As a college freshman in an introductory sociology class, I was assigned the book There Are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz. This story of two young boys trying to survive one of Chicago’s most impoverished and dangerous housing projects is absolutely heart wrenching.
I won’t forget the book’s emotional grip, but equally influential to my intellectual development was the policy and political backstory that explained how the boys’ toxic surroundings came to be.
Nearly two decades later, I’m still chastened by the book’s central lesson: A government policy developed by mostly-benevolent leaders hoping to improve the lives of the disadvantaged—in this case, by razing old, low-income, ostensibly decaying neighborhoods in favor of gigantic public-housing skyscrapers—did incalculable harm to those it was designed to help.
This has been on my mind in recent weeks, as the national school-closure conversation has flared. Much of that conversation is familiar, but one assertion made by critics, namely that school closures destabilize entire neighborhoods, raises a question that hasn’t been discussed nearly enough. And though some might wave it away as irrelevant or worse, the lessons of the Kotlowitz book force me to take it seriously:
Can a bad school be good for a neighborhood?
Might there be compelling civic or social reasons exist for keeping open persistently failing or unsafe inner-city schools?
We know there are reasons to close them. First, school turnarounds seldom work (contra the recent statement from AFT president Randi Weingarten), and closures stop us from continuing...