“The lens that we operate under is that we view this as structural racism,” a community organizer tells MintPress. “While we have a mayor and a chancellor that are black, they’re kind of operating under this system that values white folks in a better light.”
WASHINGTON — Earlier this month, the National Academy of Sciences released an assessment of the Washington, D.C., public school system from 2009 to 2013 — the period shortly after then-Mayor Adrian Fenty took control of the system in 2007 under the Public Education Reform Amendment Act, or PERAA.
The controversial law drew national attention to the District of Columbia Public Schools system, and its radical reforms that linked students’ test scores to teachers’ performance reviews. It brought national spotlight on Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of DCPS, who was featured in the 2010 documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman.’” And according to Daniel del Pielago, PERAA was also instrumental in implementing one often overlooked aspect of how gentrification works – systematic divestment from poor communities of color.
Del Pielago is the Education Organizer at Empower D.C., a community organizing project working “to enhance, improve and promote the self-advocacy of low and moderate income D.C. residents in order to bring about sustained improvements in their quality of life.”
Del Pielago told MintPress News: “Neighborhoods [and] properties are left alone to just go away and become terrible, and then when there’s no real value to them, you can come in and swoop them up, and your profit margin is a lot bigger.”
Schools: Structural racism and charter schools
A 2005 report penned by former Mayor Anthony A. Williams for the District’s Comprehensive Housing Strategy Task Force claims: “Housing programs alone cannot create a livable, inclusive city. Equally critical to attracting and retaining residents are much needed improvements in schools.”
Massive change came to Washington on the back of the 2007 election of Mayor Adrian Fenty, who introduced legislation to put himself in charge of the school system, and then appointed Michelle Rhee as chancellor of DCPS.
At the time, the test scores and graduation rates of the District’s students were among the country’s worst. Fenty was elected with the mandate to address these problems and overhaul the education system — and he did.
“Since the reign of Michelle Rhee and Adrian Fenty, we’ve seen over 40 public schools being closed, and primarily in black neighborhoods,” said del Pielago, the education organizer with Empower D.C.
Rhee was a huge advocate for charter schools, which have grown exponentially since 2007, and she also promoted metrics to assess teachers, anti-union tactics, and the narrative of choice for students.
But the charter school system quickly came to be seen by some parents in Washington and education activists as a tool for private interests to gut the public school system of its resources. Indeed, Del Pielago argued: “Charters are just a way of divesting public funds into private hands, and we see that on the national level.”
Housing: The mean face of gentrification
Speaking to MintPress for another investigation into gentrification in the nation’s capital, Kalfani Turé, a community activist, scholar and former police officer, said neighborhoods targeted for redevelopment, like Barry Farm, Northwest One or Park Morton, are deliberately targeted for decay by city government and developers decades before they become destitute.
Former Mayor Anthony A. Williams’s report seems to corroborate Turé’s argument. It claims that a program called the New Communities Initiative would redevelop certain neighborhoods to “improve the resident’s’ quality of life by addressing both the physical architecture and human capital of the community.”
Some scholars, including Turé, argue that programs like the NCI are just one element of a historical process that relegates the poor to certain neighborhoods, and then divests resources from those neighborhoods. The idea is to create a scenario in which they become “severely distressed” in terms of the economy, crime, and schooling, so they can then be sold off to the highest bidder.
NCI promised public housing residents to replace their homes on a one by one basis. But it has failed to deliver on this promise, and the majority of residents are simply being moved out of Washington and dispersed. Some have even gone homeless.
This is the mean face of gentrification that activists and community organizers in the District and other cities around the country are mounting resistance to.
War of the wards
Washington, D.C., is divided into eight wards, and more affluent and whiter wards have greater resources for public schools. In these wards, enrollment is encouraged even to the extent of broadening boundaries for students to be granted admittance. Meanwhile, less affluent wards with a stronger concentration of black and brown residents are often under-resourced and under-funded.
As a result, the narrative that under-enrolled schools should be shut down, and charter schools opened to replace them, is invoked and implemented.
“We continue to see under-resourcing in black and brown neighborhoods while there’s everything that’s possible to be done in the more affluent white neighborhoods, where we haven’t seen school closures, where we haven’t seen charters open up,” said del Pielago, the education organizer with Empower DC.
Indeed, although charter schools are now responsible for 44 percent of the District’s total public school student enrollment, Ward 3, Washington’s most affluent and whitest ward, has never had a charter school open within its boundaries. Del Pielago said, “They enjoy a strong system of neighborhood schools, walkable, very well-resourced schools — Wilson High School being kind of the primary example.”
Education advocates, like himself, and the parents he works with, support those schools’ resources, but he still believes all public schools should have the same resources.
“The lens that we operate under is that we view this as structural racism,” del Pielago told MintPress. “While we have a mayor and a chancellor that are black, they’re kind of operating under this system that values white folks in a better light.”
Empower D.C. and its members filed a lawsuit in an attempt to block the closure of 15 of the District’s public schools in 2013, claiming the closures violated laws and the civil rights of black, Hispanic, and disabled students. The lawsuit was ultimately dismissed by U.S. District Judge James E. Boasberg, who opined that the school closures were not a result of discrimination, but location. Boasberg wrote:
“No one is denying that the racial disparities in the recent closings are striking. In the closed schools, after all, a startling 93% of students were black and fewer than 0.2% (six students) were white… But here, the disparity appears to be caused by the location of the under-enrolled schools, not by intentional discrimination.”
“In the 1970’s, there were many under-enrolled schools west of the Park, in whiter neighborhoods; now, they lie to the east. There is no evidence that schools west of the Park would be treated differently if they once again became under-enrolled. While it is indeed regrettable that our city schools have become so segregated, it is residential segregation, along with changing population patterns, that is largely to blame for the disparities in the closures.”
‘It’s not like it’s all winners’
The original idea behind charter schools was that they would compliment neighborhood public schools. But in Washington, charter schools are simply replacing public schools, del Pielago argues.
“All of this uncontrolled growth of charters takes away students, which perpetuates this cycle of our schools being under-enrolled, and then under-funded,” he said.
He explained that charter schools often open across the street from a public school, leading directly to lower enrollment of the public school, which is already operating under the dark shadow of a bad reputation. Parents try to get their children into the charter school, even though charter schools haven’t demonstrated any superiority over public schools in the District.
“It’s this undue competition, and that’s what I think charters strive on,” del Pielago said. “They say, ‘Competition makes everyone better, and it makes everyone step up their game.’”
“But you know, in competition, in business, somebody always loses, right? It’s not like it’s all winners. And that’s what’s been happening here.”