers. This month, 73 percent  of San Francisco voters approved a ballot measure that will help make this plan a reality.

Across the country, other variants of teacher housing developments have cropped up, or are in the works—though the motivations for them, and allies behind them, differ from city to city. From San Francisco, to West Virginia, to Philadelphia, the efforts to attract, or retain, teachers through subsidized housing is growing more pronounced, and debates over how such projects impact their surrounding communities are likely to intensify in the coming years.

MATTHEW HARDY, the communications director for the San Francisco teachers union, says the union has a three-pronged strategy to deal with the city’s housing crisis. The first involves fighting for higher wages. In December 2014, the union negotiated a substantial salary increase for teachers and aides—a raise of more than 12 percent over three years. “But if we just limited ourselves to that, we’re not going to be successful,” says Hardy, which is why the union has also been pushing for teacher housing—using surplus district property—and for broader affordable housing policies for all city residents.

“Of course San Francisco is a wonderful place, and some people are willing to make immediate sacrifices to get their foot in the door, but it gets to a point where teachers start to wonder if they should continue paying $1,500 a month for a tiny room or move to the suburbs [where salaries are higher and housing is cheaper] and make $15,000-$20,000 more,” says Hardy. “We need to find ways to support teachers early in their careers, but also those who are more experienced and might want to start a family or buy a home.”

“If affordable brick-and-mortar teacher housing were actually here right now, and not several years in the future, then there would be no doubt in my mind that I would have continued to stay in the district,” Leshefsky said, wearily.

A very different sort of housing crisis plagues McDowell County, West Virginia—a poor, rural area, with a population that’s fallen by 80 percent since the 1950s. Teachers aren’t being priced out, but few want to move there, and those who might be so inclined struggle to find attractive housing options.

In 2011, former West Virginia First Lady Gayle Manchin asked Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), to help her figure out a way to improve McDowell’s school system. They started to organize a coalition of public and private organizations to tackle not only educational issues, but also regional poverty. In a speech given in 2012, Weingarten called this effort “solution-driven unionism.” Rather than shut down a school that’s struggling, she argued, unions can push to strengthen them with wraparound services. Then “learning improves, the school improves, community schools become more attractive than private or charter schools, people return to them with new confidence, home values increase and communities are renewed.”

Part of the McDowell plan includes not just wraparound services for community members, but also new apartments to attract teachers who might not otherwise want to move to McDowell County. As the lead coordinator involved in the teacher housing complex told Governing, “You can’t expect someone to leave life on a college campus for an isolated area where they live in the middle of nowhere and don’t know anybody.”

“What we’re constructing is the first multiple-story building in the area in decades,” said Weingarten in an interview. “The housing will address three big issues: the high teacher vacancy rate, the dearth of available housing, and the need for economic development.”

WHILE McDOWELL COUNTY’S “teacher village” won’t be the nation’s first, others are generally found in urban areas, and have been constructed largely without the involvement of the local teachers unions. In fact, partners more closely aligned to the educational reform movement have led them—those with ties to charter school networks and organizations like Teach for America.

In 2012, then-Mayor of Newark Cory Booker, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, leaders from Google and Goldman Sachs, and others gathered to break ground on the Newark Teachers Village—a downtown Newark development that houses three charter schools, a daycare facility, more than 200 subsidized teacher apartments, and nearly two dozen retail shops. The project received tens of millions of dollars in tax credits. (The Wall Street Journal reported on the event with the headline: “Viewing Newark as a ‘Blank Canvas’”.) The real estate development group that spearheaded the project, RBH Group, is listed as a Teach for America corporate sponsor, and one of RBH’s founding partners, Ron Beit, is the chairman of the board of TFA’s New Jersey chapter.

The Newark Teachers Union, an affiliate of the AFT, originally backed the Newark Teachers Village—though Newark teachers say that their now-deceased president, Joseph Del Grosso, did so without consulting union members. The AFT is an affiliate member of the AFL-CIO, a federation of labor organizations that includes construction unions, and some think Del Grosso supported the plan because it carried the potential to create new construction jobs, not because it was actually in the teachers’ interest. However, despite Del Grosso’s initial support, the union was ultimately uninvolved with the project.

“They basically shut out the public school teachers and the public school union,” said Weingarten in an interview. “Just like they shut out the community from their reform efforts, they shut us out too. Initially we had conversations [about the Teachers Village], and then we were stonewalled.” Had the AFT been involved, then the union likely would have invested pension funds into the project, which may have broadened, and diversified, the project’s mission, and given more stakeholders a say in shaping its development. The union could have also pushed to bring on different types of asset managers, like the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust, which they used in West Virginia and San Francisco. Ron Beit did not return repeated requests for comment.

