Skip to content Skip to footer

Racist School Closings in Washington, DC

There is no evidence the planned closings will improve educational outcomes or save the district money.

Students from Ferebee-Hope Elementary School in Washington, DC rally in front of the courthouse May 10 to save their school from closure. (Photo: Rania Khalek) 

Truthout is able to confront the forces of greed and regression only because we don’t take corporate funding. Support us in this fight: make a tax-deductible donation today by clicking here.

The District of Columbia’s planned public school closings disproportionately affect minority and special needs students and there is no evidence the plan will improve educational outcomes or save the district money.

“I don’t want my school to close because they have a lot of fun things that I like there,” said 9-year-old McKea, a third-grader at Ferebee-Hope Elementary School in Washington, DC. “If they take that away, I won’t have nothing else fun to play with or do.”

Dressed in their Ferebee-Hope cheerleading uniforms, McKea and her teammates were accompanied by Shannon Smith, who has two grandchildren at Ferebee-Hope, one of 15 schools slated for closure by DC School Chancellor Kaya Henderson. Smith led the children to a rally outside the E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse, where several DC parents, students and activists had gathered to support a lawsuit against the closings.

It turns out that all 15 schools are located east of Rock Creek Park, an unofficial dividing line between poor minority communities on the east side and affluent white neighborhoods west of the park, leading to allegations that school closings are an attempt to privatize public education at the expense of the city’s most vulnerable residents.

“They keep taking things away from our kids and expect our kids to achieve,” Smith told Truthout. “This is discrimination against our black kids.”

Suit Charges Closings Target Vulnerable

Empower DC, a grassroots organization at the forefront of the movement to halt the closings, has teamed up with civil rights attorney Johnny Barnes to sue the district for discrimination on behalf of Smith and four other plaintiffs. The lawsuit accuses Mayor Vincent Gray, Chancellor Kaya Henderson and the district of violating local and federal civil rights laws by disproportionately targeting poor, minority and disabled students with their school closure plan. And they have some shocking numbers to back their claims.

Of the 2,700 students who will be impacted by the closings, just two (less than 0.01 percent) are white, even though white students account for 9 percent of the overall District of Columbia public school (DCPS) student population, according to calculations made by district budget expert Mary Levy.

In stark contrast, African Americans make up 93 percent of those affected despite comprising just 72 percent of the district’s student body. This disparity is mirrored in the economic realm, where poor children account for 96 percent of students impacted by closures, though they make up 77 percent of DCPS students. And despite being just 14 percent of the DCPS population, special education students make up 29 percent of those affected by the closings. To make matters worse, one-third of students who will be displaced by the closings experienced school closures in 2008, when then-DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee closed some two dozen schools in mostly low-income neighborhoods of color.

University of the District of Columbia social sciences professor Amanda Huron created a map to highlight these disparities.

053113-1 chart

Attorney Barnes recently filed for a preliminary injunction to halt the closure plan until the lawsuit is resolved, but the request was denied by US District Judge James Boasberg in mid-May.

Though Boasberg conceded that the closures will disproportionately affect minority and disabled students, but he ruled, “There is no evidence whatsoever of any intent to discriminate on the part of defendants, who are actually transferring children out of weaker, more segregated, and under-enrolled schools” and into “better performing, more integrated schools.”

Boasberg’s claim is contradicted by calculations made by DCPS budget expert Mary Levy. Using the district’s own data, Levy found: “Of 11 closing schools, students at nine will attend schools that are almost 100 percent African-American. At the remaining schools, some black students will encounter more Latinos, some fewer. None of the receiving schools has a noticeable number of white students.”

Furthermore, “Virtually all the proficiency levels at receiving schools are below the DCPS average for their level, which is itself below 50 percent,” Levy found.

DCPS Chancellor Henderson and DC Attorney General Irvin Nathan applauded Judge Boasberg’s decision, which trumpeted many of the claims made in Henderson’s Consolidation and Reorganization Plan.

