Pandemic school reopenings were not just about politics

Originally published in Vox.com on May 23, 2022.
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Almost as soon as some schools reopened for in-person learning in the fall of 2020, research was suggesting a tidy, albeit dark, conclusion about why they did: politics. Early analyses indicated that Covid-19 health factors had virtually nothing to do with reopening decisions, and partisan politics could explain nearly all the variation.

There were early signs that this narrative didn’t explain the full story. If allegiance to former President Donald Trump (in schools that opened) or teacher unions (in those that stayed closed) were all that mattered, why did support for reopening schools also drop among Republican voters over the summer? And what about the conflicting recommendations coming from federal health and education departments at that time? Nevertheless, the idea that Covid-19 was not a real factor was repeated by some of the nation’s most influential journalists and media outlets, and framed as though the question was generally settled.

This is typical in policy research: Initial waves of data often attract lots of attention, and can quickly ossify into conventional wisdom. When subsequent, often deeper inquiry reveals alternative or more nuanced explanations, it tends to receive far less notice.

That’s what’s been happening with research into school closures. More recent studies have found that, far from being irrelevant, Covid-19 indicators were among central factors predicting whether schools would reopen.

Researchers say they also still haven’t fully understood how other factors — like school governance and parent preferences — influenced Covid-19 school decisions. A new study, published recently by two education researchers from George Mason University, replicates some earlier findings and explores new potential variables. All in all, it continues adding to a picture that’s more complex than the early analyses suggested.

This debate might seem moot: Schools have been back to in-person learning this school year, and parents largely report satisfaction with their child’s progress. But the consequences of these decisions continue to linger. Many educators say things have not yet returned to normalEmpirical research suggests some of the most negative academic effects were experienced disproportionately by low-income students and students of color. Moreover, future pandemics remain a threat, and district leaders may one day again be charged with navigating similar circumstances.

A new study reinforces that school opening decisions were complicated

The narrative that school reopening decisions were all about politics coalesced early. One of the first pieces of evidence came from a Brookings Institution blog post published in July 2020, where senior fellow Jon Valant found “no relationship” between school districts’ reopening plans and their per-capita Covid-19 cases, but a strong one between districts’ plans and county-level support for Trump in the 2016 election. The implication was that communities that take their cues from then-President Trump were more willing to resume in-person instruction.

Additional research emerged in the following months reiterating that health concerns were not a significant factor. “We find evidence that politics, far more than science, shaped school district decision-making,” concluded political scientists Michael Hartney and Leslie Finger in an October 2020 analysis.

But as time passed, and more schools reopened, the picture grew more complicated. A July 2021 analysis compared fall 2020 reopening factors to those in spring 2021. Tulane economists Douglas Harris and Daniel Oliver found Covid-19 rates were one significant predictor of fall school reopening. Over time, the role of both politics and health factors declined, Harris and Oliver observed, while the demographics of a given community remained a strong predictor throughout the year. (This was knotty, they note, given the “close interplay between demographics, parental work situations, and COVID health risks.”)

The latest addition to the research literature was published this month by two George Mason professors, Matthew Steinberg and David Houston. Their working paper — which has not yet been peer-reviewed — affirmed some of the core findings of earlier studies: Higher rates of in-person instruction during fall 2020 occurred in areas with weaker unions and that leaned Republican, and rates of Covid-19 were correlated with reopening decisions.

The new paper looks at how factors predicting in-person schooling changed over the course of the 2021-21 academic year. Covid-19 case and death rates, political partisanship, and teacher union strength became “less potent predictors” over time. As the year stretched on, Steinberg and Houston also observed that communities with a history of higher standardized test scores grew significantly more likely to reopen school buildings than their lower-achieving counterparts.

“This pattern may help us understand the widening test score gaps that have emerged in the wake of the pandemic,” they write.

Sarah Reckhow, a political scientist at Michigan State University who was involved in a study that found local school district decisions were heavily tied to political partisanship and union strength, called Houston and Steinberg’s study “great” — and noted the importance of replication in policy research.

While her own research found school reopening to be less tied to Covid-19 severity, she said there was still a relationship to Covid-19 rates observed in some aspects of their model.

Harris told Vox he agreed with the new working paper’s conclusions — that reopening was about more than just politics — which largely mirrored his prior research. He also praised the new study for tracking how factors that seemed to drive in-person instruction changed over time. “That was novel and interesting and important,” Harris said.

Steinberg and Houston’s study leveraged county-level data from a private firm, Burbio, which tracked in-person and virtual learning for nearly half of all public school students during the pandemic. Covid-19 case and death rates, and partisanship measured by presidential vote share, are also all reported at the county level. Most counties, however, contain multiple school districts, which is why other researchers have preferred a school district-level analysis.

“There are a lot of analytic choices that go into descriptive analyses of imperfect data, and we do not have a strong bone to pick with the other studies,” Steinberg told Vox, but emphasized that many of these minor choices can have “nontrivial implications” for interpreting results.

Brad Marianno, an education policy researcher at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, told Vox he is skeptical of Burbio’s ability to accurately capture in-person instruction rates, and thought a school district-level analysis (like one he published earlier this year) would have been better than a county-level approach. Still, he praised the new paper, including for performing its analysis over time. “We need multiple efforts at the question, especially efforts that employ similar and different datasets and measures, to really triangulate a data-driven answer,” he said.

Sarah Cohodes, a Columbia University economist who has studied pandemic differences between charter schools and traditional public schools, said there is no right or wrong answer when it comes to measuring by county or school-district levels. “You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” she told me, though she reiterated that it depends on the research question.

Local support for teachers may have made it easier to reopen schools

One of the most novel elements of Steinberg and Houston’s study is their suggestion of a previously unexplored factor predicting in-person instruction: local support for teachers. Using multiple surveys with different sampling strategies and question wordings, the George Mason professors found that pre-pandemic support for increases in educator pay was consistently associated with higher rates of in-person instruction during the pandemic. In other words, areas where the public was more supportive of raises for teachers were also more likely to have in-person learning.