Over the past couple years, similar teacher housing projects have opened up in other East Coast cities. In 2009, the Seawall Development Corporation established Miller’s Court in Baltimore, using millions of dollars in local, state, and federal tax credits—and another, Union Mill, a few years later. The lead developer, Donald Manekin, was a former board member of Teach For America, and said he originally got the idea to build teacher villages when he saw 100 new TFA members arriving in Baltimore each year. “We’d sit at the end of these board meetings and say wouldn’t it be great if there was a great place for teachers new to the city?” He made these remarks to Newsworks in 2013, as his company prepared to build another teacher housing complex in Philadelphia.

Teach For America’s vice president for administration, Matt Gould, told The New York Times that his organization backs the projects because they “allow [teachers] to have safe, affordable housing. It’s a recruiting tool.” Teach For America is also reportedly looking into New Orleans and Washington as additional cities to expand teacher housing.

I spoke with Thibault Manekin, Donald Manekin’s son, and co-founder of Seawall Development Corporation, about his work building teacher housing. “Really our goal was to provide Class-A apartments and space for teachers doing the most important work in our city, which is helping kids get an education,” he said. To do this, the Manekins provide teachers with a free fitness center, free parking, reduced rent, lounge space, and other amenities that one might find in a more expensive apartment building. (Their website describes the buildings as “an urban oasis”.) Manekin says his company is in the middle of a similar project in Springfield, Massachusetts, and helping others think through comparable developments in other cities. “Yeah, I think you’ll start to see this spread more,” he said.

I asked him if he thought Baltimore teachers had struggled to find safe or affordable housing before he and his father embarked on their projects. “I think the challenge was that teachers, often new to Baltimore, and new to the classroom, weren’t living with like-minded people, and so might be making bad decisions on where to live,” he said. “As a result of that it makes the job that much harder. We just wanted to provide them with a world class space at a significant discount.”

While safe and affordable housing was available, he went on, “you wouldn’t really be living with people in the same boat as you.” They wanted to establish a space where teachers could lean on one another outside of the workplace.

Weingarten says the union was not included in the Philadelphia project, and was only cursorily consulted with for the Baltimore developments.

BRANDEN RIPPEY, a Newark public school teacher who has been working in the district for 18 years, said he acknowledges that Newark needs to build better housing to attract high-quality teachers. “Newark isn’t San Francisco. You do need to work to draw people in, and some of the housing we have here is in bad neighborhoods, and there is crime,” he says. As well, most of Newark’s teachers live outside of the city, so the idea of enabling teachers to establish roots as residents within the community is something he also likes. “I support the idea of creating good, affordable housing for working class people. The problem is that [the Newark Teachers Village] is clearly designed for white, young professional types, at a time when we desperately need more housing for poor people of color.”

Rippey notes that the Teachers Village is located close to other redevelopment projects in downtown Newark. “It’s just becoming a little yuppie commercial district,” he says. “The reality is they have a vision for gentrifying the whole downtown.” Rippey believes that these projects serve as a way to easily import TFA teachers, and by extension, weaken union power. Whereas developers like Beit and Manekin see the teacher housing complexes as positive ways to build communal spaces for local educators, Rippey thinks they can serve as a vehicle to isolate new and relatively young teachers from the union and the broader community. “It’ll keep those teachers residentially, and almost culturally, segregated,” he says.

IN A WAY, these Teachers Villages function as sort of a camp experience. You may be making a two-year commitment to live and work in an unfamiliar city, one that perhaps you, or your family, worry is unsafe. You know that you’re going to be working hard, long days—and so living in close quarters with people going through similar experiences might be quite comforting. All in all, it appears to be a pretty good deal—you’ll be afforded lots of amenities and discounts, you’ll live in a place you know is secure, and you’ll have the chance to develop friendships with other “like-minded” individuals.

In 2013, Mark Weber, a public school teacher and an education policy doctoral student, wrote some strong critiques about these new teacher housing projects.

It’s the perfect scheme: Beit and his private investors get tens of millions of dollars in tax credits to finance the development. He then turns around and rents his commercial units to charter schools, which drain tax revenues away from the neighboring public schools (which could sorely use the money to shore up their crumbling infrastructures). Those schools then pay their young teachers, recruited from TFA, who then turn around and pay rent to Beit. So Beit’s managed to develop three revenue streams—tax credits, charter school rents, and teacher residence rents—all made possible by the proliferation of charters and TFA.

