Advocates for Newark Education Make Their Case in D.C.

Claims of racial bias behind school closings face lengthy process, uncertain outcome

Joining counterparts from a dozen other cities nationwide, Newark education advocates landed in the spotlight yesterday as they testified in Washington, D.C., against school closures in New Jersey’s largest district, calling the closings discriminatory and a violation of civil rights.

But by most accounts, the next step in the process may be less certain – and, at least for the Newark contingent, less gratifying.

About a dozen parents and other school advocates from Newark traveled by bus to the nation’s capital for the Tuesday afternoon hearing on a series of school closures in more than a dozen districts, which the protesters say especially discriminate against black and Hispanic populations served by the schools.

The Newark group was joined by advocates from cities as far-flung as Philadelphia, Chicago and Oakland, where dozens of schools have been slated for closure over the last couple of years. In Newark, six schools were closed last year – and in some cases, reopened under new leadership and with revamped faculties.

The hearing, held in an auditorium of the U.S. Department of Education, was hosted by none other than U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and lasted more than two hours.

One of the leading Newark school advocates said it was satisfying to at least have their concerns heard.

“I’m optimistic it got the exposure and people are listening more than they ever have before,” said Sharon Smith, a Newark mother of three who filed the complaint with the federal department’s Office for Civil Rights and attended the hearing yesterday.

Newark is among a handful of districts filing complaints that the civil-rights office has agreed to investigate.

But, in a phone interview, Smith also acknowledged that besides the fact that Duncan stayed at the hearing for only about a half-hour, she was also warned it would be a long process with uncertain results.

“They said they agreed and want to work with us,” Smith said of federal education department staff. “But they said our complaint is a process and won’t happen overnight.”

The track record for the civil rights office is a slow and deliberative one, with no cases of school closures so far leading to larger civil-rights complaints.

Since October, 2010, the office has investigated 27 civil-rights complaints over school closures, and found none entailed a violation, according to a spokesman for the federal Department of Education. Another 33 complaints are currently pending in 22 states, including New Jersey, said spokesman Daren Briscoe.

Briscoe said the investigations can take months, if not years, involving many interviews and other deliberations. And he said while the investigations can lead to the loss of federal funding or other sanctions for a school district, cases are often resolved more amicably.

“When there is a finding, it is far more common that it leads to a agreement with a district to resolve it,” Briscoe said.

Gaining traction and media attention nationwide, the debate is posing a quandary for districts, as school closures have indeed taken place in the poorest neighborhoods with the highest concentrations of minority enrollment.

But those schools are also the ones that have shown the lowest achievement levels. In New Jersey, for instance, a vast majority of the schools earmarked as Priority Schools and subject to possible closure or other intervention steps are in the state’s poorest cities.

Add in tight budgets and declining enrollments in many of the cities in question, and experts said there are no easy answers in finding the balance between economic and educational needs.

“With everything going on, it doesn’t seem illogical that this conversation would come up,” said Maria Ferguson, director of the Center for Education Policy, a Washington think tank. “Whether it’s real malfeasance, I don’t know, but logical that this would come up in communities with high racial concentrations and poverty.”

Meanwhile, the complaint is drawing some attention back in New Jersey.

A spokesman for the Newark public schools and Superintendent Cami Anderson did not comment yesterday, but state education Commissioner Chris Cerf said he sees the issue differently.

First of all, he said in a majority of cases in Newark and elsewhere – with cities like Paterson and Camden seeing their own closures – the closing of a school has led to the reopening of the same school with new leadership and staff.

Even so, he said, the dramatic moves have been about the performance of the school, not the race of its students.

“The civil rights issue that I wish everyone focused on is that an overwhelming number of children living in poverty and of color are not receiving the effective education they deserve,” he said.

“It’s seems mystifying to me that advocates are not focusing on that issue,” Cerf said. “To say this is race based, no, this is about schools that are failing.”

Smith, the Newark mother, said she is not so sure, and she will continue to press her case. She said she was heartened that representatives of the White House also attended the hearing yesterday.

“It may have been for the press, but we will move forward,” Smith said. “I think it is clear what is going on and we have a problem.”