Lessons from Dyett: Privatization Is Dangerous for Education

By Altheria Gaston

On August 17, 2015, protesters began a hunger strike in response to the closing of the last open-enrollment public high school in Chicago Public Schools. The school board decided on June 2015 to close Dyett High School, a mostly Black high school located on Chicago’s South Side. The board then decided, in early September, to reopen the high school as an arts high school, against protesters’ desires for the high school to have a global leadership and green technology theme, a focus that would equip students with more marketable skills. The protesters determined to not eat, even if it costs them their lives, until their requests are met. The strike ended on September 19.

Parents shouldn’t have to starve themselves to ensure that their children have access to a high-quality public education in their neighborhoods. The hunger strike comes after years of protests against discriminatory treatment of Black and brown children in Chicago. Since at least 2012, parents, teachers, and community organizers in Chicago have been fighting to preserve neighborhood schools through grassroots efforts. They have marched on Washington, participated in teach-ins, protested at board meetings, and held rallies to demand access and equity in Chicago Public Schools (CPS). They have insisted that, instead of the mayor-appointed school board, parents and families decide what is best for their children. They have challenged the myth that many now-closed neighborhood schools were broken. Their argument is supported by highly-regarded educational historian and New York University research professor, Diane Ravitch, in Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools.

Ravitch writes, “Public education is not broken. It is not failing or declining. The diagnosis is wrong, and the solutions of the corporate reformers are wrong.” Ravitch and others challenge the widely accepted belief that public education in the U.S. is failing. This belief of failing public schools has profoundly permeated American consciousness due, in part, to movies like Waiting for Superman and Won’t Back Down that depict failing public schools caused by “bad” teachers who are backed by invincible teachers’ unions.

Reformers cite an achievement gap, measured largely by standardized tests between students of color and white students, as evidence of the failure of public schools. Ravitch, however, contends, “In every country, the students from the most advantaged families have higher test scores on average than students from the least advantaged families.” She apprises that closing neighborhood schools and privatizing public education does not fix poverty: “So long as our society is indifferent to poverty . . . rather than act vigorously to improve the conditions of families and communities, there will always be achievement gaps.”

Because public schools are “supposedly” worsening, monumental reform, fueled by corporate interest and funding, is taking place. In large cities across the countries, these reforms, which some call deforms, are taking the form of closing neighborhood schools and replacing them with privately run charter schools. The Chicago Public Schools system is perhaps a prototype of a school district with pervasive neighborhood school closures resulting in thousands of students in urban school districts being displaced. Thousands of Black and brown children are left without a neighborhood school. Closing neighborhood schools presents several problems: transportation to charter schools, fragmentation of communities once unified by a neighborhood school, removal of local governance, and lack of guaranteed enrollment due to the selective nature of privatized schools. Most importantly, perhaps, critics of school closures believe that there is no evidence that reorganizing districts in this manner increases academic achievement of students of color.

According to Progress Chicago, “Of the students impacted by the [2013] school closings, 88 percent were African-American, 95 percent were low-income and 17 percent received special education services,” suggesting that school closings in Chicago have a racialized and classed component. The mayor and powerful school board continue to enact practices that disenfranchise African-American children and children from low-income families. It is difficult to conceive that the board would act with such blatant disregard in White, affluent communities.

It is a travesty that parents, teachers, and community members have to resort to starvation to motivate the Chicago Board of Education to re-open the last public, open-enrollment high school. The protesters are asking, “Must every high school option in Chicago be privatized? Must every option be a charter?” Urban schools are not suffering solely because of bad teachers and weak curricula. Ravitch (and other defenders of public education) believe “Our urban schools are in trouble because of concentrated poverty and racial segregation.” Closing neighborhood schools does not offer proven solutions to either of these challenges.

Photo: Ervin Lopez

Altheria Gaston is a regular contributor at For Harriet. She is a doctoral candidate pursuing a Ph.D. in Curriculum Studies. You can find her on Twitter @altheriagaston.

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