Last week I was fortunate enough to have Nekima Levy-Pounds on my Rock The Schools podcast to discuss recent proposals by the NAACP and The Movement For Black Lives to stop black parents from accessing charter schools. As a powerful BLM activist, president for the Minneapolis NAACP, civil rights attorney, and charter school parent, she is uniquely positioned to provide a fresh context to the charter school battle. Her presence is also a reminder that black organizations are not monolithic, and never have been. Too often the media and outsiders see us in one of two troubling ways: either politically single-minded or easily divided by incessant in-fighting. Yet, a new generation of activists like Nekima are disproving those false tropes by standing strong on justice, and not going weak on education.
Ultimately, the issue isn’t even about charter schools. It’s about acknowledging historic discrimination in the traditional public schools, and honoring the rights of parents to choose alternatives when education isn’t working.
The transcript below was edited for brevity – but is still long – and to make the discussion more readable. You can listen the actual podcast here.
Opening: Today we are going to discuss a topic that came up last week. It is the NAACP’s resolution to start a moratorium on charter schools. A coalition affiliated with Black Lives Matter put out a platform last week that calls for an end to the privatization of public schools and public education. This is particularly important to me because as a parent, I have chosen traditional district public schools and I have kids in traditional public schools. I’ve chosen a charter school for one of my children that I thought needed it at the time and we had deeply personal family reasons for making that choice. And I’ve also chosen a private school in the past. I actually believe that parents are the center of the universe when it comes to education. No one should try to defeat the sovereignty of parents and parenthood.
We have different kinds of kids and they have different needs in education. So it’s deeply concerning for me when anybody tries to cut off any pathways for a parent to get their kids into the type of school that they think that they need. This is what we know about our position as black people with children. We know that in about a month from now 8 million black children are going to walk into public schools that are not prepared for them, that were not designed for them and are not ready to teach them to the best of their abilities.
We know that there is a statistical certainty that these schools are going to make our kids less competitive than what they should be, and that their brilliance and their potential is not going to be honored fully by those schools. We know that the teachers that they’re going to sit in front of are not fully prepared for them. That these teachers have lower expectations for black children. They tend to punish our kids more than other teachers tend to punish our kids. They tend to see our kids as older than they actually are. This is what we know about the condition of black children in public schools.
So why our national organizations are not taking heed of the research and they are putting out policy platforms that are mostly political, mostly driven by unions?
My guest today couldn’t be more perfect for this discussion. She’s perfect in many ways. She’s my sister. Nekima Levy-Pounds. She’s not a school reformer. She’s not an anti-reformer. She’s not an ideologue. She’s not a political person in terms of what we should be thinking when it comes to our kids and education. She is an activist. She’s an attorney. She knows from her own life there is no one way to educate black children. She is the president of the NAACP in Minneapolis. These are the type of people that I think we need more of in this society. Not ideological. Just deeply down for their own people.
Nekima, thank you so much for coming on the show today.
NLP: Thanks for having me Chris.
CS: So, I want to just ask you right off the bat. What does your own life experience tell you in terms of how we close the gap between what people think, giving us options is, and how they talk about it as privatization?
NLP: Well number one, I think it’s important to recognize our legacy of being denied access to a high quality education as African Americans. As we’ve discussed on your show before, it was against the law for slaves to read and people could either be maimed or even killed for trying to read or teaching a slave how to read. And we had to take to the courts in order to get some semblance of our rights to an education. We know about the Brown vs. The Board of Education decision. That was rendered in 1954 by the United States Supreme Court. And although many people cheered for the outcome in that decision, we have not made as many gains as we should have by now in terms of education.
We should have more African Americans who are graduating from college and graduate school. Because we know that education has been a gateway to economic opportunity. When you deny African American children the right to high quality education you are essentially shutting the door to their future and what their possibilities would be. We see that happening particularly in the State of Minnesota and also around the country where African American parents have sent their children to traditional public schools and sometimes, unfortunately, their children have faced discrimination. Sometimes they have been placed in special education at disproportionate rates. They have been disciplined at disproportionate rates. And now with this phenomenon called the school to prison pipeline, they are being arrested at disproportionate rates. All of those issues play a role in denying our children access to a high quality education so some of the alternatives that have emerged have included charter schools for example.
