School's Out ... Forever

Illustration from The New Yorker

Illustration from The New Yorker

Jelani Cobb has a piece in this week’s New Yorker about his own Queens high school, which just closed to make way for more small schools. Cobb argues that school closings, like the busing strategies of yesteryear, are a deeply technocratic response to a complex, historically fraught set of challenges. He furthers the comparison, suggesting that “the language of today’s reformers often serves as a euphemism for poverty mitigation,” a tendency he also attributes to busing advocates of the desegregation era. This historical connection is one I have many thoughts about, so I was glad to see him tackle that.

Cobb also asks a series of rhetorical questions about why communities resist school closings:

Why do communities most in need of strong schools oppose shutting down institutions that are failing them? In demanding that a school remain open, are alumni hewing closer to nostalgia than to current reality?

The rest of the piece tentatively provides answers. The nostalgia sometimes is for a time when the schools were better, as seems true in this particular case.  Often, though, the nostalgia isn’t even for a better time, but rather for a time when the failure of such schools was just less transparent. Unfortunately, we are still waiting for the heyday of schools for vulnerable kids in this country.

I have worked on school closures, new schools, and school transformations, and I’m confident in saying that none of these things is a “silver bullet.” In light of that, I counsel deep humility to any regime reaching for the “close schools” lever, because of the added complexity of reckoning with the history of racism and segregation. When I worked at the DC public schools, our administration closed over twenty buildings. In that case, the schools were being closed not for performance, but rather because the population of the school district had collapsed in the preceding years. Part of that was due to middle-class families, many of them black, leaving for the suburbs, and the other part was new charter schools drawing enrollment. While that was the immediate cause, the longer history of DC’s black citizens being denied a voice in their own governance was just as relevant as a historical antecedent to the city’s actions.

On a more personal level, I have never in my life been so conscious of my identity as a “white technocrat” than that winter, when I stood in community meetings with my colleagues, at various times defending, tweaking, and taking the heat for the city’s closure decisions. Most citizens understood the “fiscal necessities” of closure, but the most assertive voices at community meetings were unsparingly critical. Most of the school closures were in black communities, and I was the white guy from the school system, sent to “take questions” and “allay concerns.” I was not the first person in this role, and there was no reason to trust or like me. I was unpopular. I was once told I was propagating an apartheid state. There is no Excel formula for responding to that. I wince at the lack of humility that the younger version of myself must have projected in those moments.

I have no “hot take” on school closures, but I do think that reformers tend to recklessly underestimate the fondness that communities have for their schools, even if those schools have never quite lived up to delivering consistently on the American dream. The high school mascot is a powerful symbol in any neighborhood, black, white, or otherwise, particularly in those places where many folks have not gone on to college. While a school closing, to the technocrat, may seem like the natural conclusion of a regression analysis, to many communities it is just the next public action in a long pattern of private disinvestment, abandonment, prejudice, and institutional racism. The school was often the first public institution in a vulnerable community, and its closure cannot help but become symbolic of regress. Rhetoric and promises will never change that, and I wish you godspeed if you think explaining “creative destruction” will be of any help in a public meeting.