Other education policy scholars told Vox they’d need more time to consider that connection. Reckhow called it “a really intriguing result” but one that left her with “many questions” about the underlying mechanisms that might explain the finding. “Without more information, it’s hard for me to develop a fully satisfactory explanation,” she said.

Steinberg stressed that what he sees as so “revelatory” about this finding, which was based on data from two different nationally representative surveys, is that it suggests to him there was something about communities that valued their teachers more highly that potentially made it easier for schools to open for in-person learning.

“Some of these little p-politics in communities matter, and whether or not there is preexisting trust could make the logistical complexity of reopening manageable for leaders or unmanageable,” he said.

As time marches on, it can be easy to forget just how acute the uncertainty was for school administrators during the 2020-21 school year, particularly before vaccines were available. Everything looks crisper in hindsight. But given the tremendous implications for students, schools, and families — and that administrators may one day again find themselves in similar positions — researchers will likely study those decisions for years to come.

The Bogus Claim That School Closures Will Doom Democrats

Originally published in The New Republic on January 25, 2022.
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If you’ve read any national news stories over the past few months about the political implications of pandemic-induced school closures, you’ve likely come across Brian Stryker’s name. He’s become the go-to source for reporters and commentators—particularly those at The New York Times. The paper ran a Q&A with him in early December titled, “A Pollster’s Warning to Democrats: ‘We Have a Problem.’” His work has been cited in subsequent op-eds of The New York Times and was featured prominently in a recent Times piece built around the idea that more omicron-induced school closures urged by teachers’ unions could spell disaster for Democrats next fall. On the basis of a survey Stryker’s firm conducted of 500 Virginia voters, the Times stated unequivocally that “polling showed that school disruptions were an important issue for swing voters who broke Republican—particularly suburban white women.”

Stryker, a partner at the Democratic polling firm Anzalone Liszt Grove Research (which announced it’d be changing its name to Impact Research last week), gained this prominence following a widely circulated memo he and his colleague Oren Savir published in mid-November, which analyzed Republican Glenn Youngkin’s victory in Virginia’s gubernatorial election. The memo reported findings from an online focus group of 18 suburban Biden voters in Northern Virginia and the Richmond metro area, and states that while concerns over “critical race theory” were a problem for voters, school closures were a bigger factor. Perhaps most ominously, their memo quoted a Biden voter who cast her ballot for Youngkin as saying her vote “was against the party that closed the schools for so long last year.”

Democrats have plenty of reasons to fret about the upcoming midterm elections. While Joe Biden won by over seven million votes nationally in 2020, Democrats were devastated down the ballot. The party failed to flip any of the dozen state legislative chambers it had targeted and lost 13 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Election analysts attribute Biden’s victory in large part to suburban women who loathed Donald Trump, but Trump won’t be on the ballot in November, plus midterms have historically been bad for the party of first-term presidents. Voters are concerned about inflation, and Joe Biden’s approval rating hovers, roughly, at a troublingly low 40 percent.

Yet one much weaker midterm theory, curiously, has gained traction among the political elite, especially following the rise of the omicron variant. The slow pace of school reopenings in the 2020–21 school year, we’re told, still represents a significant political liability for Democrats, one that could grow even worse as some school districts close temporarily this month due to Covid-19. Blaming teachers’ unions and Democrats who ally with those unions is also part of this cautionary tale. Alexander Nazaryan, a Yahoo News reporter, went so far as to call Chicago’s teacher strike this month a “Reagan vs. air traffic controllers moment.” If Biden doesn’t “stand up to” teachers’ unions on school closures, Nazaryan warned, “he loses credibility at a critical time in his presidency.”

Perhaps because many of the people who lead these conversations are frustrated parents themselves, the idea that school closures will come to haunt Democrats is something that to many of them feels true or, at the very least, highly plausible. Life remains logistically and emotionally challenging for parents in countless ways, especially those with kids under 5, and so there’s a sense that surely something’s got to give.

Throughout the first six months of the pandemic, many of those same voices also warned that Democrats would pay a steep political cost. That didn’t bear out in the 2020 election. The loudest critics have insisted that Democrats will push for a full return to remote learning—despite the truth that most politicians and union leaders have suggested only temporary accommodations as the country weathers the quickly rising and quickly falling omicron wave of infections.

Instead of a practical debate, online discourse creates an artificial dichotomy, in which one can only belong to one of two camps: an adherence to complete lockdown until we achieve “Covid-zero” or a complete return to pre-pandemic normalcy. But outside Twitter and op-ed pages, many surveys and studies have shown that actual parents and voters hold much more nuanced views. They can hate the harms of distance learning while determining when the pandemic has altered how they want to live and school their children. They can express frustration with their circumstances but maintain that not all problems have immediate resolutions and clear villains.

The latest eruption of the school-closure debate has been defined by a bout of amnesia, one that has erased the bountiful evidence of public sentiment from the 2020–21 school year.

Throughout the pandemic, including during the first few months of 2021, poll after poll showed that most parents and most voters—including the majority of Democrats and independents—were not in favor of sending kids back to K-12 schools full-time, at least until teachers and seniors were vaccinated.

In mid-February last year, 74 percent of Democrats and 54 percent of independents told Politico/Morning Consult that states should wait to reopen until teachers had received the coronavirus vaccine. A separate Quinnipiac poll from the same time period found just 27 percent of adults thought schools were reopening too slowly, with 47 percent of adults saying they felt reopenings were taking place at the right pace, and 18 percent reporting schools were reopening too quickly. Another February 2021 poll from YouGov/HuffPost found just 27 percent of adults thought schools should be completely reopened, with 29 percent backing partial reopening and 30 percent supporting virtual learning.



The findings were consistent when pollsters talked to just K-12 parents. The University of Southern California asked a nationally representative sample of parents in late January 2021 how their child was learning—in person, remotely, or hybrid—and then asked what they would want for their child if they could choose any option. USC found that 75 percent of parents said their child was receiving the type of instruction they wanted. A separate poll, released by the National Parents Union, found that in mid-January, about two-thirds of public school parents were getting the kind of schooling they preferred for their kids, with about 20 percent wanting more in-person instruction and 10 percent wanting less. EdChoice, a national school choice group, polled U.S. parents monthly, beginning in May 2020, about their comfort level sending their child back to school. Parental comfort levels didn’t break 60 percent until April 2021.

