Friday, April 14, 2006

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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You may be interested in knowing that one of the leaders in pushing the bill through the unicameral was Ernie Chambers (a black representative) who argued that the schools were already segregated and that by splitting the district into three parts would give the blacks and hispanics more control.

1:29 PM  
Blogger The (liberal)Girl Next Door said...

Anonymous--I did know that and I did cite that reasoning in my post. The fact that Ernie Chambers is black is irrelevant, it's still segregation no matter who pushes for it. I'm not questioning his motives, just his rational.

1:46 PM  
Blogger thehim said...

I've been trying to make this particular point recently in response to some other similar blog posts, but I think it's somewhat of a mistake to think of this as primarily an economic issue. Economics play a role in all of this, but the real segregation occurs through the criminal justice system. You made a mention of "the criminalizing of behavior in some schools and not others". This is a bigger point than most people realize. And its effects are enormous.

I've had people email me today about the kid in Massachusetts who's going to jail for two years for selling a joint. It's sad that the thousands of young black kids doing time for that didn't make the news.

I don't think that because I write about the drug war all the time. I write about the drug war all the time because I'm amazed at how huge this problem has become.

5:29 PM  
Blogger The (liberal)Girl Next Door said...

TheHim--And once I read the documents from NAACP and an even better analysis titled, "Education on Lockdown" I realized the same thing. I've always known it, but it gave me a greater appreciation of the reality of the drug war and the criminalizing of behavior in some schools literally feeding our kids into the criminal justice system. Both are racist policies and both are very real.

I could have been easily distracted by this part of the problem (it is important), but I'll leave it to you to tackle that since you are much more versed than I on the subject. I'll be looking forward to reading it. There are many things that contribute to the problem, equitable distribution of funds is just where I chose to focus, now I pass the ball to you.

6:59 PM  
Blogger Rory Shock said...

you're so right about this issue on a larger scale ... for reasons unimportant here, one day I found myself in the last ranked jr high in the bronx a few years back ... reading to kids who couldn't read ... the place looked worse than most of the prisons I have done work in over the years, including the worst, most overcrowded, under a federal consent decree one ... the infrastructure was literally crumbling (needless to say a "minority" population there) ... but the most striking thing to me as well was the reallity of what the kids go home to ... the poverty that is ... lotsa people in few rooms ... no quiet, no place to study ... often shitty opportunities for sleep ... segregation lets most americans go on living without knowledge that this is even out there ... I know I'm a ramblin' but thankfully, you stay on point in your post for all of us, nice one

7:41 PM  
Blogger The (liberal)Girl Next Door said...

Thanks Rory, I felt stupid five years ago for being surprised that our schools are segregated! I guess I knew it deep down, but I had been able to avoid it since I didn't have any kids in school. And it really does affect all of us, whether we have kids or not.

7:52 PM  
Anonymous EbonKrieg said...

I am a HS Teacher. I have been sickened by our system since 1990 when I first entered it. I don't know when it failed but it had to be between 1975 and 1990. Teachers have been wrung through the wringers of "stick this finger in the dike" since I started.
I get a child who was a good student until sixth or seventh grade and then their test scores drop. Maybe middle school is not a good idea.
Even in the best of years I can honestly say I graduate 20% of the senior class with confidence.
We are the stupidest people on the planet. Our ignorance is going to be our step into oblivion.
There are a lot of "bad" teachers, but in their defense our lives as parents is reaaly depressing.
College teachers know this, I know this, you should know this.
Where do we start?
Listening to billionaires is not comforting although we need the money.
This gave us channel one; what a bunch of crap.
I will teach in Omaha if you want. I teach in AZ right now. but my dogs hate it.

8:25 PM  
Anonymous Betty Cracker said...

You hit the nail on the head when you mentioned property taxes as the source of funding. I think that is the root of the problem. We all have a stake in good schools -- whether or not we have kids or wherever we live. The funding should reflect that.

I have a second-grader -- we moved to a good school district before she started school for that sole reason. But we had the means to make that choice. Most people don't.

I live in Florida, and our illustrious governor, Jeb Bush, totally doesn't get it. His "plan," which GWB would like to copy nationwide, penalizes low-performing schools and rewards the high performers, without regard to the fact that some are dealing with an influx of migrant worker family kids while some are all white yuppie families. It's nuts.

8:55 PM  
Blogger The (liberal)Girl Next Door said...

Ebonkreig--It is a sad state of things and even the worst teacher is not to blame for the way things are going! We are not stupid, but we are undereducated and that can change. I don't think that Bill Gates can fix the problem, but he can bring a much needed spotlight to a very real problem.

It's all about shifting our thinking as to what is really important and education should be at the top of the list. Teachers should be valued for having one of our most important jobs, educating our children! I understand that there aren't easy answers, but fixing the problem must be made a priority and so far, no one has made it one. If we are willing to put our money where our mouth is, demand real leadership, listen to those on the front lines, then the best solutions will come.

We are at a crisis point with our public schools and we can no longer stick our heads in the sand. This Presidency has created many crisis, skyrocketing energy costs, millions without health insurance, lost jobs, stagnant wages, the quagmire of Iraq, but the deterioration of our education system must be at the top of our list if we are ever going to dig ourselves out of the hole we are in.

