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Newark Parents and Activists Take School Closure Complaint to D.C. for Civil Rights Hearing

Complaint contends that Christie's school turnaround plan does nothing for poor, black, and Hispanic students.

Sharon Smith, activist and mother of three, who filed the Newark civil rights complaint.
Sharon Smith, activist and mother of three, who filed the Newark civil rights complaint.

Forty Newark parents and activists boarded a charter bus to Washington, D.C., late yesterday to join in what is becoming a growing backlash to public school closures in cities across the country.

The contingent is headed to a hearing at the U.S. Department of Education on Tuesday to deal with civil rights complaints filed in Newark and nearly a dozen other cities against the increasing use of closures as part of so-called school turnaround efforts.

The state-run Newark Public Schools last year closed six facilities that were deemed underperforming and underenrolled. Some were then reopened or rented out to charters. More public schools are expected to be evaluated for the coming academic year.

As in other states, the Newark closures have been criticized as destabilizing to neighborhoods and not offering any improvement for students, who are predominantly poor and African-American or Hispanic.

That was the gist of the complaint filed by a Newark mother and student to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights last July, part of what is becoming a well-organized and funded nationwide effort pushing back against the closures.

The Office of Civil Rights accepted the Newark complaint and said in a letter this month that the “allegation was appropriate for investigation.” The hearing on Tuesday is about that complaint and others, with residents and activists from 18 cities in all said to be attending.

Sharon Smith is the mother of three who filed the Newark complaint in her role as cofounder of Parents Unified for Local School Education, or PULSE. The group started four years ago to mobilize parents in the strategic planning about school improvement.

But Smith said she found herself two years ago at the center of the fight over closures, when the Christie administration announced plans to shut a swath of schools across the district. The original proposal was scaled back somewhat last year under Superintendent Cami Anderson, but Smith said the damage has still been done.

“It just seems an overly aggressive move to close the schools and then reopen them under charters,” Smith said yesterday before boarding the bus to Washington, D.C. “It doesn’t help these kids, and one thing it does do is displace them and disenfranchise them, while destabilizing the community.”

It has been a contentious issue statewide, as activists and other organizations have challenged the Christie administration’s turnaround strategies in many of the state’s cities as harmful to districts and their students. A letter signed by more than 40 advocacy groups was sent to U.S. Education Arne Duncan objecting the effort last October.

Spokeswomen for both Newark schools and the state Department of Education yesterday would not comment about the complaint, but local and state officials have maintained in the past that the closures are a last resort and meant to improve the opportunities for children in schools that otherwise were not successful.

Smith said she is not convinced without evidence that the new schools are any better than the old, and said the necessary improvements are not being made to existing schools serving existing students. And in either case, local communities are not being involved in the decision-making.

Interestingly, one of Smith’s three children is in a charter school in Newark, but she said the fight is to provide equal opportunities for all students. “Why should any of them suffer, why not an excellent education for all of them,” she said.

Some of the organizing for the civil rights complaints and this week’s trip to Washington -- as well as a similar protest last summer -- appears to be led by activist groups in Chicago and Oakland.

Smith and others said funding for the Newark contingent was provided by the Schott Foundation and the Annenberg Foundation. This week’s trip is being promoted by a Chicago public relations firm, Think Inc. Strategies, which put out a series of press releases in the past two weeks.

As she boarded the bus yesterday, Smith said she was confident that the concerns would be heard in Washington, even if some of the strategies have been endorsed by the same federal Department of Education that is hearing the testimony.

“I know they have put out a lot of money to districts, but it’s the people’s persistence that matters and if we can gather people in city after city, they’ll see that it’s the children that are suffering from closing schools,” she said.

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