Closing schools is painful, but it's not discrimination

Posted: January 30, 2013

OPPONENTS OF the school district's plan to close 37 schools have come up with another argument against the proposal. At a news conference this week, the group - which includes the local NAACP - accused the district of unfairly targeting predominantly black schools in poor neighborhoods.

According to an analysis done by the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools, 81 percent of the roughly 15,000 students who would be affected by this year's proposed closings and mergers are African-American. Across the district, 55 percent of students are African-American.

The group's implication was clear - the closings are discriminatory against blacks.

It's hard to wrap our mind around the concept of a black mayor, a black superintendent and a School Reform Commission headed by a Latino public-school graduate conspiring to commit acts of racial discrimination. It's harder still for opponents to face the reality of the closings, It's not discrimination, but powerful demographic forces that are at work.

Most of the schools slated to be closed are in areas of the city that have experienced double-digit population loss. For example, the heart of old North Philadelphia west of Broad Street had a population of 128,000 in 1970. Today, it has 56,000 residents.

Many businesses departed long ago; blocks are pockmarked with abandoned houses and empty lots.

Whittier, L.P. Hill, Duckrey, Meade and Reynolds, elementary schools that were overcrowded with children in the 1960s and 1970s, now sit more than half-empty and are due to close.

This is more than just a tale of population loss. Many parents who still live in these areas have found alternatives to the neighborhood schools, including charter and Catholic schools. An example: 90 percent of the students at St. Malachy's, an all-black grade school at 11th and Jefferson streets, are non-Catholic.

Strawberry Mansion, the neighborhood high school that serves western North Philadelphia, draws only 40 percent of the eligible students in its catchment area. The rest go to other public school high schools, charters or Catholic schools.

In fact, on a percentage basis, there are more African-American children attending charter schools in Philadelphia (63 percent) today than public schools (55 percent).

Superintendent William Hite had to face these realities in drawing up the list of schools to close. A district that is nearly broke today and facing a potential $1 billion deficit over the next five years cannot keep open schools that are half-empty.

There is a lot of pain involved in these decisions partly because so many schools are involved at once. This isn't Hite's fault. Some of these schools have been half-empty for more than a decade, but rather than face the facts, superintendents kicked the can down the road.

The can has finally hit a wall - the district has little choice but to downsize. These painful decisions may be acts of desperation driven by financial need, but they are not acts of discrimination.

comments powered by Disqus