Under-Enrollment Self-Inflicted

City leaders have said that school closings are necessary because of a decline in student enrollment, which has left behind under-utilized school buildings that are too costly to maintain. But a closer look at the data reveals that “under-enrollment” is largely self-inflicted.

Following 23 school closings in 2008 under then-Chancellor Rhee, DCPS lost 4,299 students, while charter school enrollment increased by 3,957. What officials are labeling a “decline” in enrollment is actually a “shift” from public to charter schools.

Thus, DCPS has created an endless cycle whereby it cites under-enrollment and low test scores to justify closing schools, causing displaced children to flee to charters, creating a further decline in public school enrollment, which is used to justify another round of closings.

When Michelle Rhee was appointed school chancellor in 2007, charter schools enrolled 30 percent of DC public school students. Today, that number has jumped to 43 percent.

“The schools are under-enrolled because they’ve been replaced by charter schools in the same areas,” says Trayon White, state Board of Education representative for Ward 8. “It’s by design.”

Indeed, the system is designed to give charter schools first dibs on closed public school buildings, thanks to the District of Columbia School Reform Act of 1995, essentially guaranteeing charter school expansion in the aftermath of mass school closings.

To speed the process along, Mayor Vincent C. Gray recently announced that 16 public school buildings will be leased to charter school companies this year, including eight of the 15 schools slated for closure. This follows a nationwide trend that has seen more than 40 percent of closed public school buildings across the country turned over to charter schools.

Meanwhile, charter schools have not been subject to closure, even though three-quarters of them qualify as “under-enrolled” by the district’s own criteria.

White expressed bewilderment at the school system’s obsession with school enrollment thresholds. “I’m not in favor of under-enrolled schools; I’m in favor of smaller class sizes,” said White. “The emphasis should be put on the student-teacher ratio, not how many kids are in a building.”

White also highlighted that school closings do not save money. In fact, closings do just the opposite.

According to a report by the DC auditor’s office, Michelle Rhee’s decision to close 23 schools in 2008 ended up costing the city around $40 million, four times what DCPS estimated. The Washington Post summarized the findings:

The original $9.7 million price tag should have also included another $8 million that the city spent to move to demolish buildings, remove furnishings and transport displaced students, DC Auditor Yolanda Branche wrote in a recent report. In addition, Branche wrote, the city forfeited $22 million in lost property value at the closed sites, bringing the total cost to about $40 million.

Chancellor Henderson has insisted that this time around will be different, though she has yet to offer any specifics other than vague cost and saving estimates that she said will result in a net savings of $8.5 million.

Students With Disabilities

Two of the 15 schools slated for closure serve children with severe mental and physical disabilities: Sharpe Health School in Ward 4 and Mamie D. Lee School in Ward 5. Both student bodies are made up almost entirely of black students who qualify for reduced price and free lunch.

The district plans to merge Sharpe Health and Mamie D. Lee into one school by fall 2014, at which time River Terrace Elementary School, which was closed last spring due to under-enrollment despite impassioned pleas from the community, will serve as the new school building for Sharpe and Lee. Henderson wants to transform River Terrace into a state-of-the-art learning facility geared toward students with significant disabilities, a move that requires a top-to-bottom renovation of the building.

Two of Andree Harris’s six children attend Sharpe Health. Harris’s 16-year-old son suffers from Triplegia (paralysis of three limbs) and a traumatic brain injury, and her 4-year-old daughter is developmentally delayed and does not know how to communicate, so instead, she “screams and hollers.”

“Sharpe has turned her whole life around,” said Harris. “She’s more communicative. She claps her hands. She plays and interacts a whole lot. That was not the case for her when she first got there.” Harris has no doubt that putting her daughter in an entirely different environment will disrupt her progress.

According to Henderson’s proposal, merging the schools will “allow students to attend school at a location closer to their homes,” though it’s unclear how this is possible, given that River Terraces is located in Ward 7, far from Sharpe and Lee.

The proposal also suggests that consolidation will ensure a more efficient use of resources because both schools have fewer than 100 students enrolled. But the proposal fails to take into account the cost of renovating River Terrace versus revamping Sharpe and Lee, which are already equipped for students with disabilities.

