It’s NOT an economics issue, it’s a human rights issue!

Last week, I published a piece on Brown v. Board of Education’s implications for administrators.  When discussing this in my graduate class, I explained how Brown v. Board of Education’s stance that, “Such an opportunity [education], where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms” means that we as educators have the obligation to provide quality education to all students who attend our public schools.  Although most schools have been desegregated, poorly performing public schools are still failing to provide quality education to all students.  I must say, I was not prepared for such an unethical rebuttal from one of my classmates.

“Well, it’s an economics issue, schools are funded based on property taxes, and so naturally, poorly performing schools are underfunded as a result of the environment they are in.  If students don’t want to go to those schools they have the right to choice out.”

I really had to bite my tongue at this point, as many people in the class were agreeing about the issue being due to economics.  First of all, we cannot sit back and blame the issue on poverty.  Yes, the way that schools are funded is inequitable, but that doesn’t mean that they should be poorly performing.

As for school choice, let’s just imagine this very common  scenario: A fifth grader is doing well at his elementary school, the middle school he will be assigned to as a result of the neighborhood he lives in is under-performing.  He is an only child in a single-parent household where his mother is working long, 12-hour days split between two part-time jobs just to pay the rent.  She barely speaks English, hasn’t heard about school choice, nor is she able to understand the school’s performance report-card that was sent home at the beginning of the year.

Not every child can or will choice out of poorly performing schools.  It would be impossible to choice-place thousands of children, most are ill-informed even about the possibility of school choice, and by giving kids the option to choice out, we are not addressing the fundamental educational inequity that Brown v. Board sought to address.

The implications I mentioned above for administrators are timely.  Congress has just passed the Student Success Act, which places emphasis on state and local districts to turnaround poorly performing schools.

The Student Success Act dramatically reduces the federal role in education by returning authority for measuring student performance and turning around low-performing schools to states and local officials.

Similar to the sentiments of my classmate above, the Bill provides a substantial investment into the growth of national charter school networks and emphasizes parent’s rights to school choice.  Basically, the Federal Government is throwing their arms up when it comes to their involvement in turning around poorly performing schools and hoping that more charter schools and increase school choice will put pressure on state and local officials to improve the schools.

Therefore, it is crucial now, more than ever, that we educators are prepared to fight this good fight.  We have the responsibility to improve our schools.  It is up to teachers and school and district leadership to do what we can to make educational opportunity available to all on equal terms. Finally, I can’t help but think, that if you feel educational inequity is an economics issue, you’re in the wrong business.

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“Mr. Duarte, shouldn’t you be teaching at one of those white schools?”

Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms. (Brown vs. Board of Education, 1954)

It’s been over sixty years since the Supreme Court ruled in the landmark civil right’s case, Brown vs. Board of Education, that separate but equal schools have no place because separate schools are inherently unequal.  When asked to write about the implications of this decision for school administrators today, I found myself lamenting about the responsibility we have to close the achievement gap.  Since, this gap, proves that many of our schools serving low-income and students of color are in fact, inherently unequal.  Here are the demographics and state accountability rating of the school I taught at:

  • 31% African American
  • 46% Hispanic
  • 88% Low Income
  • Among the lowest achieving and least improving schools in the state

In my second year at the school, I had a student ask me, “Why are you teaching here?  You expect us to do so much work, you should be working in one of those white schools somewhere near where you live or where you grew up.”  My heart was instantly shattered.  This was a student who had been completely critical of everything I had been trying to do, she would make an effort to derail my lesson on a daily basis.  She had been challenging me this whole time and up until this moment, I couldn’t figure out why.  You see, this student represents the typical feeling of a child growing up in a community with poorly performing schools.  As Brown v. Board stated, “A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn.”  My heart broke in pieces when she said this because I instantly understood that up until her 8th grade English class, she had been lead to believe that she was inferior; that she didn’t deserve a good teacher, that she didn’t deserve a quality education or the chance to go to college.  She didn’t believe that the school I was teaching at was good enough to have me and that she was good enough to be in my class.  I finally understood why she was challenging me; she didn’t think she could perform in my class because she never had a teacher that made her feel that she could achieve.

Isn’t that an educator’s essential job?  Aren’t we supposed to be the cheerleaders for our students?  Aren’t we supposed to tell them that they can achieve their wildests dreams?  How can we look a child in the face and say, “No, you cannot be an astronaut beucase you attend one of the lowest achieveing schools in the state, which will put you behind everyone else that will be competing for that job.”?  Now, of course this sounds a little harsh, but isn’t it essentially what we are doing in our public schools?  If an eighth grader can look me in the face and tell me I’m too good a teacher to be working in her school because of where its located and who it serves, we are violating the very right cited in Brown v. Board;the opportunity of an education to be made available to all on equal terms.