Omaha’s Just Making Legal What The Rest Of The Country Is Already Doing
The Legislature in Nebraska just passed a bill that will break up the Omaha school district into three smaller parts, one black, one white and one Hispanic. Of course they will not be exclusively so, but because the population there is largely segregated and kids must go to their neighborhood school, the make up of the schools will be predominantly one race. The argument for the bill is that minority communities will be given more control over their own schools, but there’s no getting around the fact that this is legalized segregation. The bill will likely be challenged as a direct violation of equal protection, but Omaha is simply validating what is already happening in public schools across the country.
Five years ago, my husband and I took our daughter to her first day of school. We had her tested for early enrollment into Kindergarten because she was already reading and waiting another year seemed ridiculous. Because she had to be tested over the summer, we had to take whatever placement we could get, which meant that she ended up at the public school with the least competition. I find it sad that there’s competition to get into specific schools, it shouldn’t matter, all of our public schools should be equally great.
Anyway, we dropped her off at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary, watched our little girl navigate the throngs of kids and, of course, I cried. Once we were finally able to pull ourselves away from behind the bush where we’d been eyeing her progress, we got into our car and drove home. On our way, we passed another public school and I realized, as I watched the mostly white kids streaming around the beautiful building, that we had just dropped our daughter off at a run down, mostly black school. Segregation lives in Seattle, I just hadn’t noticed before then. And Seattle is not alone, not by a long shot.
We can talk about what a disaster No Child Left Behind is, but beyond one bad government program is the fundamental truth that we have segregated schools in this country, and the way we fund them makes clear that we have some serious problems with race. Just like Hurricane Katrina laid bare the reality of race and class as we watched poor black people begging to be saved, the state of our public schools exposes this same dirty little secret. A hurricane comes and goes, but education is supposed to be the great equalizer and with segregated schools that are certainly not equal, we are ensuring that our race and class problems will continue far into the future.
Again, Oprah is ahead of our politicians on this, and is attempting to bring the issue to light in a series she is doing on her show that highlights the crisis in our public schools. She sent Anderson Cooper into a few public schools in Washington DC and what he found there was devastating. Peeling paint, holes in the ceiling, broken pipes, whole areas of the school shut off due to dangerous conditions, bathrooms boarded up and general decay. What must it be like to spend six hours a day in such a depressing environment? The kids who attend the school used words like, forgotten, abandoned, hopeless and worthless. By not funding our schools equally, we are sending the message to our kids that some of them aren’t worth our time, money or energy. How do we expect these kids to turn out?
Jonathan Kozol, in an article for Harpers titled, “Still Separate, Still Unequal: America’s Educational Apartheid,” pulls no punches and says that our failure to call our educational system what it is, apartheid, is contributing to the problem. When we refuse to acknowledge the severity of the problem, we show that we are content to sweep it under the rug and ignore the long-term affects of a broken system. This is not simply a minority problem, while the injustice of a two-tiered educational system should spark enough moral outrage to spur on real changes to the system, it is also important for white middle class families to understand that this affects them too. How competitive are we going to be as a country if we refuse to educate our young people? We spend twice as much to incarcerate people as we do educating them. That is a disgrace, but beyond the moral implications, it makes little financial sense and allowing huge segments of our society to be left behind, will only create more crime, more poverty and more resentment that will steadily brew just beneath the surface.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund put out a report titled, “Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline” in which they discuss the real problem of “feeder schools,” those that have a high drop out rate and a disturbingly high rate of students who end up in the criminal justice system. This has nothing to do with black students having a tendency toward crime or an inability to learn, but instead has everything to do with the unequal distribution of resources, segregated schools and the criminalizing of behavior in some schools and not others. By not funding our schools equally, by not investing in the decaying infrastructure and by not modernizing the way we educate our kids, we are putting ourselves on a collision course toward disaster.
There is no reason to continue funding our schools through property taxes that go only to schools near those properties. Any idiot can see that a funding system structured this way will continue to cheat most of our kids. Educational funding must be distributed equally, on a per child basis. All of our schools must be updated and provide an education that is relevant to the technological age. We must build more schools and make them smaller so that teachers can know their students and students can know each other. We should be sending our kids into a safe and aesthetically pleasing environment each day, that will facilitate learning and we should expect more of them. But how can we expect them to strive for greatness when we set them up for failure. We must show our children, all of our children, that we do care, that we do think they are worthy and that we are willing to invest in their future, because we know that if we do, they won’t let us down.
Bill and Melinda Gates, through the Gates Foundation, are investing a billion dollars in education in this country. They know that we are falling short and understand the long-term problems that will result from an undereducated population and they dare to ask the question, "What good is it for kids to graduate in 2006 from a school system that was designed for 1956?" How we answer that question will determine our future, not just for the poor, not just for minorities, but for all Americans and while private investment is great, the real solution is a public commitment to equality in education and a willingness to invest in our greatest resource, our children.