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Seemingly conceding the error of his ways in his efforts to spur education reform, President Barack Obama tweeted last week that “education reform isn’t a cure-all.” Agreeing with the premise of a recent Atlantic article that argued inequality in our country won’t be eradicated by reforming schools, Obama went on to state that “fixing educational inequality requires doing more to address the broader, systemic sources of economic inequality.”
Notwithstanding the apparent flip-flop, Obama still seems to miss the point: Educational inequality is an outcome of larger, systemic issues. Schools will improve when we remove racist policies and practices that throttle educational and economic growth and invest instead in black communities and people.
Those broader systemic problems include a labor market rife with discrimination in which fewer blacks are consistently hired. Confronting employment discrimination will undoubtedly help address schools’ need to recruit more teachers of color. Another facet of these pervasive problems is a criminal justice system that imprisons more black Americans, who made up only 12 percent of the U.S. population in 2017, than white Americans, who made up 64 percent of the adult population. In schools this broken system is reflected in no-tolerance discipline policies, born of criminal statutes from the ’80s and ’90s that imposed a mandatory life sentence for a third serious offense, that criminalize student behavior. These policies help feed the school-to-prison pipeline, which sees students going to jail for minor school infractions Discriminatory pricing of real estate, which deprives blacks of the ability to accumulate wealth in the form of equity, is another symptom of system-wide failures.
Last November, President Trump signed the First Step Act, the bipartisan criminal justice reform bill that softened many of our harsh sentencing laws. Reforming the criminal justice system should foreshadow reforms to school discipline policies and lead to a reduction in the number of suspension and expulsion of black students in all kinds of schools. Reversing the home devaluation in majority-black neighborhoods can also lead to improved outcomes for students of color by bringing more revenue to districts. A report from the education advocacy nonprofit EdBuild found that the schools across the country that serve mostly students of color collectively receive $23 billion less than predominately white districts.
In other words, black children are more likely to thrive if our education plans are mindful of systemic issues.
Related: Can teachers live where they work?
After more than 25 years of education reform, we can see that looking at schools and districts as the source of the problem created “solutions” that made matters worse for communities. Reformers focused on test scores and ignored higher-order community goals. Taking over and breaking up school districts — a popular tool in reformers’ toolbox — created community-wide discord and eroded political representation on school boards in places like New Orleans. Reformers’ expansion of school choice accelerated gentrification. The use of itinerant and often white workers from organizations such as Teach for America has not helped cities with a high percentage of charter schools build up the black middle-class. The no-tolerance discipline policies that many charter schools implemented seemed to exacerbate problems black people already have.
When the problem hasn’t been accurately defined, it’s practically inevitable that the solution won’t work. Thus panaceas resulting from attempts to fix schools actually hurt communities.
The idea that urban schools, districts and institutions need fixing comes from a deep-seated devaluation of black people, in which any capacity of black people and their institutions that can be built upon for growth is denied. Black people are not problems needing to be fixed; discrimination, inequality and inequity need to be fixed. When black people, their communities and institutions are devalued, there can be no real solution.
Obama isn’t the only leading Democrat to back away from education reform, and from charter schools in particular. Almost every Democrat vying for the presidential nomination has voiced displeasure with the reform movement. Bernie Sanders called for a ban and moratorium on for-profit schools as part of his “Thurgood Marshall Plan for Public Education.” In a May 2019 tweet, Sanders wrote, “Charter schools are led by unaccountable, private bodies, and their growth has drained funding from the public school system.” Also in May, presidential hopeful Sen. Elizabeth Warren said in a discussion about Betsy DeVos at a Rockingham County Democrats’ clambake, “Yeah, I think it’s [for-profit charters schools] a real problem right now … I think public tax dollars should stay in our public schools.” During the Los Angeles teachers strike, a spokesperson for Sen. Kamala Harris told The Intercept the senator is “particularly concerned with expansions of for-profit charter schools and believes all charter schools need transparency and accountability.” While some Democratic presidential candidates leave room for charter schools and certain kinds of reforms, most are backing away from the movement for fear it will hurt their election chances.
While I frequently criticize the current education reform movement and charter schools, I don’t believe banning the privately managed, publicly financed schools that helped define a reform era will resolve inequality. We must evaluate why this reform movement has mostly failed to deliver on promises for radical change: Education reformers’ attempts to fix black students, teachers and districts rather than address the systemic inequality that pushes blacks to the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid.
There may not be any quick fixes, but families still deserve to hear how candidates will change larger economic structures in ways that will improve children’s educational outcomes. Saying you’re against charter schools doesn’t get more black and brown teachers hired. What can we do to bolster teacher pay and retirement plans to make a career in teaching more attractive? Taking a stand against reform schools doesn’t dismantle inequitable school financing systems, driven by property taxes. What infrastructure plan will the candidates present that will put more families to work and increase the number of quality neighborhood schools in majority-black districts?
Real education reform has always been about empowering black and brown districts and families through structural change. If a reform doesn’t increase job opportunities, income, and academic performance while decreasing suspension, expulsion and arrests, then it’s not really the change we need.