When elephants jostle, what gets hurt is the grass

– African Proverb


When I speak to small groups of low-income black parents about education in different cities I have an uncomfortable message to deliver: when it comes to getting a child an education you are on your own. Neither liberals, nor conservatives, nor the black middle-class is coming to emancipate you from the grotesquely inadequate and intrinsically racist educational systems that bind you and your children to bleak economic and social futures.

You have one option, fight like hell for them.

While the Left, Right, and Center bicker like spiteful divorcees about what is best for the invisible poor children they seem to hold in moral contempt, their opposing arguments work well together to create a mutually beneficial stasis. They are two wings of one bird flying constantly against the winds of justice, mostly into a thick forest of scandalously ideological self-interest.

This past week brought two useful examples.

Noted conservative Walter E. Williams writing about Detroit’s atomizing public schools accuses the “teaching establishment” of making too much about the local district’s fiscal chaos.

Detroit is the site of a lawsuit aiming to secure a constitutional right to literacy. Plaintiffs argue there must be adequate funding to achieve something so fundamental as reading proficiency for the most disadvantaged students. Williams’ response is to say low-literacy is not a byproduct of inadequate school funding, but a problem exaggerated by bad kids who attack teachers physically. He argues Detroit Public Schools is in the top 6% of Michigan schools when it comes to per-pupil expenditures, so “Discrimination in school expenditures cannot explain poor educational outcomes for black students in Detroit or anywhere else in the nation.”

The real problem that Williams says is “routinely ignored” is that the majority of students in these schools have known someone who has been “killed, disabled or wounded by gun violence.” That may or may not be connected to another problem revealed in an article he links to by the American Psychological Association: 80 percent of teachers say they have been victimized by students during the previous school year.

Your kids are superpredators. Money to fully-fund schools is not the issue.

Taking the left flank, Mercedes Schneider, a blogging Ph.d and student of Diane Ravitch’s school of internet polemics slices at the same apple with a different knife. She beefs with with parents fighting for access to high-quality charter schools in Massachusetts. That state’s Superior Court recently concluded there is no constitutional right to school choice, even when low-income students are trapped in schools with inferior results and there is a demand for more charter schools that produce far better results.

Scheider, a district teacher from Louisiana, says the most important consideration is keeping the bodies of students in school districts regardless of it that results in diminished minds and the reproduction of social stratification between classes and races. Money, not people, is what matters most. When parents are given the option to take their children – and their per-pupil revenue – to other schools, they often do so. Schnieder is transparent about why a parents’ right to access better performing charter schools is a bad idea when she says “spending more money on charter schools leaves less money for districts.”

Your kids are dollars, not citizens. How will the middle-class survive if parents are free to make decisions for themselves about where their children attend school? Even if we don’t engineer the system to keep them in undesirable places, can they be trusted to do so?

In California, Minnesota, and New York there have been legal challenges attempting to establish a constitutional right to a quality teacher. Those cases have been widely panned as being union-busting cases funded by wealthy people to attack the middle-class. Missing from that critique is even a velutinous touch on the claims of the plaintiffs – parents and students – or the research indicating that children of color in poor schools are shortchanged by low-quality teachers and the shabby instruction that comes with them.

On paper Williams and Schneider couldn’t be more different. One is conservative, one liberal. One for choice and school reform, without funding reform; the other in favor of one-best-system for all, even when all only means white kids with two Starbucks customers for parents.

But they both agree the Constitution affords parents few rights when trapped in racialized, under-funded, poorly performing school districts.

They are correct.

Any underclass parent that has fought with schools about their students’ Individual Education Plan, Title 1 funding, resources for schools zoned into down-market parts of a district, the distribution of quality teachers, or curriculum that tells our kids all the wrong things about themselves must know they have few rights.

In 2005 a group organized by long-time civil rights activist Bob Moses organized an inter-generational group of authors to write a book called “Quality Education as a Constitutional Right: Creating a Grassroots Movement to Transform Public Schools.” It falls short of presenting a real plan for obtaining the rights parents need to get their students a quality education, but its strength is creating the aspiration that there should be those rights. The current system – the one where children are enrolled in “public” schools by their address – ties the right to an education to family income. That buys some families school choice and broader options, while leaving others to contend with limited options.

Almost no one is ready to upset that scheme.

On one side there are people like Williams who will say money doesn’t matter even as Detroit children have their bright lights blighted by schools infested with rats, decaying ceilings, and water unfit to drink. On the other side people like Schneider say the only thing that matters is money, and kids equal money, so they should not have access to schools that would be clearly better for them.

So, to be clear, you have no right to school buildings that look fit for white kids. No right to quality teachers. No right to choose the schools that receive your child’s per-pupil allocation.

Poor people, you’re on your own. Never stop fighting.

Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of Education Post, a media project of the Results in Education Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, the executive director of the African American Leadership Forum (AALF), and an elected member of the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education.


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