I'm hoping that there is better leadership around the corner, but even if there is, band-aids are not going to fix this mess. We need a radical realignment of our priorities as a country, and only by demanding it, believing in it, are we ever likely to see it.

Thank you for doing what has increasingly become a thankless job. You are the ones keeping us afloat at this point, and you are doing it with very little support. I hope that, as a nation, we can change that sometime soon.

Betty Cracker--It is the most ludicrous way to fund public schools, unless of course we want the disparity. These Bush boys are a menace, I'm so sorry that you have to live under the authority of two of them at once!

9:01 PM  
Blogger thehim said...

I could have been easily distracted by this part of the problem (it is important), but I'll leave it to you to tackle that since you are much more versed than I on the subject.

I write about it periodically, but it may be worth a longer post soon. I do believe that economics plays a role, but I think that it's wrong to believe that solving the economic part alone will solve the problem. A lot of liberals tend to believe that, and so when more money is thrown at a problem and it doesn't go away, it gives conservatives more ammunition to say "Well, that didn't work. I guess they just don't want to learn". The root of the problem is the criminal justice system, and I worry that the Democrats hurt themselves by not recognizing that.

9:12 PM  
Blogger The (liberal)Girl Next Door said...

TheHim--They DO hurt themselves by not recognizing that! I honestly believe that the Democratic Party has failed all of us, because they have forgotten what liberalism means. Progress, at this point, will require a radical shift in thinking. We can't just focus on bits of the problem or single issues, but remember that there is a philosophy to liberalism. We must step back and look at the big picture so that we solve problems in a logical way with a cohesive solution that doesn't fix one part while fucking up another.

In a polarized society, it is easier to pander to one side or the other. Real leadership is bringing everyone together and inspiring all of us to work together in solving our collective problems. What we have in this country is a lot of politics and no leadership. I think the public is sick of the former, I just hope we can find some of the latter.

9:27 PM  
Blogger Yellow Dog said...

Imagine how far it would go toward restoring our global image if we began investing in educating our citizens with the funds we currently use to wage our crusade against Islam.

7:03 AM  
Anonymous Betty Cracker said...

Yeah, it really sucks living under TWO Bushes. The thing about Jeb is, he apparently got what little brains were available in the family. So instead of disaster due to rank incompetence and greed like we see on a national scale, we Floridians get craftily orchestrated policies that screw the poor and further enrich Jeb's pals.

On the bright side, he is prevented by term limits from running for governor again, and hopefully Americans have had enough of the Bushes on the national stage. I don't think he could get elected president. Please god, no. That might even be worse than GWB, if that's possible...

9:40 AM  
Blogger GraemeAnfinson said...

and the right is trying to privatize schooling. have you seen the john stosell report? they want to cut funding more. crazy

10:23 AM  
Blogger The Local Crank said...

Sadly, this is one of the greatest social failures of post Civil Rights-Era America (and a perfect example of the law of unintended consequences): the economic re-segregation of public schools. There is a bright light at the end of the tunnel, though; as blacks and hispanics move into the middle class, they move into new neighborhoods and integration slowly takes place. Prince Georges County, Maryland is a perfectly example. Of course, that just means more misery for the kids left behind in inner city and rural schools, though.

2:37 PM  
Anonymous exelizabeth said...

Liberal Girl-- I just started reading your blog, and I really appreciate it.

To address inequity in education we need to address white people's internalized racism. Part of the reason that the system keeps schools segregated and underfunded is that we don't want equality. To paraphrase James Baldwin, people aren't so fond of being equal (after all, equal to what), but they certainly like the idea of being superior. White America's desperate fear of losing superiority is at the root of school inequality. Even liberals will bemoan the problem while sending their children to private schools-- sheer, naked hypocrisy. I could go off about private schools.

I'm applying for grad school for a Masters in Teaching this fall, but I have to say I am TERRIFIED of that sort of regimental teaching described in that Harper's article. It sounds like 1984 or something. I couldn't and wouldn't teach like that. I'd rather lose my job, though of course that doesn't help the kids at all.

4:21 PM  
Blogger Chief said...

exelizabeth said:

"Part of the reason that the system keeps schools segregated and underfunded is that we don't want equality."

This may be true in some locales, but having closely watched the voting/political/education scene in southern Illinois, I can tell you that sentence does not apply here. The problem with funding schools with property taxes is that the voters get to have a say in how much money will be allocated for educating the next generation in one little town or school district after another. And the voter does not want their property taxes to go up.

An example of voter stupidity ocurred in last months primary (while not in the 'education' field it is a perfect example).

A local municipality had an item on the ballot to improve the 911 system in the county. To make it an 'enhanced 911' so they could handle more than one call at a time (this is a rural area). Each person'e telephone bill would have increased by $.75 a month, $9 dollars a year, and the voters turned it down.

IMO, using property taxes to fund public education is archaic and needs to be done away with. However about 20 years ago, Illinois started a state lottery to help solve the "education problem." 50% of the lottery proceeds were to be earmarked to support education. It has not produced any positive benefits for education. Ninety year old school buildings are literally falling down, yet the taxpayer/voter will not vote for a tax increase.

4:08 AM  
Blogger Bigun1 said...

This idea is fine, just let each group financially support "their" district. No more support for the whole Omaha school district. Each to his own.

7:12 PM  

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