Sunday, April 22, 2018

School Closures and Privatization

In 2016, the American Bar Association highlighted two main reasons for school closures, low academic performance and under-utilization. These two categories are a broad description of labels that are placed upon schools to justify their closure. There are many factors that actually lead up to that point. 

                                                                Standardized Testing 
Now that testing season is once again upon us, we are bombarded by images of closed computer labs that are being used as secure testing sites, bare classroom walls, and “Shhhh! Testing in Progress” signs. We are hearing stories of children sitting for hours in New York, testing issues in Ohio that wasted an entire day, cyber attacks of TNReady that forced invalidation of the test (as if it is a valid test in the first place), and graduation requirements in New Jersey that can leave tens of thousands without a high-school diploma if changes are not made.

Decision makers in different states are starting to explore other options to replace the current standardized test. Tennessee has stated an intention to return to paper-and-pencil tests, New Jersey has announced that it will be transitioning away from PARCC. We must seize upon this opportunity to have deeper conversations about the history of standardized testing and to push for it as a tool to measure academic performance to be stopped altogether.

Wayne Au recently wrote wrote about the SAT test. In his piece, he addresses the racist history and its role in the eugenics movement to sort people under the guide of providing opportunity, explains how the SAT continues to feed racial disparities with its self-reinforcing cycle of inequality and how the SAT test feeds into the myth of meritocracy and capitalism. We know that our standardized tests are modeled after the process that is in place to sustain the use of the SAT tests. The fact that these tests have become a main tool to measure the success of our communities schools only increases the role of institutionalized racism that is present in education.

Why do schools see a drop in enrollment? Are there less school-age children in our communities? Are people moving out of the state? While this may be the case in some areas that are suffering hard economic times, this is not so true for the majority of the areas we are seeing schools being closed. Most school closures occur in urban areas where we see strong evidence of one other initiative, gentrification. In 2015 the Urban Institute asked if school choice affects gentrification. At that time, the researchers concluded that further research would need to be done to examine the intersection of school choice and gentrification, but that they are definitely related. Recent research has found evidence that “college-educated white households are far more likely to gentrify communities of color when school choice options expand.” This leads to the under-utilization of community schools in these areas. As rent and property values increase, local families are pushed out of their homes, new families move in, enroll their children in the schools that they find to be more appealing, and our community school enrollment declines. 

                                                              School Funding 
Declining enrollment affects school funding. When it comes to funding schools, there never seems to be enough money. The reality of this argument is, there is enough money. The real issues are that:
1) Enough emphasis is not placed upon the importance of education when state budgets are passed. 
2) Monetary resources are not allocated in the best manner to positively impact students, such as smaller class sizes, highly qualified teachers, creative arts programs, updated textbooks, or even safe and clean facilities. 
3) Barely ethical practices are employed to contract consultation services that capitalize upon the false promise of the silver bullet that will be the magical answer to academic performance gaps - the very same gaps that are highlighted by the racist standardized testing system as described above. 
4) Pathways have been created to siphon funds out of schools and into private pockets through the shell game of the charter school system, whether it be under the name of a private or public charter school, co-location and renaissance schools, a portfolio district, and turnaround schools. In some areas we have even begun to see a co-opting of the language of a community school from those pushing the agenda of removing local control and diverting money. 

                                                       Privatization of Services 
As districts face a decrease in funding levels without a decrease of overhead costs (lights and heat still need to be on whether or not the class is full) decisions need to be made about where cuts and reduction of services will occur. In conjunction with efforts to decrease the power of public sector unions, an increase of privatized services has been seen as these smaller associations of unions are destroyed. Employment that used to be stable in that it provided community members with a livable wage and benefits are being cut and economic bases are being further destroyed. We now see privatization through food services, custodial services, technology support, paraprofessional staff, substitute teachers, transportation, and even teaching staff. Outsourcing of school services has become a widespread practice across the country. While the dollars saved may look good on paper, the community value leaves us at a deficit. Staff turnover with these services is high, making it harder for relationship building within a school or district. Community members often lose health and pension benefits, causing them to find employment elsewhere. The National Education Association summarized research about privatization of paraprofessional services and explains the risk of privatization. 

                                      State takeovers, turnaround schools, co-location, 
                                            portfolio schools, Renaissance schools...
                                                     Anything but OUR SCHOOLS. 
There are many different names out there for the many different types of schools that are being made available through the many different forms of school choice. Different names are given in different areas of the country as part of the marketing plan to lure the student away from the local public school. As the charter school (and similar networks) began to see strong push back from the outright closure of public schools in favor of opening new charter schools, hybrid district models began to develop. A lot of these operate under the enrollment oversight of the public school district, but each system has its own board of directors that it is accountable to. Little accountability lies towards the public, the source of funding in these districts. The common enrollment system makes it easy to funnel students out of the public schools that have been pre-slated for closure in order to force a decline in enrollment numbers. Oakland Unified School District, Camden City School District, and Newark Public Schools are well known for their issues with this system. 

                                                Climate Crisis Capitalization 
Another alarming trend has been the capitalization of privatization efforts during the aftermath of a natural disaster. The most well known case of this was after hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. As the city began to rebuild, it became evident that decision makers decided to leave the rebuilding of the cities schools to private interests. The state took over the school system and handed it over to charter schools. When the NAACP put forth their call for a moratorium on charter school expansion, the disastrous effects of this decision in was exposed. Today, we watch Puerto Rico closely and stand in solidarity with the Teachers Federation of Puerto Rico to fight back as colonizers force

                                         The Big Monster and Its Little Friends 
With Betsy DeVos as our Secretary of Education, school vouchers is never far from being mentioned in the news. Many argue against vouchers for the fundamental reason that it is a direct diversion of public money out of public systems. Some groups fight for the separation of church and state and do not want to see that money go to religious schools. Others argue that vouchers will lead to segregation of schools as evidence over time is starting to show that it is a majority of white families that navigate and utilize the voucher system. Most recently, there has been a push for military vouchers as we continue to face these attacks that are chipping away at our school systems. There are actually numerous ways to divert public money and strengthen the premise of school choice that are named something other than vouchers. The Education Commission of the States reported on these different types in 2012. Most recently we have been hearing about tax credit scholarships and education savings accounts.

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