This was all true despite millions of parents and voters expressing deep dissatisfaction with virtual learning, concerned about its toll on academic progress and children’s emotional and social well-being. Seventy-two percent of voters told RMG Research last February that they saw in-person learning as better than virtual instruction, and 57 percent of parents told Yahoo!/YouGov last January they thought their child had fallen behind academically. Sixty-four percent of parents whose children were learning remotely in October 2020 told Pew they were concerned about their child maintaining friendships and social connections, compared to just 49 percent of parents whose kids were attending school in person.

But it doesn’t require any great intellectual leap to bridge these two divides. One could easily favor in-person learning in the abstract, hold real worries about the implications of virtual school, and yet still determine that remote learning is the right call at that time given the risks of the pandemic. Individual families inevitably have different risk thresholds based on resources and other factors. Low-income, Black, and Latino families were more likely last year to prefer remote learning even as studies showed those children suffered greater learning losses in subjects like math and reading from virtual school compared to their white peers.

David Houston, an education policy professor at George Mason University and the survey director for the annual EdNext survey, told me that was indeed consistent with public opinion research. “We asked parents in spring 2020, fall 2020, and spring 2021, ‘Do you think your kid is learning more or less or about the same?’ Folks aren’t fools, they certainly don’t think their kids were doing as well as they would have under normal conditions,” he said. “But simultaneously we asked a question about satisfaction with the instruction and activities provided by their child’s school, and the rates were really pretty darn high.”

When kids returned from summer break in the fall of 2021, life looked quite different in most parts of the country. Things were far from the “normal” of what classrooms of 2019 looked like—delta was circulating, kids were often wearing masks, and individual classes would shut down for a period after a string of positive tests—but the vast majority of children were back learning in school buildings full-time.

Parental attitudes also lifted. Reputable polling has shown broad satisfaction among parents with having their kids back inside schools and no increase in negative views toward teachers’ unions. Surveys have also shown that voters—particularly Democrats and independents—are not holding Democrats responsible for last year’s school closures.

The University of Southern California’s Understanding America Survey surveyed parents four times during the pandemic: October 2020, when 29 percent had fully in-person school; April-May 2021, when 50 percent were in person; June 2021, when 79 percent were on summer break; and October 2021, when 93 percent were in person. The researchers found that parents’ concerns about their child’s learning had gone down significantly last fall. When asked about their school’s efforts to meet their children’s needs—including academically, socially, and mentally—82 percent to 91 percent of parents were satisfied in each area. “This level of positivity was consistent across subgroups,” they reported, “including by race/ethnicity, household income, parental education level, region of the country, urbanicity, partisanship, and grade levels.”

Likewise, in a nationwide poll conducted in early December by Global Strategy Group and GBAO, researchers found just 13 percent of Democrats and 27 percent of independents described Democrats closing schools as a “very concerning” school-related issue to them, compared to 60 percent of Republicans. More Democrats and independents—17 and 39 percent, respectively—said they were very concerned that Democrats were promoting critical race theory in schools.

In a national survey of public school parents registered to vote conducted last month by Hart Research Associates and Lake Research Partners, pollsters found 78 percent of parents expressed satisfaction with their school’s overall handling of the pandemic, and 83 percent reported satisfaction with their school’s efforts to keep students and staff safe. Moreover, just 22 percent of parents said they felt their school waited too long to resume in-person instruction, while three-fourths felt their school struck a good balance between safety and learning (48 percent) or actually moved too quickly to reopen (26 percent).

Although repeated efforts to pit parents against teachers were never successful, the national conversation shifted back to the artificial construct once journalists and talking heads began analyzing how Republicans retook Virginia’s governorship and gave New Jersey’s Democratic Governor Phil Murphy a much more competitive reelection than anyone anticipated. 
The ALG survey and focus group provide useful insights. Focus groups, like the best journalism, can be particularly valuable for drawing out further hypotheses to test. But treating that research as dispositive is a mistake, particularly when other high-quality surveys have found evidence that conflicts with or complicates ALG’s findings.

Geoff Garin, a longtime Democratic pollster and president of Hart Research Associates, did some polling for Terry McAuliffe during the election, followed by an in-depth postelection survey of more than 2,400 Virginia voters after the election on behalf of the Democratic Governors Association. “It’s very clear that education was a dominant factor in driving the outcome of the race, but there’s really no evidence that the question of school closures was an important part of that,” he told me. Garin’s research found that 9 percent of Biden voters switched to Glenn Youngkin in 2021 and that education was indeed a top-cited issue for this pivotal subset.

But rather than school closures, Garin said, these people talked exclusively about Terry McAuliffe’s comments surrounding parent involvement in school. In a late-September gubernatorial debate, McAuliffe declared, “I’m not going to let parents come into schools and actually take books out and make their own decisions,” adding, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” Youngkin’s campaign made those deeply unpopular remarks a centerpiece of his campaign in the closing weeks of the race, running ads and circulating petitions and fliers stressing that “Parents Matter.” Under the umbrella of parental involvement, Youngkin’s campaign also leaned on other issues agitating parents like mask and vaccine mandates, transgender rights, and racial equity initiatives.

In the ALG memo, Stryker and Savir argue that, yes, McAuliffe’s gaffe resonated, but it really hit home because it played into existing frustrations parents had over school closures and feeling “that Democrats didn’t listen to parents when they kept the schools closed past any point of reason.”

Garin says his research showed no such thing. “It was completely clear in the surveys from the last few weeks of the election and postelection that voters were reacting to McAuliffe’s comments,” Garin told me. “Youngkin put that quotation front and center with an enormous amount of advertising; he and his campaign never related it to school closures.” Among the Biden-Youngkin voters, Garin’s research found 54 percent said McAuliffe’s position on the role of parents in schools influenced their vote, and 41 percent said his position on the teaching of critical race theory influenced their vote.

