Vector Maps: How Closing Schools Hurts Democracy

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Demonstrators react during a Chicago Teachers Union protest in Chicago, March 27, 2013. Thousands of demonstrators rallied in downtown Chicago on Wednesday to protest the city's plan to close 54 public schools, primarily in Hispanic and African-American neighborhoods.
Thousands of protesters rallied in 2013 to oppose Chicago’s plan to close 54 schools in primarily black and Latino neighborhoods. John Gress/Corbis via Getty Images

A forthcoming book documents how politically active communities became disengaged after local schools were shuttered. Now, more schools may face permanent closure.

In 2013, Chicago and Philadelphia together closed a record number of public schools, displacing more than 20,000 students, 90% of whom were low-income African-American and Latino. Their parents aggressively fought these school closures, saying they crumbled neighborhood anchor institutions while leaving their children feeling undervalued. But districts were undeterred, citing financial strains, low enrollment, and poor achievement.  

What happens to families in the aftermath of these closings? For her forthcoming book, “Closed for Democracy,” Northwestern University urban politics professor Sally Afia Nuamah found that school closures tend to imbibe mostly black and Latino families with a sense of “mobilization fatigue”: They expend considerable political energy fighting to keep their schools open only to watch their elected officials cater to families who actually support closing schools.

While school closures have historically affected a limited segment of cities and neighborhoods, today school closures are a potentially permanent fixture across a much larger swath of communities. There are currently 43 states that have closed schools for the rest of the 2019-20 school year, along with Washington, D.C., with the potential for that number to grow at any moment. There’s no guarantee that any of these school districts will be ready to open in time for the upcoming academic year, or how parents will respond when they do. And for some, Nuamah worries there’s a chance they may not ever reopen.  

Having just wrapped her book, Nuamah is now considering what the political fallout might be if families were to face permanent school closures as the novel coronavirus pandemic continues to metastasize. While school closures and all the attendant mental toll, destabilization, and loss of academic momentum have mainly affected black and brown families, today families of all races are getting a feel for the burden of currently having no guaranteed school home for their children. Meanwhile, many black and Latina families are feeling the compounded burden of enduring multiple school closings in their lifetimes.

Citylab spoke with Nuamah about the relationship between Covid-19, school closures and political participation, especially for families who have not been prioritized by their elected officials in the past. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Chicago lost has lost its largest share of African-American residents in recent years and many suspect school closures are to blame. How much of that population loss actually can be attributed to school closures?

It’s not only in places like Chicago, but in large cities like New York as well. School closures do have something to do with that, but it’s a little bit challenging to measure. It’s a classic chicken-and-egg problem because preceding that there were public housing closings, and before that there were factory closings. I study schools and I care so much about them as political institutions because they are the last public institutions you have left for many of these communities.

So school closures are more so a manifestation of all the other closings that preceded them: public hospitals closing, factories closings, a weakening of the welfare system. Obviously you’re priced out when there’s no more affordable housing, and you have church closings. So the institutions that allowed you to thrive, and that connected you, help you feel a sense of belonging are being undermined, so it becomes difficult for you to stay. That all impacts the enrollment of the schools.

I’m from Chicago and the North area, right around where Cabrini Green housing projects were. At its height, these developments had 50,000 people and now Cabrini Green is closed, and those families are displaced. Some will hold onto that neighborhood and still attend its institutions, but many won’t be able to because they’ve been spread out all across the city, and then schools become subjected to closings. That feeds into further displacement because those institutions are no longer available. So it’s cyclical.

That happens disproportionally in black and brown and underprivileged communities, because they often aren’t in a position where their protests of school closure policies are listened to. I think school closures explain the displacement. They’re just one piece — a very significant piece. They’re the last piece. And I think that’s why many of us are trying to hold on.  

So how do you see the Covid-19 pandemic impacting school affairs moving forward?

I think we already see it: Budgets are going to be affected by the pandemic. Undoubtedly, permanent school closure will be on the table as public schools face budget crises post-pandemic. So, because we’re thinking about equity: Those who have the least — who need more support because during the pandemic they weren’t getting the level of support they were getting from these schools when they were physically open — are now going to have even less available support because of the post-pandemic budget crises.

Schools haven’t been a part of the dialogue when we talk about stimulus budgets because I don’t think the public actually sees them as the social safety nets that they are. Schools provide so much more beyond teaching instruction and learning. They fill a lot of the gaps in our social safety net, from administering flu shots to free meals. And when schools are closed they have trouble providing that same level of service, especially when trying to limit contact for the sake of social distancing. On top of that, you have the situation where this affects the budgets. So when schools reopen it’s hard to actually make up for those inequities. So we would then expect that unless there’s some huge intervention that accounts for the fact that schools do all this extra work outside of learning — we don’t just need Chromebooks; we also need physical and mental health support and financing to do that work — then we would expect basically for these inequities to be exacerbated.

