Mass School Closures and the Politics of Race, Value, and Disposability in Philadelphia
by Julia A. McWilliams & Erika M. Kitzmiller - 2019
Background: With the expansion of charter school networks, population losses in urban district schools and stretched budgets have encouraged struggling districts to adopt closure-as-reform. School closings have received considerable attention in the media as a controversial reform, reconfiguring the educational landscapes of over 70 post-industrial cities like Chicago, Detroit, and New Orleans. However, in the last decade, few scholars have considered the project of examining closures—their process and their effects—empirically.
Purpose: In this article, we examine the rollout of 30 school closures in Philadelphia in 2012 and 2013 to explain how school closures have become yet another policy technology of Black community and school devaluation in the United States. Moving beyond educational studies that have focused on the outcomes of mass school closures like student achievement and cost savings, we argue that a thorough theorization of how race, violence, and community values relate to school closure as process could help to explain the ways in which contemporary educational policy reforms are creating new modes of communal disposability in cities’ poorest zip codes.
Setting/Participants: Data collection occurred in two comprehensive high schools in Philadelphia slated for closure in 2012 and 2013: Johnson High and Franklin High. Participants at both schools included students, teachers, parents, community members, and district officials.
Research Design: The authors spent several years in their respective schools recording observations of instructional practice, community meetings, and district events and interviewing key informants such as students, teachers, administrators, and district officials. The first author spent three years at Johnson High School, from September 2011 to June 2013. The second author spent five years at Franklin High School, from September 2008 to June 2013. She also spent hundreds of hours at the high school examining archival materials and interviewing students, teachers, and alumni about their experiences in the school and community. In addition to their individual case studies, the authors jointly transcribed and coded over two dozen community and district meetings’ video recordings during the 2012 and 2013 closures. In the aftermath of the school closures process, we used a comparative ethnographic method to compare and contrast the events that occurred at these two schools.
Findings: Suturing anthropologies of violence and education to frame the analysis, we explore moments of collision between policy discourses deployed by state and local officials that crafted closures as inevitable and threatened school communities’ articulations of the racialized implications of the closures. We further localize our analysis to demonstrate how two school communities—one majority Asian and another majority Black—with similar performances and characteristics met dramatically different fates. Given the lack of transparency in how decisions were made around which schools to close, the ways in which these communities read and responded to the closure threat offer a window into the ways in which race informed the valuation process across schools.
Conclusions/Recommendations: We conclude with a plea to state and federal policymakers to consider the long-term ramifications of school choice expansion and state disinvestment for the health and stability of traditional public schools. We encourage policymakers to move in a more reparative direction, prioritizing the needs of those “unchosen” by choice and imagining a system that might serve all students more equitably.
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