As a black parent, when I moved to the State of Minnesota in 2003, I enrolled my children in our neighborhood school, a traditional public school. And what I found was my daughter, who was in 4th grade at the time was experiencing discrimination. Her teacher was an older white teacher and she did not recognize my child’s intellectual abilities. And my daughter did not feel comfortable in that particular classroom. I allowed her to go to that school for a couple of years and then placed her in a charter school that was focused on African American children. I did the same for my younger daughter who at the time was in pre-kindergarten and that was a tremendous experience for them. To be able to go to a school that was specifically geared towards their culture, their heritage and lifting them up as black children has played a role in the academic success they’ve had since that time. I appreciate being able to exercise choice in determining what is the best environment for my children. I don’t need anyone else telling me what is best for my children because I know them better than anyone else knows them.
“No one should try to defeat the sovereignty of parents and parenthood.”
CS: Black Lives Matter was one of the groups that made the platform for these other community groups to come in and form this “Vision for Black Lives”. They start off with Brown vs. Board in their first line. There is this large national argument about charter schools segregating students and that’s one of the rally cries. “We must integrate the students back in and charter schools are stopping that”. The story that you just told me is a little different than that which is why I’d like to bring it up. Because not every black parent feels as though the number one way to educate black children is to put them in proximity to white people.
NLP: That’s an asinine argument that I’ve heard many times before and it actually mangles the history of Brown vs. the Board of Education and the history of Jim Crow segregation in this country. What we need to understand is that often African American parents are in search of enclaves for their families.
For example, if an African American family is in an environment in which other African Americans are thriving – economically, academically, socially, that to me is going to be a wonderful opportunity to uplift one’s family. But if you’re in an environment that is extremely impoverished and under resourced, of course you are going to face challenges associated with that. Many cultural communities have enclaves. You see it with the Hmong community, the Latino community, the Somali community. And you see it in middle class and upper middle class white communities where they have enclaves that protect their heritage, their culture. It’s a safe environment for their children. There is also a lot of social networking that goes on that helps families gain access to economic mobility and upward mobility. Those are the types of environments that we need to create and it needs to create access to high quality education that takes into account one’s culture, language, heritage and the values that a particular family holds dear.
Because of the fact that our communities are under resourced we are often forced into impoverished environments where the public education system is far from being satisfactory in terms of being able to education our children. That to me is problematic. Because our kids are going to these schools and they are coming out not learning as much as they should. And for some of them schools become a pathway into the juvenile or adult criminal justice system which we know is unacceptable and it just merely reinforce this negative cycle of poverty and incarceration and marginalization. So I see situations in which we’ve had African Americans who see these problems and they’ve decided to develop alternative forms of schooling to protect and uplift black children in a way that compliments who they are and reinforces who they are. Why should parents have to send their children to school in a white community in order for them to gain access to a high quality education? It makes absolutely no sense. I shouldn’t have to send my children into an all white academic environment in order for them to get a decent education but unfortunately many of us are forced to do so when we decide to send our children to private school because the local traditional public school is just unacceptable and subpar in terms of what’s being taught in the schools and in terms of the impact on our children.
So I’ve had to make this decision, as I referenced earlier, to an almost all black charter school. That was on purpose. I wanted my children to be in a place where we wouldn’t have to second guess the way that they were being treated. That they had an opportunity to flourish academically without race being a factor in terms of how they’re being treated. All those things played a role. I don’t regret that decision. I want my children to understand that their culture, their heritage, their racial identity is just as valuable as that of the white majority. I don’t want them to get lost in a sea of whiteness and to not know who they are at the end of the day, and to compromise their ethnicity just to blend in. That’s not acceptable.
CS: I am wondering what is going on with our talented tenth because when I see black folks talking about we should have less options than we have right now, right? I’m looking at college educated people with degrees, oftentimes college activists who had a good education themselves because money or resources. I don’t want to diss them but I do want to say, for the average black parent who is low income facing down not many options, they feel alone sometimes.
NLP: Uh huh.
“I don’t need anyone else telling me what is best for my children because I know them better than anyone else knows them.”
CS: Their own kind of like black organizations and educated black people are the ones saying we should do integration as a primary strategy for educating kids, not realizing that sends a signal to our kids.
NLP: Remember in the 50’s and 60’s it was obvious, okay when you see these pictures of angry white folks that did not want black kids in their school, beating black people, black children in particular, threatening them. We saw the blatant aspect of racism but somehow after the 1960’s it started to become more covert, and underground and hidden. But thank goodness for Trump because of his boldness and saying some of the ignorant things that he has said, it’s causing the masks to be pulled off of those who really cannot stand people of color and feel like they are losing something as this country becomes more racially and ethnically diverse.
