Inequalities Abound: Betsy DeVos and School Closures

Inequalities Abound: Betsy DeVos and School Closures February 14, 2017

During confirmation hearings, DeVos didn’t know the difference between proficiency testing and growth testing. This matters because of schools like my daughter’s. Her school doesn’t have the test scores of schools on the other side of town, and it never will, but this isn’t the fault of the teachers—it’s demographics. A school with a high rate of homelessness, a large number of English language learners, and high levels of poverty isn’t going to make the same scores as a school filled with children from high-income, college-educated families.

DeVos has a long history of influence in Michigan’s educational system. Per Michigan law, any school whose test scores rank in the lowest 5% statewide for three years in a row can be shuttered by the state. (Note how far this is from local control.) The problem with this should be obvious to anyone familiar with how percentages work—someone has to be in the bottom 5%. Even if every child in the state makes three grades worth of progress in one school year, the same number of schools will be in the bottom 5% as before.

Thirty-eight Michigan schools are slated for possible closure at the end of this school year based on the above 5% rule. I just looked up the demographics for every single one of these schools. On average, these schools are 91% black and 4% white. Four schools are 100% black. Thirteen schools are 99% black. No school on the list is more than 35% white; only five schools are more than 6% white (seventeen schools are 0% white, and 10 are 1% white). On average, 83% of students at these schools qualify for free or reduced school lunch. The lowest number of children enrolled in free or reduced school lunch programs is 68%; in seven schools, more than 90% of the students are enrolled in these programs.

In contrast, a full 73% of school-age children in Michigan are white. Statewide, only 46% of schoolchildren qualify for free or reduced school lunches.

If these scores are reflective of teacher quality and administrative management, and not students’ economic disadvantages, why aren’t there any non-poor, white schools on this list? If these scores are reflective of students’ economic disadvantages and not of teacher quality or administrative management, why are we closing these schools? And if it is about school quality, if non-poor, white schools are able to attract more qualified teachers and administrators, why close these schools rather than providing them with better funding so that they can attract similarly qualified staff?

Nothing about this makes sense. It reads as though these children are being punished for being poor and black. Sure, the ostensive goal is for quality charter schools to replaced these schools once they’re closed, but the results are in and charter schools haven’t been able to improve these students’ scores—and charters schools close more frequently than public schools (upending communities), and new school maps often leave school “deserts,” swaths of cities without reasonable access to schools.

As the state moves forward with its closure plans—including 25 schools in Detroit—parents are getting antsy.

None of the 25 schools in the city that could shut down at the end of this school year have nearby schools that are doing much better academically, a Free Press review of academic data shows.

. . .

Michele Phillips, whose three children attend Fisher Upper Magnet School, said she can’t afford to pay for public transportation to send her children to a Detroit school located a few miles away, much less one much farther away.

“How am I going to get there?” said Phillips, who doesn’t have a car and whose children now walk five blocks to school.

I get antsy myself when I think about the possibility of my daughter’s school being closed. There’s talk of a school closure in our district to fix budget problems, and my daughter’s elementary school, when judged by test scores alone, is at the bottom. What’s hard to wrap my head around is this: I know the school’s administration and teachers, and they are no less dedicated or qualified than those at high performing schools across town, in areas with greater white college educated non-poor homogeny. I know the children, and they don’t love their school any less either.

You know what is different, though? The parents on the other side of town have larger incomes and bigger platforms and the clout to make sure their schools don’t get closed. On this end of town, we are at a disadvantage on all of those fronts. Even our PTA is limited in what it can do by a lack of access to the sort of funds available to PTAs in richer neighborhoods. And there it is again—parents in wealthy, white neighborhoods have more access to social and financial capital to protect their schools from closure than do parents in more diverse, poorer neighborhoods.

Inequalities abound.

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