It is an understatement to say that those who work with public schools are not thrilled with the appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. Her aversion to public schooling is on display every time she speaks publicly. Since public schools are not getting any help from Washington, it is on all of us to defend public education now.
There are lots of issues in education to take on, and some will dispute me on these, but here are four critical areas of work that I think need to be taken on to help public schools now:
- School safety: Support the the right of children to attend schools without worry of gun violence, as well as restorative practices so that schools are actively peaceful places. The drive for these changes come straight from the youth themselves, from the Black Lives Matter campaign and the Parkland students.
- Fight for funding and salary increases: There are teachers all over the country that are working very hard for little pay. Each year there are increasing demands on teachers from having the burden of too much testing to cuts in mental health and social supports for students, all while more and more students in poverty show up at schoolhouse doors every day. The arts and libraries have been cut dramatically from school. The need for funding in public schools is critical, and living wage for teachers is a crucial part of increasing the funding to schools. Many states around the country are involved in battles over school funding. In Maryland, where I live, there are two bills at the state legislature now to increase school funding, but only one HB557 is demanding that school funding be increased immediately. Find your local bill or organization to support in this struggle.
- Protecting unions: Teachers are striking around the country. They have had it with state austerity plans that drain their schools and their pensions of funding, while asking teachers to do more with less every day. Teachers buy their own school supplies, take on second jobs, and still find time to coach, run an after school program, or sit on the PTA. SCOTUS is considering a case now that will make or break unions. Known as the Janus case, the court is deciding whether union membership can be optional essentially. If the court decides that union membership is optional, then we can say goodbye to union protections for teachers and many other workers. This would be destructive to teachers who would suddenly have no job protection, and would discourage future teachers from going into the field. The final decision should come down in June and will tell us if the unions will continue to strengthen or will this be their last gasp.
- Combat privatization: Our Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, is trying promote privatization throughout the public school system. She just submitted a budget in which pubic school funding would be slashed, cutting after school programs and professional development for teachers while increasing funding for vouchers and other school choice schemes. Call you legislators to tell them to turn down this budget, and to not approve a new one unless it fully supports public schools.
Recently, I wrote an op-ed in a local online magazine called The Baltimore Brew. I wrote about the state of Maryland’s appointed commission to address education inequity, The Kirwan Commission. Kirwan, as it is known locally, had as its main charge to deal with funding inequity in the state to address disparities between poor and affluent school districts. In Maryland, this comes down to a decision to fully fund Baltimore’s, mostly Black schools. The commission had a year to come up with a new funding plan, and did not. This was disappointing to many, but as I say in the piece, there is not enough political will to pressure the commission into coming up with a solution to this issue. Rather, we are content to demonize the poorest, and Blackest communities, leaving them without the funding needed to educate and support children.
I was happy to see that a lot of people read my article, and it got me recognized in several other local media outlets. I appeared on Maryland Public Television, debating the issue of school funding as well as the Real News Network, and The Baltimore Sun. I was also able to make the case again that school closings are linked to the problems of funding because the lack of adequate funds have drained the schools of resources for years, causing their inability to meet student needs. What continues to happen in Baltimore is closing of schools that are in the center of Black communities, leaving them without community resources.
Of course, it is great that the local media is picking up this story, but there are still not enough people engaged in the debate and conversation about school funding and school closings. It is a larger conversation about whether we value public education, and for whom we think public education should be available. We need to all invest in this dialogue. Without public education, many young people (mainly Black and Brown) and their families would not have access to food, social services, community space, organized recreational activities, as well as schooling. The time is now to engage so that we can advocate for racial equity in public education.
Recently This American Life did a two part series on school integration. These episodes were the first time I had heard anyone publicly address the issue of school integration in a long time. School integration, while tried and was successful in some places, has been largely abandoned as a school reform strategy. The first episode deals with a black school district outside of St. Louis, not far from Ferguson, that lost its state accreditation. Families in the district, called Normandy, were offered spots in a nearby white district. When white families heard about the Normandy students coming to their district, they protested. White families went into arguments about worrying about their school district losing accreditation and fears of violence when the new children came into their schools. One white woman even said, “this is not about race,” but clearly it was. What else could it be about? Similar arguments were used in Yonkers to keep blacks from moving in to white sections of town in the 1980’s depicted in David Simon’s Show Me A Hero where whites worried about declining property values.
Today we are more segregated than ever, or what some people have called, hyper-segregated. Living separate lives have led to tremendous misunderstandings, resource inequity, and violence. It’s really time to deal with racial fears that prevent us from improving schools and urban life in general.
So, when people ask me what will improve public schools? Or, how do we reform urban schools? I say we will need to deal with racism in order to improve all of our public schools. That sounds overwhelming or perhaps even dismissive, but it is neither. It is a way of saying that we need to think systemically, and to not blame poor communities of color for failed schools. We need to start with ourselves and begin where #Blacklivesmatter activists demand that we do by admitting our role in racial inequity, reconcile, and move from there.
When we think about the suburbs, we think affluence- big houses and lawns, not poverty. But the suburbs are becoming increasingly poor. The Brookings Institute published a report recently that explained how poverty grew by 66% in suburban communities across the country since 2000. They are also increasingly populated by people of color, and before too long whites will be in the minority altogether.
The suburbs did not start out that way, and were founded more as an escape for whites fleeing “urban” people and problems. Starting in the 1980’s, that started to change as people of color started to move to the suburbs in larger numbers and immigrants by-passed cities in favor of suburban communities.
The suburbs did not change to meet this influx of new residents though, leading to serious inequity: unequal access to employment, stable housing, and healthcare. One obvious example is transportation. The suburbs privilege transport by car, low income families who rely on public bus transportation have many more obstacles to accessing services, attending job fairs, going to work or going to school board meetings.
Problems like these do not just require a simple policy shift. They require those with power to share it in order to address the problems that are being created. That will involve spending dollars in a new way. Now that the suburbs are facing problems similar to those of cities, perhaps they can get ahead of the curve. Suburban districts need to build low income housing, health clinics, and new public transportation. Resources may need to be shifted to fund more translation services, social services, and to support bi-lingual programs in schools. These changes won’t come easy but are necessary if there is hope of equity in the ‘burbs.
My new book, The New Reality, coming out in Fall of 2015 will detail how these dynamics are playing out in suburban schools. It contains case studies of middle schools trying to sort out how to meet the needs of the students that they face when the infrastructure of the suburbs does not provide for the students and their families.