These aren’t entirely separate matters. As opposition to CRT becomes heavily associated with Republicans, liberals and moderates who also feel racial and social justice causes have “gone too far” are more likely to glom onto another slogan that allows them to express the same idea without feeling it’s so conservative. Christopher Rufo, the Manhattan Institute activist who got Trump to take notice of CRT in the fall of 2020, has embraced calling their legislative crusade against diversity, equity, and inclusion a “parent’s movement” and describes their efforts as a push for “parental transparency” on curriculum.

Mario Brossard, a senior research vice president at the Democratic polling firm Global Strategy Group, who conducted polling in October on CRT, told me, “It is clear that the discussion or the talking points around having parents have more input into the curriculum” is being used as a euphemism for CRT. “The folks who are anti-CRT are fairly well entrenched, and they hold those sentiments quite strongly,” he said.  “What Christopher Rufo is trying to do is make it more palatable to a broader cross section of voters, parents, and Americans generally by talking about parental input into the curriculum.”

In the ALG focus group memo being widely cited as evidence that CRT is just not as big an issue, the researchers did say that participants, even as they conceded critical race theory wasn’t formally taught in schools, talked about feeling “like racial and social justice issues were overtaking math, history, and other things” and “worried that racial and cultural issues are taking over the state’s curricula.”

Fox News Voter Analysis survey conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago, which polled over 2,500 Virginia voters after the election, found a stunning 72 percent of respondents said the debate over teaching CRT in schools was “an important” factor to them, with a quarter calling it “the single most important” factor.

This doesn’t fully discount the school-closure explanation. The Fox survey also found 27 percent of voters ranked “the debate over handling Covid-19 in schools” as their single-most important issue. But of that cohort, two-thirds cast their ballot for Terry McAuliffe. Given that the aforementioned Covid-19 debate could encompass masks, vaccine requirements, and virtual schooling, it’s hard to parse out exactly what’s going on. But the fact that voters who said it was the most salient for them broke heavily for McAuliffe goes against the conventional narrative.

Michael Hartney, a political scientist at Boston College, did a postelection analysis for Chalkbeat, where he found Youngkin made slightly larger gains in regions where schools took longer to fully reopen, controlling for the share of Trump voters and white voters in a given area.

He also found that Youngkin did no better in places that had a school district staff member dedicated to diversity, or that mentioned equity in its mission, proxies he designed for CRT. 

“The analysis was by no means perfect, but I do think it showed that there is little systematic evidence that Youngkin ran up vote share (relative to Trump) in districts which have more heavily emphasized diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives,” Hartney told me via email, stressing he was doing “merely an exploratory analysis.” Hartney added that he’s waiting on getting some postelection micro-survey data to analyze and tease out some of these patterns more carefully.

Brian Stryker, the ALG pollster, told me he doesn’t know why school closures didn’t come up in Geoff Garin’s postelection survey but maintained they were a big deal in his research. He stressed the importance of candidates and elected officials showing more empathy for the hardship families have faced and continue to face around schools.

“Going to remote learning is deeply unpopular, it just feels like that’s in the ether, it’s the thing that you hear from parents all the time,” he said. (Stryker lives in Chicago, where schools closed earlier this month.) “That’s not a very scientific thing to say,” he added, “but the focus groups and surveys are backed up by every parent that I talk to in my life, and they’re all furious about the closing and all worried their school is going to be next.”

On Twitter earlier this month, Stryker shared a Suffolk/USA Today poll showing 66 percent of the country and 52 percent of Democrats oppose shifting schools to remote learning to contain the spread of omicron. “Hard data to back up what we’re all feeling—closing schools, on top of being an educational disaster, is a political disaster for Democrats too,” Stryker tweeted.

But when I brought up that polls showed most voters, including parents, were not in favor of fully reopening schools before vaccines came out, he agreed that “minds changed around the vaccine, once teachers were getting vaccinated, once grandparents were getting vaccinated.”

Has he found any evidence that leads him to conclude voters will hold Democrats responsible in November for schools that close during the omicron wave?

“I think 10 months is a long time, and I think parents are pretty understanding of the fact that people are very sick right now; nobody wants teachers to go to school with the coronavirus,” he said. “Should there be another wave that looks like omicron, we may have to reassess, but in 10 months, if this isn’t still happening, I don’t think it will be a huge voting issue.” 

Chicago Teachers Might Strike. A Group of Parents, Backed by a Right-Wing Law Firm, Stands to Sue.

Originally published in The Intercept on February 3, 2021.
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THIS WEEK IN Chicago, as the local teachers union considers whether to strike over the safety of the city’s school reopening plan during the pandemic, a group of at least nine parents represented by the Liberty Justice Center, a conservative public interest law firm, say they’re ready to sue if educators vote for a work stoppage.

Lawyers with the Liberty Justice Center — the same legal organization which brought the landmark Janus v. AFSCME lawsuit in 2018 to the U.S Supreme Court — argue a Chicago Teachers Union strike would be in violation of Illinois law and the union’s current collective bargaining agreement. The CTU contract commits to avoiding strikes or pickets while the agreement is in effect. “That doesn’t change even if [Chicago Public Schools] engages in an unfair labor practice or allegedly requires teachers to work in an unsafe environment,” attorney Jeffrey Schwab wrote recently in the Chicago Tribune. “It has become clear that kids are collateral damage for the union’s political and financial leverage.”

Chicago is not the only city where the anti-union law firm is seizing on parents’ frustration with virtual learning to help bring challenges against one of their long-standing political targets. The Liberty Justice Center is also representing parents in Chandler, Arizona, and Fairfax County, Virginia, where educators have organized sick-outs to protest school reopening plans. The group is an affiliate of the right-wing State Policy Network and has ties to the Bradley Foundation and the Koch network. Kristen Williamson, a spokesperson for the Liberty Justice Center, told The Intercept their lawyers stand ready to sue if teachers “use the illegal tactic again” and that they represent parents free of charge.

