Closures of Black K-12 schools across the nation threaten neighborhood stability

by Jerome Morris, University of Missouri-St. Louis

Residents of the St. Louis neighborhood known as The Ville have been fighting for years to stop the closing of Charles H. Sumner High School, the oldest historically Black high school west of the Mississippi River.

Sumner High School has been under repeated threats of closure from the school board and the superintendent, who cite declining enrollment. The most recent such threat arose in December 2020.

Established in 1875, Sumner High is named after a former U.S. senator who vehemently opposed slavery. The school’s alumni represent a who’s who of Black people, including rock stars Tina Turner and Chuck Berry, comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory and tennis legend Arthur Ashe.

A June 2021 protest to keep Dunbar Elementary School in St. Louis from becoming a virtual-only school. Tenille Rose Martin, CC BY-NC-ND

Throughout Black people’s history in the U.S., predominantly Black K-12 schools have served as pillars in Black communities. Their importance is second only in significance to the Black church. Neighborhood schools help stabilize communities and foster a sense of belonging for children, serving as a foundation for academic achievement.

This is why many parents, community members, activists and even researchers like me who have studied contemporary Black K-12 schools find the shuttering of predominantly Black schools – despite the rich history and success of some of these schools – to be disconcerting.

High school class photo from 1931
Graduating class of Sumner High School in January 1931. Missouri Historical Society

Epidemic of closings

Sumner High has been spared for the time being.

But other historically Black schools, such as Paul Laurence Dunbar Elementary in St. Louis, have not been so lucky. Dunbar Elementary, named after the famous Black poet and writer, will no longer physically enroll students. District leaders said they want to convert Dunbar to a virtual school beginning in August 2021. This led parents, community members and activists to protest the superintendent and school board’s decision, asserting that the physical closing of the school removes a key pillar in the historic Black Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood.

Two urban schools that I have researched, both renowned for educating low-income Black students, were also recently shuttered. Gentrification and the emergence of charter schools contributed to an enrollment decline at Whitefoord Elementary in Atlanta, leading it to close its doors in 2017 after serving the community for 93 years. Farragut Elementary in St. Louis – also located in The Ville – closed in May 2021. The rationale once more: declining enrollment.

As recently as the early 2000s, Black students attending Whitefoord and Farragut outperformed Black students at other schools in their respective cities, including those at magnet and charter schools, on standardized tests.

These school closings are part of an epidemic of Black public school closures in U.S. cities across the country, including in Atlanta, St. Louis, New Orleans, Baltimore and Chicago.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 1,310 schools closed in 2017-18, affecting 267,000 students.

Black and poor students are disproportionately affected by these closures. For example, Black students comprise 31% of the students in urban public schools but represent 61% of students in those that closed.

Human costs

Sumner High School stands just 10 miles from the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, where protesters marched throughout the summer of 2014 to demand justice for the police killing of Michael Brown.

Protest flyer with photos of St. Louis public school buildings
Flyer for a rally in St. Louis to protest the closing of neighborhood schools in Black communities.

Amid national rallying cries and hashtags that “Black Lives Matter,” I believe greater attention needs to be given to efforts aimed at stopping the closing of Black K-12 public schools. Just as the Black Lives Matter movement demands a stop to the unjust killing of Black people, residents of predominantly Black communities throughout the U.S. are also fighting to stop the killing of their communities through school closures.

Superintendents and school boards often present their cases for closing schools using race-neutral language and statistics about low performance, dwindling enrollments and high operating costs. Rarely factored into the equation are the historical and social circumstances and policies – racism, persistent underfunding of Black education, redlining, disinvestment in Black neighborhoods and desegregation – that gave rise to those statistics.

Moreover, missing from these analyses are the human costs related to closing schools in already struggling neighborhoods. When policymakers remove schools from vulnerable communities, they remove some of the few stabilizing institutions. These buildings often sit vacant for years and become eyesores and objects of vandalism.

Racial reckoning

I raise these concerns within this time of racial reckoning that purports to value Black institutions. A rush of philanthropic and governmental dollars as a result of protests for Black lives has recently targeted Black businesses, civil rights and social justice organizations, as well as historically Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs.

HBCUs have rightfully received additional resources for their work educating generations of Black students. But I believe that to serve Black children, proponents of Black education must extend this support to include Black K-12 public schools. I see three main reasons for this.

