Op-Ed: School Closings — Distinguishing the Means from the End

Deborah Cornavaca | February 12, 2014 | Opinion
Shutdowns are part of a larger drive to move to a market model of education that does not value small, neighborhood public schools

Deborah Cornavaca
In developing ways to fight back against school closings it is essential we realize the current reform agenda uses school closings as a means to an end. Closing of neighborhood schools is not the end itself, but one of many methods, especially in urban areas, used to convert public education into private ventures funded with taxpayer dollars. If we are to effectively fight back, the actions we take must recognize that while closing schools is detrimental in and of itself, closure is not the ultimate endgame being sought. If our efforts are focused on the closings, we may win a battle, but lose the war.

Grassroots advocates from across the state have rallied around S966/A2216, a bill proposed to create law for the procedures of school closings. Without doubt the closures announced by Cami Anderson in the One Newark plan provided impetus to a growing chorus of concern across the state that particularly in urban, state-controlled districts, more and more schools are being closed disrupting neighborhoods, communities, families, and children’s education.

This bill emerged as a means to push back. This bill codifies current regulations on school closings with slight modifications, most importantly adding the approval of the closings by the district board of education prior to being sent to the Commissioner of Education for final approval. The bill stipulates, “Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 2 and 6 of P.L.1987, c.399 (C.18A:7A-35 and C.18A:7A-39) or any other section of law to the contrary, a State district superintendent shall obtain the approval of the board of education prior to submitting an application for approval of a school closure to the commissioner.”

No bill is perfect, and there is a distinction between the passage of a law and the following of a law (for example, the law known as SFRA that sets out how our public schools are to be funded is neither perfect nor being followed). So it is important that we consider both the goal and the practical implications of a bill.

While the goal of the bill is clear and laudable, the practical implications of this bill are cause for concern. In the bill, final approval shifts from the Division of Finance to the commissioner of education. While proponents suggest that this is acceptable since the school board must first approve the closure, the language of the bill does not make this absolute. The language states that the application to the commissioner shall include the assurance that the school board has approved the closure, but the final decision is the commissioners to make.

We must consider the real risk that this bill inadvertently gives the commissioner more authority to make this decision than in current regulation. Advocates for local control should be very cautious before giving additional authority to an appointed state official to make a final decision on closures. In fact, it is the authority of the state appointed superintendent that is this bill attempts to curb. So why now give the commissioner the final say?

Beyond concerns of the bill’s language, which perhaps can be amended, there is the way this bill plays out if indeed it should become law. The hope, presumably, is that school boards will stand up to state-appointed superintendents and refuse to approve the closures, thus preventing the approval process from continuing. With independent and strong boards, there may well be the will to push back. But with politically appointed boards, is there a realistic expectation that there will be that pushback? Or for that matter in highly politicized elected boards?

So of the four state-controlled districts, neither Camden nor Jersey City seem to be afforded much reason to hope that their boards will be gatekeepers preventing school closings. Indeed, the Urban Hope Act is a prime example of a bill that included school board approval before Renaissance Charter schools could open but ended up not providing the community more voice in the process as the board approved a Renaissance school over strong community opposition.

In the case of Newark, where state control apparently knows no bounds, do we expect that the state-appointed superintendent will acquiesce to the board’s vote and leave the schools open? It is a reasonable scenario to expect that the superintendent will seek the commissioner’s approval regardless, in an attempt to close the schools. This might force the issue to the courts, which is not a solution but an extension of the problem.

Even of more concern is the impossible position an advisory board in a state-controlled district is left in when given a vote on school closures, but no other decision-making authority. If the board refuses the closures, what would stop the superintendent from converting them to charter schools, or emergency forced closures for health and safety concerns? In fact, the revised One Newark plan has four charter conversions, demonstrating a work around of this bill is in progress already that the advisory board cannot stop.

How can a community expect a board of education to decide on this single issue, but not on the fiscal plan that would finance keeping schools open, or the facility plans that will rehabilitate schools in dire need of repairs? As closing schools is only a means towards an end, how do we expect the advisory board to protect public education with limited authority over just one means to achieve that end? It is an impossible task and runs the risk of driving a wedge between the advisory board and the community.

The closing of schools is part of a larger drive to move to a market model of education that does not value small, local neighborhood public schools. No matter how well intentioned, and useful in galvanizing grassroots support, we cannot win the war against predatory school reform in a bill that creates a hurdle to school closures. It is a hurdle that can be jumped or circumvented, and we will claim victory in this battle alongside legislators trying to help, but the war will rage on while we were focused on one of many means towards the ends.

Now is not the time for feel-good legislation. It is the time to dig down deep and fight this war head-on — demand the end to state control and an immediate moratorium on school closings, since the proposed closings are in violation of current regulation. We must offer an alternative vision and model to the privatization reform model being implemented in our cities. We must develop a holistic model of small, neighborhood public schools that meet the needs of the communities they serve and are run by a locally controlled district. Anything less runs the risk of a short-term victory at the expense of prolonging the war that will continue to disenfranchise the communities that our schools are meant to serve.