In late October, the Fairfax Education Association, which represents about 4,000 teachers and staff, urged its members to call out sick for a mental health day, as the union determined proposals to resume in-person learning. The vast majority of students in Fairfax County, the 10th largest school district in the country, have been learning from home since the coronavirus pandemic began last March. (A district spokesperson said the impact on instruction from the sick-out was minimal.) In December, the Liberty Justice Center sent a demand letter to the union and the school district warning them that the sick-out had been an illegal strike under Virginia law. The attorneys promised to sue if teachers take that step again.

Nellie Rhodes, a Fairfax County parent, is one of a handful of plaintiffs who have been working with the Liberty Justice Center. Her son, a freshman in high school, has been struggling with remote learning. “We heard about their work and reached out,” Rhodes told The Intercept. “They’re helping us in an effort, and we need their help. They’re putting the unions on notice that if they do something illegal, go on protest, have a sick day, we’re going to sue.”

In Fairfax County, the school board voted Tuesday to bring all students back for hybrid learning next month, beginning on March 16. The teachers union has indicated it wants to wait until all staff have received their second dose of a Covid-19 vaccine; 65 percent of staff have so far received their first dose. In Chicago, the school district has been trying to bring back K-8 students to the classroom, though currently has no plan or timeline for high schoolers.

Different parent groups have different goals for what reopening schools would look like, and multiple parent groups sometimes exist within the same city. Cristy Hudson, a mother of three in Fairfax who helped launch a grassroots group, Open Fairfax County Public Schools, over the summer, told The Intercept while they’re glad the school board is moving forward with reopenings, they’d like to see “a pretty quick expansion to kids back in school five days a week.” Another parent group, the Open FCPS Coalition, is currently focused on recall efforts of school board members they believe have delayed in-person learning too long. A new parent group that formed in January, the Chicago Parents Collective, says it’s pushing for clarity and commitments on reopening. “Let’s take baby steps, none of this is going to be perfect, we recognize that,” Ryan Griffin, a parent member, said in a local radio interview. “But we cannot let this pursuit of perfect get in the way of making some incremental progress on the education of our children.”

Other conservative organizations are capitalizing on parent frustrations with school closures to further political goals around weakening labor unions and public education. Since March, the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank in D.C., has been urging state and federal lawmakers to push private school vouchers and new subsidies for homeschooling in light of the pandemic. And this year, a wave of new private school voucher bills have been introduced in over 15 states across the country, with lawmakers hoping to advance the policies with less public resistance than they might typically face.

Jennifer Berkshire, a journalist who monitors education privatization efforts, says the school reopening debates have fascinated her, as they’ve activated a group of parents that school choice groups have historically struggled to mobilize.

“Many of these upset parents are in elite suburban districts who paid a lot of money to move specifically to those communities for those public schools,” she said. “They’re not the families who have historically embraced school choice and defunding schools.” Berkshire notes that State Policy Network affiliates have “seen the anger of those parents as something that can be weaponized” and have stepped in to offer themselves as a resource.

“It’s not a coincidence that you’re seeing these huge proposed voucher expansions now in all these different states,” Berkshire added. “And I think their hope is to basically mobilize parents who’ve never been interested before, or at least there will be less opposition.”

Charles Siler, a former lobbyist for the libertarian think tank Goldwater Institute, says conservative groups have been looking for new ways during the pandemic to drive a wedge between parents and their individual schools. Parents typically give their own schools high marks in public opinion surveys, even if they have broader critiques about the public education system writ large. A 2019 national survey by the educator professional association Phi Delta Kappa found 76 percent of parents gave their own child’s school an A or B grade. A Gallup poll released in August found K-12 parents’ satisfaction with their child’s education fell 10 percentage points from a year earlier, though it still stood at 72 percent.

While it might seem counterintuitive to have conservative organizations fighting to get students back into the very traditional public schools they typically rail against, Siler says, hastening teacher returns can also help advance conservative movement goals of accelerating staff departures from the public school system altogether.

“If you force teachers to return to work in an unsafe environment, especially when safe alternatives exist, a lot of teachers will retire early or choose to not renew their contracts,” he said. “Fewer people will also want to become teachers because they see what’s happening, the lack of funding and respect. This exploitative assault could cripple public education for decades.”

An American Federation of Teachers national survey conducted in August and September found one-third of educators say the pandemic has made them more likely to leave teaching earlier than they planned.

Berkshire, the education journalist, says while making the teaching profession less attractive is certainly part of the “long game” of the conservative movement, another objective is to use the pandemic and the associated teacher shortages to advance bills that remove teacher licensing requirements. Ending or easing occupational licensing is something long-sought by education reformers and opposed by teacher unions.

In July, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in D.C., urged states to waive their teacher licensing requirements to more quickly facilitate in-person learning. “These regulatory barriers and other concerns could hinder efforts to reopen schools,” he argued. A few months later, a fellow with the Empire Center for Public Policy, a right-wing think tank in New York, proposed “relaxing or abolishing teacher preparation program requirements” as well as easing certification rules to “invite more competition for teaching jobs.”

Shaun Richman, the program director of the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies at SUNY Empire State College, says the current distrust undergirding battles to get reluctant teachers back into the classroom is the result of years of hostile treatment from policymakers and administrators.

“Decades of union-busting attacks on teachers unions, under the guise of ‘education reform’ with the cynical manipulation of ‘civil rights’ and ‘student success’ rhetoric, have utterly destroyed the trust necessary to get school districts like Chicago to return to any form of face-to-face instruction during this actual crisis,” he said. “Anyone who’s serious about getting the buy-in from teachers that’s necessary [for reopening] needs to shun and denounce the [former Trump Education Secretary Betsy] DeVos and Janus crowd.”