First, of the 7.7 million Black children who attend public elementary or high schools today, 3.3 million go to schools that are 50% or more Black. Almost 2 million Black students attend schools that are at least 75% Black. Conversely, roughly 200,000 Black students attended the nation’s HBCUs in 2018.

I find it disingenuous for governmental agencies and philanthropies to provide economic support to Black students at the university level but not at the K-12 level, which comprises the most critical phases of their educational and social development.

Second, the circumstances for Black students who abruptly leave closed schools do not get better. Students from closed schools often experience a decline in math test scores, rarely transfer to better-performing schools and suffer social and academic disruption.

And finally, saving Black K-12 public schools is linked to broader efforts to support Black communities, families and children. In supporting Black schools, policymakers can help re-anchor struggling Black communities. This holistic focus entails supporting families with education and job-training programs, stimulating local Black-owned businesses and supporting neighborhood organizations that serve kids and families.

Next steps

How can this be done? As with the recent passage of stimulus bills to stabilize the economy and families affected by COVID-19, governmental and philanthropic dollars must complement local dollars to counter funding gaps for schools that predominantly serve Black students and improve the infrastructure of those schools.

Providing financial support to end the massive closing of K-12 Black public schools – which are charged with educating millions of Black students on the racial and economic margins – would make an emphatic statement that Black lives truly matter.The Conversation

Republished with permission under license from The Conversation

Driver’s license suspensions for failure to pay fines inflict particular harm on Black drivers

By Sian Mughan, Arizona State University

Imagine being unable to pay a US$50 traffic ticket and, as a result, facing mounting fees so high that even after paying hundreds, maybe thousands, of dollars toward your debt you still owe money.

Imagine being fired from your job because you’ve been forced to use unreliable public transportation instead of your car.

And imagine going to jail several times because, even though your license is suspended, you had to drive to work.

These are some of the situations facing millions of Americans who were unable to pay fines – and whose lives were turned into a nightmare by overly punitive policies in response.

And these policies have an outsize, and damaging, impact on Black Americans, according to our research.

Black drivers are more likely to encounter police regardless of how they drive, research shows. Rich Legg/Getty Images

Cycles of debt

Most cities and states have policies that allow them to suspend a driver’s license for nonpayment of fines and fees, most commonly traffic fines.

These policies are so popular that judges have described them as “the most valuable tool available to the municipal courts for inducing payment on past due accounts.”

Studying the effects of these policies can be difficult because there is no uniform national reporting of crime statistics.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that failure to pay fines – not dangerous driving – is the most common reason for driver’s license suspensions in the United States.

And research indicates that these burdens are primarily borne by low-income people and people of color.

As a public affairs scholar who has written extensively about labor markets and criminal justice systems, I’ve conducted research with Joanna Carroll supports these conclusions.

But it also illuminates a previously unknown racial inequality of the policy.

Our research suggests that, by appearing on the driver’s record, license suspensions increase the probability that Black – but not white – drivers incur more traffic tickets. Even after the debt is paid and the license regained, these suspensions continue to harm drivers, and these harms exclusively affect Black drivers.

This shows that suspensions don’t just trap people in a cycle of mounting debt but also a cycle of negative interactions with the criminal justice system.

Long-term impact of suspensions

We studied a sample of over 2,000 drivers who received traffic tickets in Marion County, Indiana, home to Indianapolis, between 2011 and 2016.

In that county, if a driver fails to pay or contest a ticket within 72 days, their license is automatically suspended. This means that judges and other members of the justice system cannot choose who receives a suspension.

Every driver in our sample paid their ticket in the days surrounding the payment deadline.

This is an ideal environment to study the long-term impacts of suspensions because it creates two groups of people that are easily comparable: those who paid the ticket right before the deadline, thus avoiding a suspension, and those who paid after the deadline and received a suspension.

We found that Black drivers who received a failure-to-pay suspension increased their likelihood of getting another ticket by up to nine percentage points. White drivers, meanwhile, saw a roughly three percentage point decrease in their likelihood of getting another ticket.

We attempted to identify differences between white and Black drivers that might explain this result but were unable to do so. For example, Black drivers are not committing more offenses than white drivers, nor are the offenses they commit more serious. Black drivers are just as likely as white drivers to pay their tickets. And Black drivers are more likely than white drivers to reinstate their license after the suspension.

Moreover, regardless of race, following the suspension, drivers with larger fines are less likely to receive another ticket, suggesting that all drivers drive more cautiously after getting a suspension, likely to reduce the probability of receiving another ticket. This is consistent with previous studies on the effects of traffic policies, which show traffic enforcement leads to safer driving.

