It’s not about the failings of public education, it’s about how we fail to show up for Black and brown children.
Part II: How We’ve Shown Up
A host of responses have been offered to address this issue — some of them claiming (wrongly) that the entire public education system is failing and must be done away with. Others have been focused on the behaviors and choices of students and families. Some have come with disciplined “no excuses” school environments to counter (presumably) chaotic family or neighborhood cultures. States have offered vouchers to families who want out of their “failing” neighborhood schools while others offer free admission and bus service to their “innovative” school across town. Powerful groups have used state legislatures to shift the governance of schools — and control of money — from school boards to school sites. Running through all of these responses is the belief that individual, private choices or collective choices by the powerful are enough to address systemic failings. That belief, however, is just not holding up against the facts.
New Orleans has been host to the whole suite of school reform schemes over the last six decades — from desegregation to magnets to vouchers to charters. And for all of the reform, choices, innovation and money, the city’s public schools are still highly inequitable, segregated and not of the highest quality by the system’s own standards. Half of the top-performing public schools in the city have some formal structural barrier to entry. “A” and “B” rated schools, with a few notable exceptions, are still designated places for white people, from students to experienced teachers. While white students make up 9% of the overall public school student population, they are 33% of the student body at the top performing schools, and less than 1% in the failing schools. 12,000 children attend schools rated “D” or “F” and 100% of those schools are over 90% Black and poor. We can also look at ACT scores to see where students are at the end of their K-12 journey in New Orleans. Last year, the average composite ACT score was 18.6 — just barely high enough for most students to enter college without taking remedial courses. And, unsurprisingly, the schools with the most students scoring the highest ACT scores in the city are either selective enrollment or otherwise highly rated schools that are difficult for the average child in New Orleans to access.
For all of their fanfare and promises none of these school reform responses — some dating back to the 1950’s — have been able to dramatically shift outcomes for Black and brown children on a population level. And New Orleans isn’t alone. Other cities where conversations of “failing” schools and “school reform” are highly concentrated like Baltimore, Detroit, and Philadelphia find themselves in similar predicaments. Though vastly different in terms of location, size, economies and culture they share key attributes: urban centers with sizeable Black, brown and poor populations, often included on the Who’s Who list of social disadvantages that we know endanger children’s ability to thrive: high minority poverty, a lack of affordable housing, disproportionate minority burden of chronic health issues related to poor housing and environmental stressors, rising cost of living, high minority unemployment, violence, hyper surveillance and over-criminalization of majority-minority neighborhoods, and growing incarceration rates. Further, the solutions offered about what to do about all of this remain the same and are limited to a focus on the choices and behaviors of students and families- holding central the belief that individual, private choices are enough to address historical, widespread and systemic failings.
Yet, we understand that the segregation of all students, and the criminalization and under preparedness of some is about more than just teaching and learning. When we have whole cities failing millions of children it’s time that we adjust our focus from individual choices to the systemic decisions that need to be made to eliminate harm, repair injury and provide a better foundation for all of our children.