And here’s the real beauty part: If the neighborhood gets gentrified and property values rise, the increases accrue to the property owners—like Beit—but not the people who actually live in the neighborhood. Think about it: If these teachers were buying brownstones and condos, the rising property values would accrue to them. But, because they’re renters, and not owners, they don’t see any of the increase. Their presence will raise the value of the neighborhood’s properties, but they’ll get none of the reward (assuming everything goes according to plan).

I called Weber to discuss some of his thoughts in greater detail. He sounded skeptical that these subsidized projects had much value at all: Will they really help attract lifelong educators into the profession, or will they just serve as a nice perk for young teachers who wouldn’t stay in the classroom beyond a few years anyway?

“If these charter schools need young people who are willing to work long hours and do the career for just a couple years, then things like teacher villages are almost custom-made, because you’re not going to be buying condos, and it’s close to your work,” he said. “Is that sustainable? I would argue no if we’re trying to build a workforce that sees teaching as a lifetime career. We could continue to build, or we can ask ourselves if we’re paying teachers enough money. If you can’t comfortably live here without staying in subsidized housing, maybe that’s a problem.”

Others have also questioned whether this whole subsidized housing deal isn’t just a misplaced way to avoid paying teachers significantly higher salaries. An individual used to feel more comfortable entering the teaching profession—despite its lack of prestige or big paychecks—given the relative stability if offered: a middle-class life, solid health care benefits, and a stable pension to live on during retirement. Today, however, those sorts of guarantees are beginning to fall by the wayside.

“If you’re not going to offer good health care benefits, what are you going to offer to get people to join the profession?” asked Weber. “Some modest rent control in hip neighborhoods? That’s not going to help the neighborhood much, and that’s not going to be much of an incentive to go into teaching.”

MAYBE SUBSIDIZED HOUSING that targets young professionals won’t be what it takes to help attract career educators, yet it’s clear that cities do want to help recruit and retain educators who actually live in the communities in which they serve—an effort that may require more than just a salary increase (though that would help.) Whether it’s a Teach for America participant looking for a supportive communal space, or a mid-career educator with a family who wants to live closer to his or her workplace, thinking about the intersections between housing and teaching is something that even the most progressive unionists, like Rippey, believe we should be doing more of.

Weingarten defended the AFT’s McDowell and San Francisco projects, and contrasted them with the ones in Baltimore, Newark, and Philadelphia. “We’re not looking to create a boutique pipeline for some people to work in different communities, it’s not that,” she said. “It’s about creating affordable housing so people can establish roots in the cities in which they live.”

Still, even teacher villages more closely aligned to the reform movement are helping young teachers, and local nonprofit organizations, forge better ties with the communities in which they serve. “The amount of teachers that have actually stayed in the classroom and in Baltimore, and then gone out and bought homes has been really inspiring to see,” said Thibault Manekin. Of the 30 homes he and his father have built in Baltimore, he says 20 have been sold to former tenants of Miller’s Court and Union Mill.

Would Leshefsky be willing to live outside San Francisco and continue working at her school with a longer daily commute?

“No, I would not be willing to do a two-hour commute just to serve a community that I don’t belong to,” she said. “I’m one of the most constant people in my students’ lives right now, and I don’t think someone who lives outside the city can necessarily connect with their students in the same way. We’re all going through very similar struggles.”

 

On New Philanthropy, Education Reform, and Eli Broad’s Big Plan for L.A. Schools

Originally published at The American Prospect on September 22, 2015.
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The Los Angeles Times published a confidential document yesterday, which seems to confirm earlier reports that the Broad Foundation wants at least 50 percent of L.A. public school students educated in charter schools over the next eight years. Currently, 16 percent of students in L.A. Unified attend charters, and according to the report, getting to 50 percent would require creating 260 new schools, for 130,000 students, at a cost of $490 million.

“Los Angeles is uniquely positioned to create the largest, highest-performing charter sector in the nation,” the report stated. “Such an exemplar would serve as a model for all large cities to follow.”

Hmmm. That sounds familiar.

Earlier this month, veteran Washington Post journalist Dale Russakoff published a new book, The Prize, which explores education reform efforts in Newark from 2010-2015. Her book details the goals, mistakes, and challenges reformers encountered as they tried to “transform” Newark’s struggling school system—largely through expanding charters, closing “failing” schools, and implementing new teacher pay scales. The political drama and backroom dealings led by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg offers humbling lessons to all those working to improve public education, no matter where one comes down on the policy specifics.