The district has also failed to consider transportation difficulties.

Arthur Williams, a school bus driver who transports Sharpe Health students, is deeply concerned about the impact of school closings on his special needs students. “I’ll be taking them to a school that will be unsuitable. It will be more complicated to get them out and get them in. And if something should happen to them, to get them to the hospital, they got a longer distance to go,” Williams said.

“[Sharpe Heath] was designed and built for kids who have wheelchairs and special needs. Now you gonna put them in a school that has two floors. You gonna move them all the way over to Northeast River Terrace, near the Pepco plant with the pollution. You gonna move them away from the proximity of the hospitals.”

A Transportation Nightmare

The Broader, Bolder Approach to Education – a campaign launched by the nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute – released a report in April that found no evidentiary basis for “market-oriented education” in Chicago, New York City and Washington, DC.

The report specifically analyzed the impact of school closures, finding that they did more harm than good, most notably in the nation’s capitol.

The report’s authors fear that this latest round of DC closures will produce even worse outcomes by creating a transportation nightmare.

In 2008, closed schools were typically within walking distance from their receiving schools. But so many schools have been shuttered since then that the receiving schools this time around are too far away for walking. And since DCPS only provides school buses for special education students, the latest closures will force children to use the city’s costly public transportation system, which was designed to get workers downtown, not children to school.

“The combination of distance and cost impedes attendance, particularly for secondary students, who have farther to travel, and teachers report that students sometimes fail to attend for lack of bus fare. For those already disengaged, the added barriers may tip the scales toward dropping out altogether,” the authors argue.

Students at closed schools will also be forced to travel across busy highways, intersections, bridges and tunnels, which can be dangerous even for adults to cross.

Students at the soon-to-be-closed Kenilworth Elementary School, located in one of DC’s poorest neighborhoods, will have to travel more than a mile and cross an interstate highway to get to Houston Elementary after their school is closed.

It was Obama’s Idea

Community groups at the forefront of the school closure issue are well aware [ ] of the role President Obama has played in pushing for school closings in urban areas.

In 2009, just six months into his first term, Obama announced his administration’s desire to see 5,000 failing schools closed and “turned around” over the next five years, a policy that would become the hallmark of his Race To The Top (RTTT) agenda.

RTTT requires that school districts with low-performing schools implement one of four “school improvement methods” – Turnaround, Transformation, Restart and Closure – to receive federal grant money. Turnaround and Transformation involve firing key members of the staff; Restart requires turning over the school to a charter operator; and Closure means shutting failing schools and sending their students to higher-achieving schools.

As a result, Obama’s education policies have further incentivized the dismantling of public education that began with No Child Left Behind (NCLB) under President George W. Bush, which has led Diane Ravitch to conclude that “The Obama-Duncan plan might as well be called ‘NCLB 2.0.’ “

Where is the Teachers Union?

The Washington Teachers Union has been largely silent on the issue of school closings, and Truthout’s repeated requests for comment from the WTU were unsuccessful. The union’s deputy chief of staff, Nadine Evans, told Truthout that WTU bylaws allow only the president, Nathan Saunders, to speak on its behalf and that the president was unable to be reached because he was out of town.

But former WTU Vice President Candi Peterson told Truthout that the WTU bylaws contain no such requirement.

Peterson, a vocal critic of school privatization, was summarily dismissed by Saunders in 2011 in what she believes was an effort to silence her dissent.

“I’ve been very critical of the former and current chancellor, and [Saunders] wanted me to stop,” says Peterson, who blogs about school reform at the Washington Teacher. She suspects that Saunders directed his staff to turn away reporters on contentious issues like school closings to avoid upsetting the chancellor and mayor.

Peterson is currently a social worker at Cardozo High, one of two DCPS schools that Chancellor Henderson recently decided to “reconstitute,” which involves firing and replacing the entire staff.

“This climate is so punitive that [teachers] are literally afraid to speak out, to write, to use their real names,” says Peterson, who added that the WTU has “become a country club” due to the lack of strong leadership.