Meanwhile, there is not a recognition of the fact that we have faced a legacy of slavery and discrimination that’s been built into our laws, our systems and our policies and that continue to impact us to this day. Whether it’s looking at this institution and cultural policing, or the travesty within our public education system. Our kids are going into school but not coming out educated to the degree that they should be.
So the talented tenth needs to recognize that not everyone can live in a zip code where they have high quality schools because the way our society is structured, the more money you have, and the nicer home you can afford, the greater likelihood that your children are gonna go to a public school that is up to par. But, the poorer you are, we know that the opposite is true. Where if you have very little money you’re gonna be relegated to environments in which the public education system is abysmal in terms of how it’s functioning. And all we need to do is look at Minneapolis Public Schools as an example in order to understand that.
What is striking to me, when I go to the Minnesota Department of Education’s website and I started looking at the scores for math and science and reading, um in some of our poor black communities, I’m just absolutely appalled. Y’know, you might have kids with a 5 or 6% proficiency in science.
It’s like, are you serious?
CS: Uh huh.
NLP: It’s 2016. How is this acceptable for a district with a nearly 800,000 million dollar budget? You look across the street from some of those schools and you see a black charter school where…Harvest Prep for example…has outpaced the state averages in test scores for black children. Same pool of black children. You know often from lower income families but performing significantly better academically and that’s because of the actual environment that’s been created there. And it is a charter school environment. And we know that not all charter schools are created equally. People need to say that. They need to say, Just because there are some charter schools that are not up to par doesn’t mean that you eliminate the opportunity for black parents to send their children to a predominantly black charter school so they can learn in a cultural paradigm that will assist them in becoming upwardly mobile and more highly educated.
CS: The other side of this though, when we look at these platforms, the narrative is so deficit based around the children. They say things like the schools aren’t failing, it’s just that they need more this, that, and the other.
NLP: Or poverty. It’s because of poverty that they can’t learn. I’m like, really? I grew up in poverty. And I spent 14 years as a law professor and I’m also a civil rights attorney so how is that an excuse?
CS: When has that ever been an excuse for black people?
NLP: Right. It never has.
CS: But it seems like this idea of we gotta hold teachers harmless. We have to hold schools harmless. No matter what. We just have to hold them harmless and just double down on money. I think both you and will I agree there should be full funding for public education. Teacher should be paid well.
CS: Right. There’s just no doubt about that. They have a right to collective bargaining. They have employment rights. We don’t want them to ever be completely without any rights.
“listen, we need to hold some of these charter schools to a higher standard just as we need to hold some of our traditional public schools to a higher standard, but you don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.”
CS: But when you get past that and you have a school like we had a school, a high school where only 11% of the kids were proficient and not a single one was a black male. In a school that was almost all black. What do we as a community do with that story when they’re getting $4000 dollars more per student than the richest whitest school in our district? So we gotta fix it. And at the same time, if you’re a desperate parent that’s looking for something else, you have a right to some sort of options.
NLP: Yeah, you have to find alternatives at the end of the day because it could be life or death for your child, depending on what school they go to, how they’re treated in that school and whether they wind up in the criminal justice system as a result of some of the policies that have been implemented and enforced in that particular school.
Education is not something that we can play around with in our community. We have to be vigilant and steadfast. We also have to call out the structural racism that perpetuates the types of disparity that you’re talking about Chris in terms of extremely low proficiency rates in schools in which they’re receiving a higher allotment per pupil which makes absolutely no sense. So in order for people to buy into what’s happening in those schools, they have to have bought into this mentality that poor children of color are not going to do much better than that…that that is basically their lot in life because their poor, they’re not capable of performing at a higher level and so they just sit back and allow the status quo to maintain. That to me is a part of what we’re grappling with and we won’t call out the elephant in the room which is structural racism.
