It's my pleasure to feature a guest post from Rita Rathbone, a teacher and blogger in NC. She writes regularly at Patiently Impatient.
The debate over charter schools has slowly spread into wider and wider circles of public discourse. In response to data supported concerns that charter schools are contributing to the resegregation of our schools, the NAACP and Black Lives Matter have expressed concerns. Some charter school advocates have taking an interesting stance in response. They propose that perhaps desegregating our schools is just too hard, too expensive, and too time consuming and simply shouldn’t be a goal or focus of education policy. A good example of this is a recent piece by Peter Cunningham. He leaves the reader with this question:
“So here's the question: Should America spend hundreds of billions more to reduce poverty and should we risk more bitter battles to reduce segregation, or should we just double down on our efforts to improve schools? The liberal in me says we should do both. The pragmatist in me wonders if we can."
The sheer absurdity of the question begs for a piece of satire along the lines of “A Modest Proposal.” This perplexing stance on desegregation, which seems to be held by a number of influential people in the world of education reform, isn’t really all that perplexing—it is the policy corner they have backed themselves into. This is exactly where the rabbit hole of uncritical support for school choice, accountability, and faith in “market forces” leads.
Lets start by addressing two important logical fallacies in this line of thinking. If desegregation is too complex and difficult of a problem for public schools to address, then so is the similarly vexing problem of poverty. If schools have no business solving segregation, then they have no business solving poverty. However, those who advocate education reform often espouse that very idea—that education is the solution to poverty. So it is our job as educators to end poverty, but when it comes to segregation, we must throw our hands up in despair because there is nothing to be done. Or just focus on instruction as if poverty and segregation have no impact on student learning. Reformers chide those who cite the numerous significant obstacles that child poverty presents schools as just “making excuses.” In that case, then it would appear that education reformers are just “making excuses” in regards to the issue of segregation.
Many within the education reform movement also see traditional public schools as rife with systemic racism. Therefore, the only way to ensure positive outcomes for students of color is by “disrupting” the system, introducing competition, and providing charter schools outside of the system. However, when faced with the data showing that charter schools are resegregating our schools (specifically in the case of white parents using charter schools to avoid diverse school environments), suddenly the issue is not systemic but simply the choices of racist parents. If you believe that systemic racism exists in traditional systems and elected boards, then you must also accept that is exists in other systems, such as charter schools and their non-elected boards. If you believe that racism is only the result of the actions of individual bad actors, then the public school system cannot be at fault (unless of course you believe the whole staff was hired from a Klan rally). Systemic racism must be addressed in all systems, including charter schools.
Education reform policies must shoulder some blame for the current state of resegregated schools, not just for blindly pushing a charter school agenda, but also for the proliferation of a narrative of failing schools. The goal of “reforming” public schools necessitated a narrative proving that they are in need of reform. Instead of a narrative of needed soul-searching, reorganization, renewed focus, community engagement, funding structures, teacher training, cultural responsiveness, addressing oppressive practices, or any of the other dozen legitimate issues of school and district improvement, it was quicker and easier to label public schools as failing.
Of course most education reform advocates profess motives as pure as the freshly driven snow. Even when true, this narrative aligned itself with the narrative of failing public schools pushed by those whose agenda is privatization of our public resources and profiteering. This narrative also conveniently fit the within the coded language of white parents who (consciously or not) found undesirable the prospect of sending students to truly diverse schools, or schools where white students are a minority. Instead of repudiating the use of such a narrative in dog whistle fashion, most in the education reform movement has remained silent. It is a disturbingly Trumpian move (you know, he can’t help if Neo-Nazis and the KKK choose to endorse him, right?). Unfair and unreasonable moving targets of accountability further fueled the narrative of failing schools; accountability mandates that were also provided without the necessary resources and support needed to meet them.
In my experience, the root of the struggle of public schools today is the damage brought by this narrative; seeds that were sowed far and wide in the fertile fields of white privilege. The public has lost faith in even the potentials of our public schools. Not because they should, not because it is justified, but because education reformers told them to. The reform movement relied so heavily on the narrative of failing schools the damaged just snowballed. Now traditional public schools simply can't do anything right in face of evidence to the contrary. In yet another irony, education reformers have done exactly what the accuse teachers of doing but setting low expectations for disadvantaged students. Public schools are just like a disadvantaged student. We have been branded a failure; branded hopeless. Since we cannot reach the unreasonable expectations some have set for us, we are now given only the lowest expectations. We are the victims of the low expectations set by those who control the narrative.