Explain the “mobilization fatigue” theory that your book examines.

I’m interested in how school closures are a microcosm for thinking about power and racism, and the ways in which policies can further disadvantage low-income African-American communities. It’s well known in the literature that school closures disproportionately impact low-income African-American communities. And we know this is not just an urban phenomenon or just a Chicago or Philadelphia phenomenon.

But for Chicago, New York City, and Philadelphia, I look at how those school closures shaped the ways in which citizens who are subjected to these policies think about government, democracy and their place in it — how they see themselves as citizens. And also citizens who aren’t subjected to school closure policies, and how that might have consequences for how they decide to engage with the government. African Americans and Latinx citizens are vehemently opposed to these closures across the board, while whites are actually pretty supportive of them, even though they’re the ones that aren’t actually affected by them.

Vector Maps: How Closing Schools Hurts Democracy

I’ve found that in these cities, when school closures are proposed, African Americans have mobilized against these policies — they not only protest at the highest rates compared to any other racial group, but they also vote at higher rates and attend community meetings at the highest rate. They basically become model citizens. And so long-term, what I find is that because African Americans are most impacted by these policies, but don’t necessarily experience that democratic responsiveness they would expect, they end up becoming pretty disillusioned by the democratic process.

If you think about the impending election in 2020, while there was so much mobilization around closures [in Chicago, for example] and trying to get [the city’s then-mayor] Rahm Emanuel out of office, it’s a little unclear if you would expect a similar level of engagement around, for example, getting Trump out of office, because of a lot of the blowback that people experienced while trying to mobilize against school closures.

Have you observed how this “mobilization fatigue” might be already influencing the election?  

We found that there were racial differences in voter turnout in Chicago in March, and this was before the stay-at-home order, but [after] schools were already closed. We found that with white families in Chicago as well as in suburban Cook County, their voting patterns had either stayed the same or increased. For African Americans, it decreased. And for Latinx citizens, it actually decreased even more. We don’t actually know if there’s a direct connection, because we have to study it further. But it’s not that African Americans don’t think that this election is consequential. I think they know it is. But their ability to mobilize in a way where they can go vote safely, is I think perceived differently than it is for white people.

Vector Maps: How Closing Schools Hurts Democracy

For example, we know that the decision was made to switch polling places from the typical [nursing homes] to public housing locations. That, of course, created another issue because we know that these communities are already vulnerable to dying of Covid-19 given their underlying health conditions and the history of inequities in Chicago. And so that also creates a context where low-income black people feel they are being unfairly targeted for this — why would I go to a space that can further impact my health in a way that could be deadly?

I suspect that, honestly, unless there’s a really significant shift in the pandemic before November, we should expect decreased voting among African Americans given what we already have seen, just in terms of the primary that overlapped with Covid-19.

For parents who’ve not been through a school closure, what kinds of questions or concerns should they have for their school if it’s currently closed due to the pandemic, based on your research?  

The first thing that comes to my mind is going to sound a little bit radical, but I think that schools really need to be questioning achievement. The way that we measure achievement, the way that we measure performance, the way that we think about determining if a school is a good school. That needs to be something that really is questioned.  

Parents need to understand that. For some kids, every day is like a micro-pandemic. It’s normally like this for certain communities all the time, and they need that same ongoing level of relief. Merit was never equitable. Achievement was never something that was fair. And that is something that I think needs to continue to be raised and questioned and challenged after the pandemic as well.

Do you think more white Americans staying home will make them more sympathetic to black parents fighting to keep schools open?

I think the charitable view is that hopefully that would be the case, especially in places that identify as more liberal-leaning, like Chicago, where you would not have expected those differences across race in the first place. So, charitably, people spending more time at home may make a difference.

I think that home-schooling has made Americans more generally aware of how important schools are to their lives and communities, but I think the more this pandemic becomes racialized — if we continue to see a perception that this is not affecting white, middle-class Americans as much — then I think at the end of all this, you might actually still see similar attitudes in terms of support for closure. Especially because a lot of the support for closure had to do with this perception that they were being pragmatic about the realities of low-performing or under-enrolled schools facing a budget crisis.  [People who support closures] don’t see themselves as having a negative attitude towards black people. They see themselves as knowing what’s right for them in the context of a constrained environment.  

About the Author

Brentin Mock
Brentin Mock

Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.

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