Learning from History: The Prospects for School Desegregation

Originally published in The American Prospect on May 10th, 2016.
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In a new book, Making the Unequal Metropolis: School Desegregation and Its Limits, Teachers College, Columbia University historian Ansley Erickson explores the legal and political battles surrounding the desegregation of public schools in Nashville. By 1990, almost no school within Nashville’s metropolitan school district had high concentrations of black or white students—making it one of the most successful examples of desegregation in the 20th century. However, since being released from court-ordered busing in the mid-1990s, schools have quickly resegregated, concentrations of poverty have intensified, and academic scores for black students in Nashville have suffered.

Erickson shows that desegregation was not all rainbows and butterflies, and it often created new challenges that families were forced to wrestle with. She also shows how school segregation had been no accident. Rather, it was a result of deliberate choices made by politicians, parents, real estate developers, urban planners, and school administrators—ranging from funneling subsidies to build schools in suburban areas, to privileging white families when making zoning and student assignment decisions.

And yet for all the challenges that desegregation entailed, Erickson also lets us hear the voices and positive experiences of students who went through desegregation—voices that were routinely ignored during the heated debates of the 20th century.

The point of recognizing the flaws within one of desegregation’s best-case scenarios is not, she says, to conclude that it’s ultimately a fruitless project. Rather, it serves as a guide for those who might want to figure out how to start anew. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
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Rachel Cohen: Your book makes the point that while desegregation challenged some inequalities, it also “remade” inequality in new forms. Are all inequalities equal, so to speak? Can we evaluate the challenges and still decide whether the needle moved overall in one direction or another in terms of progress?

Ansley Erickson: I think that desegregation absolutely was necessary, and I think that busing for desegregation was, in sum, a positive—and in some ways ambitious—effort to counteract persistent segregation. We can recognize that even as we notice desegregation’s limits and problems. I say this not only because of the stories that students who experienced desegregation tell, and not only because of the positive test score impact. It’s also because busing made segregation a problem within local political landscapes and put questions about historic inequality in front of people to grapple with.

RC: In the conclusion of your book you say that desegregation, mandated by a Supreme Court that recognized schooling’s crucial function in our democracy, has rarely been shaped by, or measured for, its potential impact on the making of democratic citizens. If it were to be, what could that look like?

AE: In Carla Shedd’s new book, Unequal City, she explores how students who attend segregated schools versus more diverse ones perceive inequality. She finds that those in more highly segregated schools have a less developed sense of inequality—they are less informed about it because they have less to compare their own experience to.

Schools are not just about whether you can read or calculate; they are about how robustly you perceive the world around you. Even if you go to high-performing schools, segregated white or segregated black schools, it can still be difficult for kids to understand the world they inhabit. They need to have some understanding of their community, and not just their immediate community, but in the broader sense. Work like Shedd’s points to how segregation can get in the way of that understanding.

Today, economic goals and justifications for schooling seem to be valued over all others. Nashville has invested very heavily in career and technical education. Its big comprehensive high schools have been redesigned as career academies, targeting jobs like being a pharmacist or working in hospitality. The goal is to help prepare kids for jobs, to sustain local businesses. At the same time, Nashville is a place that doesn’t have a local living wage, has a skyrocketing cost of living, an affordable housing crisis. Schools are clearly focused on helping to make students workers. But what is their responsibility in making citizens who can address big and pressing questions, including about the economy and about work? What’s a reasonable and just compensation for a person’s labor? What are workers’ basic rights? To me, helping kids be ready to participate in those debates matters just as much as helping students earn a certification in a certain vocational skill area.

RC: You wrote a lot about how “growth agendas” helped fuel inequality and new kinds of segregation. Can you talk a little bit about what that means and how it worked?

AE: This question connects to the themes we were just discussing. History can help bring some nuance to today’s often oversimplified rhetoric about how education and economic growth relate. It’s been popular recently to talk about schools as providing skills that leverage economic growth. But links between education and economic growth have worked in other ways, too.

In Nashville, in the name of economic growth, big urban renewal and public housing construction projects sharpened segregation in housing and in schooling. In the name of increasing property values, suburban developers appealed for segregated schooling by class as well as by race. And in the name of economic growth, schools focused on vocational education—often furthering segregation inside schools even as buses transported students for desegregation.

RC: While combining city and suburbs into one school district is not without its challenges—the dilution of black voting power was one you explored in the context of Nashville—do you think the benefits outweigh the costs?

AE: Nashville would not have had extensive statistical desegregation without consolidation. Nashville was highly residentially segregated and the old city boundary was quite small, like many U.S. cities. By the time busing began, the people living in the old city boundary were predominately African American. Had desegregation taken place only within the old city boundaries, the district would have had a much less diverse pool of students to draw on and a less diversified tax base. Having a consolidated city-county school district didn’t prevent “white flight,” but it did slow it and make it more onerous. But consolidation did not ensure equal treatment for all parts of the metropolis, either.

RC: In your book you show how back in Nashville in the ‘60s and ‘70s, some black communities felt as if advocacy for integration suggested that students of color are inferior and need to be around white kids in order to succeed. We see similar concerns today. Integration carries many important social and civic benefits for all students, but in modern education policy discussions the impact on student test scores gets the most attention—and that significant positive impact is by and large just for students of color. Though the test score gains are huge, could a narrow focus on student achievement dilute political support for integration?

AE: I think about this a lot, as I consider how history might inform today’s nascent conversation about segregation and desegregation. Other scholars have shown striking test-score improvements from desegregation. But if your ultimate goal is test score parity, then there will always be multiple ways to get there. If the goal is also preparing citizens for a diverse democracy, it’s harder for me to see how that happens without some measure of desegregation.

RC: You note that when it came to busing, residents decried state intervention as government overreach, an illegal intrusion into their private lives. But when it comes to the state playing a heavy role in facilitating economic growth, they welcomed the government’s help. Did you find there were people back in Nashville who were pointing out this contradiction?

