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When Does a School Closure Become Discriminatory?

As a growing number of districts consider closing schools to cut costs, civil rights groups want guardrails to ensure students of color don’t bear the brunt of those decisions.

They’ve asked the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights to draw a line in the sand by issuing guidance about when school closures run afoul of federal civil rights laws by placing an unfair burden on students from a racial or ethnic minority group or students with disabilities.

“The research on school closures and lived experiences of the students and families whose neighborhood schools were closed overwhelmingly shows that school closures are harmful to students and their families, not beneficial,” said a May 30 letter to the federal agency from two civil rights organizations, the Advancement Project and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Even when districts target schools for closure with criteria that appear to be racially neutral, their decisions could violate the Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits racial discrimination in schools, or disability rights laws, said the letter, which the groups sent after meeting with Education Department officials.

A district may cause disparate impact if it closes an elementary school with a disproportionately high enrollment of Black students, forcing displaced children to travel longer distances than their peers to get to school, the groups argued. And selecting schools based on factors like the age of buildings may layer new harms on top of historical patterns of funding inequities and residential segregation, said Katherine Dunn, director of the Opportunity to Learn program at the Advancement Project.

“These factors that we’re seeing [districts consider]—facility conditions, school utilization, school enrollment—those factors are symptoms of disinvestment that have to be critiqued,” Dunn said.

Budget concerns spark school closure discussions

Civil rights groups have long flagged concerns about which schools are closed and who gets a say in that decision. The Chicago district sparked months of protests and political organizing when it closed 50 schools in 2013, displacing 17,000 students and removing community anchors from neighborhoods around the city. Lawmakers have since temporarily frozen the district’s ability to close campuses.

But a broader, pending national wave of closures threatens to overwhelm national racial-justice organizations who aid local advocates in organizing against closures.

The latest call to action comes as districts prepare for a perfect storm of financial challenges: declining enrollment, inflation, and the September spending deadline for an unprecedented infusion of federal COVID-19 aid. Together they’ve led many school boards to weigh closing campuses and cutting staff.

Through an informal survey of news reports, the Advancement Project has tracked at least 65 districts with schools set to close before the 2024–25 school year. And the organization expects those talks to accelerate in the next few years; at least 21 districts have launched facilities audits and boundary studies, which often precede closures.

The groups have issued toolkits for community and parent groups to identify “yellow lights”—signs that districts are about to enter into discussions about closures—often guided by consultants on a quick timeline, Dunn said. Even if those groups file a federal civil rights complaint, the districts’ decisions are often finalized and schools shuttered more quickly than the time it takes for OCR to investigate, she said.

The Education Department did not respond to a request for comment on the letter.

Civil rights guidance is a non-binding federal document that cites court precedents to support the Education Department’s interpretation of federal laws, putting districts on notice about factors that could trigger an investigation or legal complaint.

California makes equity a factor in closure decisions

The groups’ letter calls for guidance that echoes an “equity impact analysis” requirement adopted by California lawmakers in 2023, which requires districts considering closures to weigh student demographics, environmental factors like traffic, shifting transportation needs of displaced students, and continued access to special programs.

That state law came after civil rights activists protested planned school closures in the Oakland district, some even going on hunger strikes. In January, the state’s department of justice agreed that the since-suspended closure plans “would have disproportionately impacted Black and low-income elementary school students and also high-needs students with disabilities in special day classes.”

Parents, teachers, and activists have long argued that school closures have negative effects for students of color and students from low-income households.

After analyzing federal data on enrollment and school closures between 2000 and 2018, researchers at Stanford University found that majority-Black schools were about three times as likely to close as schools with smaller enrollments of Black students, even when accounting for common reasons behind closures, like drops in enrollment and declining student test scores.

“Race is showing up as a strong predictor of which schools are closing, and conventional explanations that we have for closures can’t account for that disparity,” Francis A. Pearman, an assistant professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education who co-authored that unpublished research, told Education Week in November. “Deliberate or not deliberate, it’s showing up, and we have to be really careful about the processes that govern closures to ensure that those processes themselves are equitable.”

How federal investigators interrogate school closures

In past investigations of school closures, OCR has applied a three-part analysis to assess for discriminatory effects:

  1. Does a policy that is “neutral on its face” have a disproportionate and harmful effect on students from a particular racial or ethnic group?
  2. Is that policy justified by the need to meet an important, nondiscriminatory educational goal?
  3. Did the district consider an alternative course of action that would have eased disparate effects?

For example, a 2022 investigation of the Huntington Beach, Calif., district concluded that the closure of an elementary school did not have a disparate effect, even though that school enrolled a disproportionately high number of Latino students compared to the rest of the district.

Investigators concluded that the district’s criteria, which factored in enrollment declines and the presence of early childhood centers on other campuses, was not racially discriminatory. The decision met an “important educational goal” of balancing the district’s budget, they concluded. And, while many of the displaced Latino students would have to walk as far as two miles to get to their new schools, investigators did not consider that an “undue burden” because many of their peers in other elementary schools walked a similar distance.

Investigators did flag the district for insufficient communication with Spanish-speaking parents during public feedback sessions on the school closure process, which administrators agreed to remedy in future outreach efforts.

Whether or not federal officials issue new guidance on the issue, Dunn said she hopes district leaders will read the groups’ letter to identify ways to ensure their decisions are fair and minimize harm.

And district leaders should ensure that closure decisions are not a foregone conclusion before they seek community input, she said.

Affected communities “are not confused that these are civil rights issues that are raised by these decisions,” Dunn said. “They want someone with some teeth to step in and name it for what it is.”

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