The result is that many in our communities are no longer deeply invested in the success of public schools because they have been lead to believe we are beyond repair. All the efforts to reform public schools based on market models has change the perception of public schools from a collaborative effort to make our society a better place but factories of individual student achievement. Students and families are now customers, not collaborators. The result is a selfish competitiveness that has destroyed the soul of public education. To add insult to injury, those of us who dare speak out on behalf of the power and promise of our public schools are branded “defenders of the status quo,” a fact that could not be farther from the truth.
Do not underestimate the power of this narrative. Traditional public schools have successfully been branded uncool, undesirable along with other “public” entities. Part of the larger push for privatization is the careful crafting of a dog whistle narrative of public things as inferior, as only used by the poor and undesirable (to most whites unconsciously synonymous with black and brown people). To call the popularity of charters as being driven by “market forces” is hardly fair when the playing field has been rigged by a marketing machine that traditional districts cannot match. Public policy is often about encouraging people to make better choices. We have succeeded in changing public narratives on things like healthy life styles. Now fruits and vegetables are cool and smoking is not (I sure wish that was true during my formative years). If a public narrative can move McDonalds to a healthier menu, anything is possible. Think of where we could be today if the education reform narrative had not been, “our schools are failing” but “our schools need help, lets invest our time, energy, and money on improving them.” Truly integrated, diverse public schools are the best thing for the health of our democracy—that is the narrative that we must craft.
Integration the Right Way
When discussing the issue of school segregation, it is important to remember that most parts of the country never achieved integration in the first place. Many strategies were used to ensure the creation of white public school enclaves while skirting segregationist practices that would draw the attention of the courts. Some communities made halfhearted attempts at integration that failed. In many parts of the South, however, steely determination from a variety of parties, a multitude of strategies, and federal action equaled success. In the years following the Brown decision, my home of North Carolina was the most integrated state level educational system in the country. Those gains have been slowly walked back through the actions of conservative judicial appointments and policy decisions of state and local lawmakers, including the impact of voucher programs and lax charter policy. It is not accurate to say the school integration efforts have failed; powerful individuals and small groups have intentionally and systemically worked to undermine them, often against the collective will of communities. When desegregation was successful, it involved the control and crafting of a narrative that supported it as well as both small and large policy steps. Good public policy simply makes positive choices slightly easier than negative ones. There is nothing impossible about it.
Past integration efforts also illustrate some of the many possible pitfalls. Historically, integration has been done on white terms. Integration cannot come with the assumption of the inferiority of non-white educational environments.
After the fall of Jim Crow, it was the black schools that were shuttered and the black teachers and principals that were laid off. The assumption of superiority of white schools my have been true in the case of facilities and resources, but not necessarily in terms of instruction. Excellence can and does exist in all black or all brown spaces. Black and brown spaces also provide affirmation to students of their dignity and culture.
Ironically, it is often these very schools that have been labeled as “failures” by school accountability measures and shuttered. In the name of “improved” education, we often send students of color into spaces that are not culturally responsive and not affirming to their dignity and culture. In that case, it is easy to see while communities of color embrace a responsive charter school, even with uncertified teachers and fewer resources. We should not accept that this is the best we can do for underserved communities of color. They deserve the same culturally responsive, community controlled, fully funded, integrated public schools that more privileged communities receive.
Integration must be paired with cultural responsiveness.
We must also be mindful of who benefits from school integration. Those outside of the dominant culture (white, middle-class) often learn to negotiate diverse environments out of necessity. White people, however, can easily access enclaves of whiteness where little interaction with diverse individuals is required. The idea is that integrated environments are good for students because it gives them a competitive edge in the diverse workplaces. However, when that benefit is bestowed inequitably on white students or when the assumption is that student of color must adapt and conform to superior, white middle-class norms, then there is a problem.
Integration cannot be paired with the assumed superiority of whiteness.
The Urgent and the Important
The world of education leadership has long held dear a concept that is credited to President Eisenhower—we must never let the urgent get in the way of the important. It is an easy trap to fall into. A constant state of crisis in our public schools keeps us so busy that the things that are of the most importance go untended. While appreciating and addressing the urgency of improving educational outcomes for all students, we cannot loose sight what is truly of lasting importance in our public schools. The solutions proposed by the education reform movement have always been a Band-Aid at best. The misguided “pragmatism” that has some questioning the value of a focus on integration does exactly that—it sacrifices the important in the name of the urgent to the detriment of both current and future students.
Rita Rathbone is a lifelong resident of North Carolina. She is a teacher, magnet coordinator, and curriculum specialist in the Durham Public Schools in Durham, NC. Rita is obsessed with all things Lego and is, in her words, a damn fine cook. Follow her on Twitter at @patimpteach