AE: I didn’t find anyone who was pointing it out then. Then, as now, many people did not perceive how government action was shaping their lives, especially white suburbanites’ lives, in ways that benefited them but that they did not see. People wanted to draw sharp boundaries between what was public and private. White homeowners in particular liked to talk about their housing decisions as private choices they made within a free market. What they didn’t recognize was how enabled they were by their government-backed mortgage, their low-gas-tax subsidized commutes on new highways. Public policy supported what they wanted to cast as a private choice. When asked to recognize the segregation in their cities and schools, they wanted to call it “de facto segregation”—as if it had roots only in private action. But in fact, many layers of state action and policy were involved as well. There wasn’t a coherent small-government conservatism then. Like today, the question is what people thought government power should be used for.

RC: You explored school closures and the loss of black teaching jobs as a result of desegregation. Today we see similar trends, with schools closings, charter school expansions, and the increase in non-union jobs targeted to a whiter, and shorter-term teaching force. What, if any, historical lessons can we glean?

AE: There’s a lot of good scholarship on the history of desegregation and job loss—particularly by Michael Fultz and Adam Fairclough. I didn’t make that a huge focus in my book, but there is an important broader question here about how we think about education. Schools often account for around half of municipal budgets; they are huge municipal expenditures, and they do represent a big source of employment. Historically this employment has been an important step towards middle class existence for lots of American communities. Women of Irish, Italian, Jewish descent moved into the middle class by becoming schoolteachers in the early- and mid-20th century. Similarly, African American educators have attained, or preserved, middle class status through education jobs for a long time. Somehow we have been unable to find a way to talk about the teaching profession recognizing that it is both labor and employment that matters for communities and a crucial factor in students’ lives.

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.”

 

Roots & Branches charter will remain open, but public school closures loom large

Originally published in Baltimore City Paper on February 3rd, 2016.
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Last night the Baltimore City school board voted to renew Roots & Branches charter school for another three years. It was a victory for the parents and teachersworking to save their progressive elementary, though many other local schools were not so lucky. In early January the school board voted to close four schools—Westside Elementary School, Baltimore Community High School, Maritime Industries Academy High School, and the Maryland Academy of Technology & Health Sciences, a charter school. These four, plus Roots & Branches School, another charter, were recommended for closure in early November.

“Every time you hit adversity you learn something, and I think we’re going to look at some of how we teach math across the board,” says Anne Rossi, the principal of Roots & Branches, which de-emphasizes testing in favor of an arts-infused curriculum. “I think we want to do some professional development, our math scores were not as good as our reading, but I am really optimistic that we are going to be able to show the district improved scores.”

The school closings come on the heels of a tumultuous year, both within the public school community and Baltimore City more broadly. Westside Elementary is located in Penn North, where the bulk of the Freddie Gray protests took place, and many felt shuttering a civic institution was the very last thing the beleaguered community needed.

“I will plead to you one more time please save Westside Elementary School,” state Del. Antonio Hayes asked the school board in November. “There [are] two major institutions in the Penn North community, that’s Westside Elementary School and a very thriving drug treatment center.” Students who would have enrolled at Westside will merge with students at another renovated school.

Alison Perkins-Cohen, the executive director of New Initiatives for Baltimore City Public Schools, says that when making decisions about school closures, the district thinks about which communities could most benefit from better facilities. “With Westside, I know the community was concerned about divestment, but for me it’s the opposite,” she says. “We’re really investing. Westside is closing because they’re getting a new school—we intentionally prioritized neighborhoods with challenges, so they are getting new buildings first.”

Nearly half of the city’s school buildings were built in the 1960s or earlier, and almost all require extensive repair, renovation, or replacement. According to industry standards, approximately 70 percent of the district’s buildings are considered to be in “poor” condition. And they were constructed at a time when the number of public school students enrolled in the district was much greater—upward of 200,000. Today, with roughly 85,000 public school students, there’s a lot of excess space. (Fewer students also means decreased funding, and the district has had some close calls with misreporting how many students are enrolled in the past.)

In 2010, the ACLU of Maryland published a report outlining the miserable state of Baltimore schools, citing things like damaged windows that don’t open, facility doors that don’t close, and badly lit hallways. “Depending on the season, teachers often struggle to engage drowsy children due to the excessive heat, and faulty boiler systems compel some children to wear coats during class in the winter,” the report stated. “Old lead plumbing has forced City Schools to restrict the use of water fountains and instead provide bottled water.” Decades of social science research has 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.

Though advocates have been paying attention to the deteriorating school facilities for some time, inequitable state policy has made it difficult for leaders to take action. In 2004, the state reported that Baltimore had the greatest need among all Maryland school districts to bring its facilities up to acceptable levels of condition—yet legislators failed to target funding accordingly. Baltimore’s lack of wealth also inhibits it from borrowing money, while suburban districts can incur debt to fund capital improvement projects. So Baltimore not only has the greatest need, but also faces the most difficulty raising money. According to the ACLU, Baltimore’s capital budget “pales in comparison” to other large counties.

Following the report’s release, advocates who had been mobilizing for increased school funding—under the banner of the Baltimore Education Coalition—began to shift gears and focus more specifically on school facilities. The ACLU called for $2.8 billion to fund all the needed repairs and capital improvements. (It later revised this figure to $2.4 billion.) By spring 2011, the Baltimore Education Coalition formally joined the ACLU’s “Transform Baltimore: Build Schools, Build Neighborhoods” campaign, and together they pressured the city and state to pay for school improvements.

Baltimore, which is more dependent on state aid than any other district in Maryland, simply cannot fund enough capital improvements on its own. But state legislators worry about wasteful spending, and are loathe to invest in schools with too few students inside them.

“There is a statewide rule that says that any school building that is less than 60 percent occupied cannot receive state school renovation funds,” says Frank Patinella, an advocate with the ACLU’s Education Reform Project. “Some buildings might have broken boilers and inconsistent heat, but the state does not give money, no matter how poor the condition, if it is an underutilized building.” (“Underutilized” is the controversial term used to describe buildings that are deemed too large for the number of students enrolled. According to the district, Baltimore currently has a 79 percent school utilization rate—and its goal is to ultimately reach 86 percent, through school closures.)

