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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now, we want to turn to a hot button issue in education, something that might be going on where you live. In a number of cities around the country, officials are debating closing dozens - in one case, more than 100 - schools. Officials cite low enrollment at many of these schools and the cost of maintaining buildings that aren't fully utilized, but in many places, these school closings have sparked furious protests by parents who've said that they are unfair and that they are ripping communities apart.

We wanted to hear more about all this, so we've called on Quanisha Smith. She's with a group called Action United in Philadelphia. That's a group opposing the school shutdowns there. Also with us is Becky Vevea. She's education reporter for member station WBEZ in Chicago.

Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.

BECKY VEVEA: Thanks. Happy to be here.

QUANISHA SMITH: Thank you for having us, Michel.

MARTIN: Quanisha, I'm going to start with you. Your organization has been holding town halls about Philadelphia's proposed 29 school closures. That's 29 out of 237, so that's about, roughly, one of eight. Can you summarize the biggest concerns that you're hearing from parents and also teachers, I would imagine, about this?

SMITH: Yeah. So Action United is actually one of the founding members of a larger coalition called PCAPS, the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools, which actually is a partnership of parents, students, teachers and community members. And our largest concerns are, one, the communities have been utterly shut out of the school closing process. The district and our school reform commission, which is our school board - three appointed by the governor and two appointed by the mayor - have not engaged the community when they were going - you know, even beginning this process.

So, aside from us being utterly shut out, we're also concerned about how these school closures are going to impact the neighboring communities. Action United - we actually filed a Title Six complaint showing that previous school closures had...

MARTIN: That's a civil rights complaint with the Department of Education...

SMITH: Yes.

MARTIN: ...for people who aren't...

SMITH: Yeah, sorry.

MARTIN: ...familiar with that jargon.

SMITH: Yes. We had - it had a disparate impact on African-American, Latino and economically disadvantaged students. And we saw that when we did data to analyze the - first, it was 37 recommendations that they were following that same unfortunate pattern.

So we're very concerned about the surrounding community of these school closures, in really weakening, struggling communities.

MARTIN: Becky, you reported that Chicago has listed 129 schools as eligible for closure. That's about 20 percent of the city's public schools. What reasons did the officials give there and are you hearing similar concerns from parents and teachers and other people?

VEVEA: Yes. We're hearing a lot of the same concerns and, you know, worries that we hear in Philadelphia. I actually went out to Philadelphia to report a story, so it was interesting to see sort of the mirroring concerns, complaints, arguments, both on the district side and on the community side.

There are 129 schools on a list here. That is not our final list. That's not even really the list of recommendations. The district has until March 31st to put that final list of recommendations out. These 129 remain, based on criteria that has been developed over the last few months through community meetings and in discussions, internally, with the district and the mayor's office.

Here in Chicago, the mayor runs the schools, so we don't have state involvement playing a role whatsoever, really. So we're - you know, at this point, those 129 - they're mostly elementary schools. They're mostly on the south and west sides of Chicago, which are predominantly African-American and Latino communities.

MARTIN: I understand that a lot of the parents are saying that they actually think the kids are less safe when neighborhood schools close, Becky. Can you explain why they believe that, why they feel that way?

VEVEA: Well, so a lot of the neighborhood schools in those communities do have- you know, they are sort of - territorial is the best word I can kind of come up with - and, even within schools, you have - you can have warring gang factions. One of my colleagues just did the big piece with This American Life about Harper High School, in which there are many, many gangs within one school, but when you're talking about these particular schools, in most of these communities, parents have a really strong concern about - if you close this school and you consolidate it with another building, you might be consolidating two communities that historically haven't gotten along and you also might just be putting kids who are innocent or are not involved in much of that in a position where they might have to walk through an area that they aren't used to going through at times of the day that they might not feel comfortable doing that.

MARTIN: I see. Quanisha, your group has also made the point that schools can often be a neighborhood hub. That's kind of where everything happens and that people in the neighborhood have a stake in the building. That's where community meetings happen. That could be where, you know, AA meetings happens. It could be where English as a second language classes happen. It can be a community hub and, when you remove that hub, that you can kind of open up the door to people being not as invested in their community.

On the other hand, Philadelphia School District has a budget shortfall of $1.1 billion. So can you see where officials say, yes, I get your point. What do you want me to do? Where's the money supposed to come from? What do you say to them?

SMITH: Well, one thing is that this - the budget savings that they are citing is a gross figure. It's not taking in account the cost of actually closing schools. Research for Action actually issued a school closing policy brief where they talked about some of these costs. So transportation, reformatting schools, especially for transitioning a high school to an elementary school, you have reformat bathrooms, desks, water fountains to meet the needs of smaller children, actually maintaining the buildings.

MARTIN: But do you really think that costs a billion dollars? No, really, honestly, Quanisha, really. Do you really think that that would cost a billion dollars?

SMITH: Well, (unintelligible). A lot of - well, let's take D.C. So, when they closed their schools, they thought they were going to save $9.8 million and, actually, the cost of closing those schools were $40 million, so it was four times what they actually anticipated and they didn't have a savings.