Ineffective strategies for Black drivers

We believe the most convincing explanation for our findings is that driving “better” to avoid being pulled over is an ineffective strategy for Black drivers, who are more likely to have an encounter with police regardless of how they drive.

This interpretation is consistent with studies showing Black people are more likely to be pulled over without cause. After pulling over a Black driver, the police officer discovers the prior failure-to-pay suspension and becomes more likely to issue a ticket.

This sequence of events does not occur when the driver is white because white drivers are able to minimize the chance of being pulled over by changing their driving behavior.

Our research is the first to study failure-to-pay suspensions in the United States, and it’s the first to demonstrate that they exert disproportionate harm on Black drivers.

This evidence could prove relevant to policymakers in states across the county who are currently debating discontinuing license suspension for nonpayment of legal debts.

Dr. Joanna Carroll co-authored this research while she was at Indiana University. She currently works at the Government Accountability Office.The Conversation

Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.

IRS hitting you with a fine or late fee? Don’t fret – a consumer tax advocate says you still have options

By Rita W. Green, University of Memphis

Tax Day has come and gone, and you think you filed your return in the nick of time. But several weeks later you receive that dreaded letter in the mail from the Internal Revenue Service informing you of missing the deadline and failing to pay your tax bill on time. Your assessed tax penalty, based on what you owe, is $450.

This type of scenario is quite common, since penalties are assessed for over 40 million taxpayers each year, according to the Taxpayer Advocacy Panel’s 2020 report. There are numerous IRS penalties, but the three most common ones are failure to file a return on time, failure to pay the estimated amount owed from the past year and failure to pay after filing.

For many taxpayers, it doesn’t end on Tax Day. Constantine Johnny/ Moment via Getty Images

What many people don’t know is that the IRS offers several ways to reduce late fees and other penalties. Yet only a fraction of those who are eligible take advantage of them.

As a professor of accounting and a consumer advocate, I tend to be concerned when I identify a benefit that has been underutilized. I also serve as a volunteer on the Taxpayer Advocacy Panel, an independent body that aims to help the IRS improve based on outreach and feedback from the general public.

We recently discussed the low utilization of a key penalty relief program, which prompted me to write this article.

Applying for penalty relief

The main form of relief the IRS offers to taxpayers is the first-time penalty abatement policy, which was introduced about two decades ago. It covers penalties related to a failure to file, a failure to pay or a failure to deposit the estimated taxes owed.

This program can lead to a reduction or even removal of a taxpayer’s penalty – though not the tax liability – if you meet certain conditions:

  • You didn’t previously have to file a return – because you earned too little money, for example – or you’ve had no penalties for the previous three years.

  • You filed all required returns or extensions.

  • You paid or arranged to pay any tax due.

It’s also available to taxpayers who live in areas affected by specific disasters for whom the tax deadline has been extended.

If you currently meet the first two requirements, you can still make arrangements to pay the tax you owe and then request the abatement.

In 2019, only 12% of the penalties for failure to file and failure to pay were abated.

The most common reason for the low number of abatements appears to be that many taxpayers who would otherwise qualify for relief aren’t aware this program even exists. Requesting relief is as simple as phoning the IRS and requesting it, or you may ask for it in writing.

Other resources available

In addition to penalty prevention and penalty relief, other resources are available to taxpayers who need help after Tax Day.

The taxpayer advocate service is an independent organization within the IRS, and its local taxpayer advocates provide free help to any taxpayer to provide guidance through the process of resolving tax problems. There’s at least one in every state.

The IRS also supports Low-Income Tax Clinics, which are staffed with attorneys and other professionals to help low-income filers with tax disputes that may require legal intervention. While it can be difficult to reverse penalties or challenge other IRS decisions, taxpayers with legal help stand a much better chance of succeeding with their claims.

An ounce of penalty prevention

Many people may be familiar with Benjamin Franklin’s assertion that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

No one enjoys paying taxes, but additional penalties can make a bad situation even worse. The good news is most penalties can be avoided by filing taxes on time and paying any taxes due. If you are unable to pay all of the taxes due right away, you can always establish a payment plan.

So next year, remember there are many resources available to you to make it easier to file on time – free, in most cases – and to avoid penalties. And taxpayer advocates are available to answer any tricky questions.The Conversation

Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.