Like Eli Broad’s vision for Los Angeles, a key goal for Newark education reformers was to make the city a model for the rest of urban America. Booker wanted Newark to be transformed into “a hemisphere of hope” and repeatedly told Zuckerberg that their goal was not just to fix local education, but to develop the “high impact programs and best practices” that could fix education in all major cities. Booker believed that if he could succeed within a difficult district like Newark, then he could succeed anywhere. He emphasized that Zuckerberg’s investment could help lead to the “blueprint for national replication across America’s urban centers to transform its youth.”

This month, HistPhil, a blog that explores the history of the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors, has been running an excellent series on philanthropic involvement in education. Their effort is well timed: As billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Eli Broad continue to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into education reform, the need to understand what’s historically new, and what’s not, is more important than ever.

Sarah Reckhow, a political scientist and author of Follow the Money: How Foundation Dollars Change Public Schools, contributed to the HistPhil series by looking specifically at Mark Zuckerberg’s experiment in Newark. Reckhow notes that there exists a “perennial drive” for philanthropists to create national reform models. She points to the Ford Foundation’s Gray Areas program in the 1960s, an effort that philanthropists had hoped could serve as a national model for urban policy. “The fallacy of the national replication model—at the expense of truly listening and understanding local circumstances—is a lesson that philanthropists must relearn time and again,” Reckhow says.

Other cities experimenting with education reform are similarly interested in “scaling” their efforts. Many point to the academic gains seen in New Orleans—the urban district with the highest percentage of charter schools in the country—as reason to implement their reforms elsewhere. “We don’t know if similar efforts can be replicated in other cities,” argued Neerav Kingsland, a prominent New Orleans reformer. “But we owe it to the children of this country to try and find out.” Tulane economist Doug Harris, who has conducted the most rigorous research on New Orleans reforms to date, says it’s questionable whether their model would work in other cities given the unique economic and political conditions present in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

OK, so reformers and philanthropists are drawn to ideas that can scale—and apparently have been for a long time. Still, how should we be thinking about Eli Broad’s plan to “charterize” L.A.? Is there anything new about today’s crop of philanthropists? Several contributors to the HistPhil blog argue yes.

Sociologist Robin Rogers says that the ideas held by modern philanthropists reflect those commonly seen in the venture capital world. She cites an influential article from 1997 in The Harvard Business Review that encouraged philanthropists to pursue social change using tactics commonly employed in the business sector. “Considered to be more muscular than traditional approaches to philanthropy, the new philanthropy appeals to many men who made money in tech or finance sectors,” Rogers writes. “These (primarily) men have great faith in the tools and techniques that they used to disrupt the old economy and usher in the new one.”

While modern philanthropists share some similarities with their rich predecessors, Rogers argues that today’s bunch are far more likely to focus on “institutional pressure points” rather than provide support for a diverse set of projects. (She points to the Gates Foundation’s involvement in promoting the Common Core standards as an example, as well as dogged support for expanding charter schools).

Jeffrey W. Snyder, a postdoctoral research fellow in education, philanthropy, and advocacy at the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, also wrote a HistPhil post exploring differences between “old” and “new” philanthropy—specifically in terms of their priorities and philanthropic methods. For one thing, Snyder finds that “new foundation granting in recent years far surpasses the total given by old foundations.”

Source: Jeffrey W. Snyder, HistPhil blog

Source: Jeffrey W. Snyder, HistPhil blog

He also says that newer foundations do indeed have different priorities compared to older ones. The latter tends to give substantially to university-based programs and research that aims to improve existing educational systems, while newer foundations donate heavily to charter schools and other organizations that push for more radical change.

We don’t yet know what’s going to happen with Eli Broad’s plan to “reach 50 percent charter market share” within Los Angeles public schools. And it wouldn’t be fair to assume he’ll behave just as Mark Zuckerberg did in Newark, or as other billionaires have elsewhere. Still, paying attention to historical precedent is important, and there seems to be sufficient reason to be wary. As The Washington Post’s art critic Philip Kennicott wrote just days ago, Eli Broad “is a self-made man…who has also built and burned bridges all across [Los Angeles]. Ask around, and no one seems to like him, though many call him effective…They admire his brilliance, covet his money, fear his power and lament his character, which is described as imperious, egomaniacal and relentless.”