That’s why Peterson is running once again for WTU vice president, but this time her running mate and presidential candidate is Elizabeth “Liz” Davis, who has been a DCPS teacher for 35 years.

Davis teaches IT essentials at Phelps Architecture, Construction, and Engineering, a relatively new high school in Ward 5, and, like Peterson, is a vocal critic of the school reform agenda.

“[Former Chancellor Michelle] Rhee cultivated a climate of fear,” Davis told Truthout, adding that the repressive climate has continued under Chancellor Henderson, whom she described as “Michelle Rhee’s protege.”

“You have people leading the school system that don’t know a damn thing about children,” argued Davis, whose activism has gotten her into trouble with DCPS several times throughout her career. She said she has been involuntarily transferred seven times as punishment for her activism, and she is currently under scrutiny for having organized the parents to fight to keep the principal last year.

Davis was transferred to Phelps by Michelle Rhee, following a school consolidation nightmare in 2008. Back then, Davis worked at Hart Middle School, which merged with a rival middle school under Rhee, despite warnings from the parents, students and even police that the merger would ignite violence.

“After about 3 months, the school went up in smoke,” Davis said. “Things were out of control. Students literally took over the school one day and hosed it down with fire extinguishers on all three floors. Hazmat had to come in.” Rhee’s response was to fire the inexperienced principal, whom she had handpicked against the judgment of Davis and other teachers.

The consolidation of the two middle schools sparked so much violence, that then-DC Chancellor Michelle Rhee was forced to send extra security and administrators to neutralize the tension.

While DCPS insists this time around will be different, the district has yet to reveal a safety plan to assist schools with the transition, though Henderson did remove Johnson Middle School from the school closure list after recognizing that the dispersal of students to two rival middle schools would likely result in violence.

Intentional Disenfranchisement

Henderson originally proposed closing 20 schools, but later removed five schools from the list, including Ward 2’s Garrison Elementary and Francis-Stevens Education Campus, located in the city’s whiter and more affluent Northwest. She was persuaded to keep the schools open by the mobilization of parents who presented her with detailed alternatives and engaged in recruiting efforts to increase student enrollment.

While Davis expressed support for the community’s efforts, she pointed out that parents in more impoverished wards are unable to mount similar campaigns because they are purposely disenfranchised. Seven of the nine DC schools Davis has worked at were located in Wards 7 and 8, which contain the highest population of underserved minority students. “I’ve learned from observing and working with principals in those schools that everything is done to disengage and disenfranchise parents. I literally had to start a war just to set up a PTA,” said Davis. “I find that parents of poor minority children are disengaged as part of a systemic process.”

Mayoral Control

It wasn’t until 2007 – when the DC City Council voted to dissolve the elected school board and transfer control of DCPS to then-Mayor Adrian Fenty in a system known as Mayoral control – that Michelle Rhee was appointed DC school chancellor and allowed to enforce draconian school reforms, which accelerated the replacement of public schools with charter schools.

Mayoral control is often touted as preferable for districts with underperforming schools, however there is no evidence to suggest that mayors are superior to democratically elected school boards. But without mayoral control over public schools, decision makers in DC, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York City would never be allowed to enact the overwhelmingly unpopular education reforms that have come to the 21st century education landscape.

“The city has failed to evaluate mayoral control, despite enacting legislation calling for annual review,” says the group Empower DC. The organization is calling for a moratorium on school closures to allow time for these school reform policies to be properly evaluated.

Meanwhile, the trials and tribulations of school closings in Washington, DC, highlight the need for an authoritarian power structure to enforce what the public would otherwise never allow: the privatization of public education.

We have hours left to raise $12,000 — we’re counting on your support!

For those who care about justice, liberation and even the very survival of our species, we must remember our power to take action.

We won’t pretend it’s the only thing you can or should do, but one small step is to pitch in to support Truthout — as one of the last remaining truly independent, nonprofit, reader-funded news platforms, your gift will help keep the facts flowing freely.