MARTIN: Well, Quanisha, speaking of D.C., let me - I'm sorry. We're pressed for time here, so let me just push you on this. That, speaking of D.C., 40 percent of the school children in D.C. go to charter schools, so one might argue that the parents had already voted with their feet. They've already voted to choose different alternate school environments for their kids. So, given that, how does the school system then justify keeping these buildings open when they could be repurposed for institutions that parents are choosing? And, since this is a majority African-American and Latino environment, I don't know that there's a racial difference.

SMITH: What we're advocating for is high quality education. Unfortunately, charters are not significantly outperforming district schools and they also have significant barriers to entry, such as lottery systems, 21-page essays that many parents - if you have a high illiteracy rate in Philadelphia - can't do. So we're talking about having high quality access to public education for all. We need to invest in our public schools. For example, in Philadelphia, the SRC has voted to expand charter schools and that course is exactly what we need to actually fill this deficit.

MARTIN: SIC is what? I'm sorry. The SIC is what?

SMITH: Sorry. The SRC. They voted last June.

MARTIN: Which is what?

SMITH: The - I'm sorry. The School Reform Commission here. Like, that's our governing body since the state took over. So last June, the district approved more than 5,000 expanded charter seats at the cost of more than $139 million over five years and some of those charter schools are among the city's worst performing schools, such as KIPP West Philadelphia has a school performance index of eight. So the worst schools have 10.

So charter schools are not the better option and that's why we need to invest in our traditional public schools where all children can have access to high quality education.

MARTIN: Let me ask Becky...

SMITH: And, as you mentioned...

MARTIN: Let me ask Becky to answer that, too. Is that - a similar debate going on in Chicago? Is there a strong philosophical difference there between people who feel that the real issue is that traditional public schools need to be the model versus people who think that you need to move away from that model? Is that a philosophical difference that you're seeing there, particularly among parents?

VEVEA: Yeah. I would say that that's certainly a philosophical difference that we've seen here in Chicago. I mean, we had our first teachers' strike in 25 years and that was one of the key issues, about whether or not we are going to invest in our traditional public schools or continue to invest in sort of this reform movement, which is largely charter schools, privately run schools, turnaround schools; a different kind of model of trying to improve public education.

And I want to say, too, I think that one of the reasons we're seeing this happen in cities - Philadelphia, D.C., Chicago, all over the country - is that we are, you know, a decade or two now into this reform movement, this charter school movement. And I covered schools in Milwaukee for a little while and, you know, I think cities are now grappling with the fact that enrollment has been declining in their inner core and, throughout this last decade, while the enrollment has been declining, districts - whether it's a state-run district, a mayoral-run district, you know, the state is setting up a charter law in which private charters can be authorized through them - however it comes about, there are new schools opening at the same time that enrollment is declining in a lot of these inner city cores.

And so, now, we've got a system where what the district will say is there are just too many schools and not enough kids to fill them. There are lots of arguments around that issue and which ones are the better ones to invest in and what do we do about it? But I think that's what we're seeing and why we're seeing it in so many different cities, is that you've got - you know, and I think what's interesting in Chicago is that the board has - in a lot of cities, the charter expansion hasn't always been controlled by the local board. Here in Chicago, it has. So Chicago - you know, the argument you'll hear from critics is that Chicago has created the problem by opening new schools at the same time it knew that its enrollment was declining.

MARTIN: Quanisha, I'm going to give you the final word. We only have a couple of seconds here. Where do you go next? What's next here?

SMITH: Well, for us in Philadelphia, we're continuing to fight. Tomorrow is the vote on whether or not these schools will be closed, so we have hundreds of students, parents and community members coming out to oppose that and actually meet our local board, which is the School Reform Commission.

MARTIN: OK.

SMITH: And, you know, no matter what happens on Thursday, we're going to keep fighting for school improvements. Like you said...

MARTIN: OK.

SMITH: ...there are other alternatives.

MARTIN: Keep us posted on that. Quanisha Smith is the leadership and community development director for Action United. That's an advocacy group. She was with us from Philadelphia. Becky Vevea joined us from member station WBEZ in Chicago, where she covers education.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

VEVEA: Thanks for having us.

SMITH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Just ahead, she was born a slave. She died a hero who led hundreds to freedom. We're talking about Harriet Tubman, who died 100 years ago this weekend. But there's another side of her that's rarely talked about in the history books.

JACQUELYN SERWER: There was also a wonderful, very feminine side to her that I think makes her a very full, fascinating character.

MARTIN: We'll talk about the life and legacy of Harriet Tubman. That's in just a few minutes on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Musicians tell us they often feel pressure to conform to the latest trends, but for reggae soul singer Etana, success has come by staying true to her vision.

ETANA: I'm not concerned about what category they put me in. I'm concerned that they get to hear it and understand it.

MARTIN: Etana tells us about her latest album, "Better Tomorrow," next time on TELL ME MORE.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BETTER TOMORROW")

ETANA: (Singing) There'll be a better tomorrow. There'll be a better tomorrow. There'll be a better tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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