“The state feels particularly strongly about the high number of Baltimore school buildings compared to student population and puts ongoing pressure on City Schools to close more and more buildings,” says Bebe Verdery, the director of the ACLU’s Education Reform Project. “I’ve never been to a hearing in Annapolis in which particular legislators did not rail against Baltimore City schools and the state agencies to require more closures faster.”

Perkins-Cohen says that in order to get state funding, the district had to develop a cohesive plan that indicated which schools would close, which would be renovated, and in what order.

Their efforts succeeded, and by 2013 the legislature passed the Baltimore City Public Schools Construction and Revitalization Act, which allows the state to leverage $1.1 billion in construction costs. This funding enables Baltimore to make headway on its “21st Century Plan“—a commitment to fully renovate or build roughly 50 schools, and to close 26 schools. The state, city, and school district have to each contribute $20 million annually over the next 30 years, though equity advocates say the state should be paying a greater share of these costs.

Many community members have raised concerns with the 21st Century Plan, and question the way it’s being implemented.

According to Jessica Shiller, an urban education professor at Towson University, some communities—like Penn North, Edmonson Village, and Hollins Market—will lose more than 40 percent of their classroom seats from the school closures. These communities all have poverty rates that exceed the citywide average.

“There needs to be an outcry, I take every opportunity I can in school board meetings to tell them they’re doing the wrong thing with these closures,” says Helen Atkinson, the executive director of the Teachers Democracy Project, a local group that engages teachers in public policy issues and social justice.

“One of the main things we find is that mobility is just bad for kids,” says Shiller, who has been doing independent research on school closures. “Moving kids around too much has a negative effect on their academic achievement, and closing a school exacerbates mobility, especially for poor kids.”

Another problem, Shiller notes, is that students often wind up in schools that are worse than the ones they left. Though the 21st Century Plan promises that all kids will attend superior, renovated schools eventually, observers note that children who used to attend the high-performing Langston Hughes Elementary School now attend worse schools, and the displaced students will be shuffled to yet another struggling school during the 2017-2018 school year. In addition, Shiller says kids frequently encounter bullying and violence at their new schools, and teachers are often ill-prepared to handle an influx of new students.

Perkins-Cohen says the district’s long-term plan is to provide professional development to teachers working in merger schools, and to focus on “creating cultures and climates” to help students transition more smoothly.

School closures have become a flashpoint in education reform debates across the country, evoking particularly heated opposition in cities like Newark, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Last year, parents in Chicago led a 34-day hunger strike to save a local high school that was slated for closure. Parents and community organizations have also filed federal civil rights complaints under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, claiming that school closures in various cities have had a racially discriminatory impact on poor, black students. In December, the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education reached a groundbreaking resolution with Newark Public Schools to help those who may have been negatively impacted by Newark’s closures.

But school closings in Baltimore have not garnered the same kind of mobilized opposition.

Perkins-Cohen says she thinks the politics have played out differently in Baltimore because the district has worked really hard to engage the communities in a thoughtful way. The district’s comprehensive strategy, she says, involves publicizing the 21st Century Plan, making annual school closure announcements several months before the school board votes, organizing robocalls to parents, sending letters home, running ads in newspapers, holding meetings with both teachers and the community, and speaking at school board meetings.

Shiller says her research suggests the public is nowhere near as informed as the district thinks. “While the city did do public forums, they really glossed over this closure information. They said you know we’ll get you wireless internet and air conditioning, and we have to make sure that every school is fully utilized. But the way it was told was to really de-emphasize the closures,” she says. “When I did research it was very clear that it wasn’t communicated very well.”

As of now, it’s unclear what will become of the school buildings that get shut down.

When the district closes down a school, the buildings then return to the city, which owns them. Perkins-Cohen says the city is already thinking about uses for the buildings, in part by asking various city agencies if they might have an interest in the facilities. Sometimes charter operators try to use the newly vacant buildings for their charter schools.

“If you think about it as just a school, then yes it does make sense to close them. Maintaining buildings is hugely expensive, and a city like Baltimore doesn’t have the money to support expenses that are unnecessary,” says Shiller. “But if you think about it from an urban planning perspective, and ask what a school is to a neighborhood, then it’s a very different conversation.” She points out that for many students, schools are where students access food, counseling, after-school programming, and even health care.

Education advocates worry the community won’t have a say in what ultimately happens to these buildings. There are fears that the process will lack transparency, and that buildings may even be left vacant, if nobody wants them. Shiller thinks that right now is a real chance for individuals to speak up with ideas on how to repurpose the buildings, and maybe even figure out new strategies to turn them into hubs of social services.

“The new mayor will be the one really central to making those decisions, and so this leadership change is a really excellent opportunity” for people to get involved in shaping the future, she says. Although some community members tried to save Langston Hughes Elementary School last year, Shiller believes their lack of political capital ultimately crippled the effort. “There were some very inspiring marches, and it got good coverage, but they lacked that political support,” she says. “To stop school closures there really may need to be more aggressive direct action.”

Some wonder whether political capital played a role in helping Roots & Branches to stay open this year. “While I can’t speak to the details of the Roots & Branches case, the fact that it was allowed to stay open adds to the impression that many parents have that charters are treated not just differently, but better,” says Edit Barry, a parent involved inPeople for Public Schools, a new grassroots advocacy group in Baltimore.

Rossi, the principal of Roots & Branches, says the Maryland Alliance of Public Charter Schools did not help them fight their closure recommendation. “I think the charter coalition was understandably cautious and did not throw any weight behind us,” she says. “I don’t know if they didn’t want to show favoritism for us over another charter, or if it’s the [closure] process they wanted to be cautious about protecting, but I will tell you they weren’t part of this effort to save our school.”

Opening up more charters within buildings of closed traditional schools may exacerbate existing tensions between charter advocates and traditional public school parents. Some claim that these closures might even be pretenses for charter school expansions; Atkinson notes that multiple charter operators have been trying to open up schools in communities targeted with school closures, some even angling for the Langston Hughes Elementary School building before it shut down.

“I think people in Baltimore just feel like they will get screwed,” says Shiller. “That’s their go-to feeling—that it’s probably going to be bad—but maybe we can make it a little less bad.”