If you look at the Minneapolis public schools, I’ve studied them a lot over the years because of some of our civil rights activism and advocacy surrounding those disparities in that district, but one of the things that really struck me when I went to the Minnesota Department of Education’s website, I saw that the teachers who had the lowest credentials and the least amount of experience were placed in the poorest, blackest schools. That is structural and institutional racism. I would also argue it’s personal racism when you have middle class white teachers who make up their minds that they don’t want to teach in poor black schools. They want to be placed in schools where there is a higher percentage of white kids who are living far above the poverty line. That to me is an attitude problem that some of the teachers have and unfortunately, at times, their union protect them. And allow them to have prejudicial attitudes but because they’re so built into the system they’re protected in their racism
We gotta be honest about that and the impact that has when you don’t have enough teachers willing to go into those schools. And then here is the flip side, if you don’t want to teach poor black kids, then move around and open the door…
NLP: …for African American men and women who want to be in the schools teaching their own kids and get the barriers out of the way to them having access to those teaching jobs cuz those are good paying jobs. And there is no reason why we should not have more African Americans standing in front of the classrooms teaching black children. And I’m talking about conscious African Americans. I’m not talking about people who externally look African American but harbor some of the same prejudicial attitudes towards poor black kids as some white teachers have.
CS: Wow that’s real
NLP: I gotta keep it real cuz I’ve seen a lot over the years
“Education is not something that we can play around with in our community.”
CS: When we talk about education at our leadership level and at our traditional organizations, and now even younger new organizations are starting to perpetuate this kind of college way of talking about this. What’s the disconnect between real people and their real problems and our talented tenths discussion about this because on their side the choice that you and I made for charter schools makes us privatizers For me, there is nothing more private than my child’s brain.
CS: That is not…my child is not a ward of the state. Right? I’m not somebody who is trying to privatize education. Where does that come from and what can we do to push our leaders to be more honest and real like what you just said?
NLP: I think that part of what needs to happen is correcting some of the misinformation that’s out there. There are a group of people who are part of the elite, who have fueled money into some these alternative systems of education and some of them may have an agenda to try to destroy traditional public education. I’m sure that they’re out there.
CS: Uh huh.
NLP: For me as a black parent at the end of the day though, I’m looking at what are the best options for my child to have a fighting chance to be successful in the system of education and also in life. You know, I want them, when they’re prepared for college to not just have y’know, A’s and B’s but actually be prepared for a rigorous academic experience. And to be able to do well in a college setting.
Right now with the structure of what’s happening within traditional public schools, we’re not seeing that happen on the level that it should happen where our children are being prepared for college. As a matter of fact, we’re seeing kids graduate from some of our local public schools and trying to go let’s say to get an Associates degree. Because of the fact they are under-prepared they may have to spend a year or two taking remedial classes. So you may..it may take four years for what should have been a two year degree. That is absolutely absurd. It’s a huge waste of time. It’s a huge waste of human capital.
I think that we need to be critical thinkers in terms of how these systems are structured and not just accept at face value that oh, this person is a good person. They have good intentions. Y’know, they love the kids that they’re working with but the kids themselves just don’t want to learn. Or their parents don’t value education and that’s what the problem
NLP: We can’t continue to accept what is happening and act as though it’s acceptable because it’s completely unacceptable. Especially when, you have some charter schools that again that are able to take the same population of children and help them advance academically. That to me shows that there are levels of dysfunction within our traditional public schools that need to be challenged. And those same people that are interested in eliminating school choice options are not being as vigilant in terms of holding traditional public schools accountable for dismal outcomes for black children and that to me is absolutely hypocritical.
CS: So do you have advice for those of us who really believe in the sovereign right of a black parent to make the choices that they want, and to have choices, what is our strategy, our feedback to our leaders, to our traditional organizations like the NAACP, and even the new ones, the emerging ones like Black Lives Matter saying hey, don’t leave us out of whatever platforms that you make because there is gonna be a good number of us who still want the choices that we want?
NLP: Well I think that these organizations need to hear from black parents and understand the struggles that we face regardless of our socioeconomic status but especially when we are from low income backgrounds, where we’re used to people not listening to our voices and taking us seriously. We have to create avenues and platforms to hear from those families of what works for them, what types of options would be best for their children, and how we can improve access to education for their children. That’s not happening on a mass scale. We have little pockets in which some black parents’ voices are heard, but not nearly enough so we have to create vehicles. And it could be that some of the traditional vehicles for civil rights are not the right vehicles when it comes to championing the cause of a high quality education for black children. We cannot rest on the decision in Brown vs. The Board of Education.
Some argue that the decision may have done more harm than good. Because a lot of black teachers lost their jobs when schools were integrated. A lot of black children suffered by having to be bussed into hostile white environments where they faced racial discrimination so there are some downsides to what happened in Brown vs. The Board of Education that we’re still contending with today.
So I would say that going into the future, we have to use our voices. We have to become educated about these issues. We have to buck against the status quo. We have to create new vehicles for the voices of black parents to be heard in this debate over what’s good for black children.