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Democrats and Devos: Partners in the Illusion of School Choice?

The US has refused to realize the 1954 mandate of “Brown v. Board” to address deep-seated education inequity.

Donald Trump is president of the United States, winning with fewer votes than Mitt Romney received in 2012. Let that sink in, because many Democrats have not. The party has experienced humbling congressional losses in Montana, Georgia, South Carolina and Kansas, and often seems to be in a holding pattern, waiting for the next revelation in the Russia investigation or Trump to implode. In the meantime, the Democratic Party ignores many in its base who are suffering from Trump administration policies. Nowhere is this more apparent than public education and the tragedy that is Betsy DeVos as secretary of education.

The US has refused to realize the 1954 mandate of Brown v. Board to address deep-seated education inequity. Today, more than 60 years later, schools are profoundly separate and unequal based on race and class. State-sanctioned sabotage of human potential runs rampant across the United States and can be measured by curriculum, access to programs and technology, how school discipline is administered and funding. It is amplified by the school privatization movement, which we in the community organizing world call the “illusion of school choice.”

In New Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina, nearly every public school in the system was closed and transformed into a charter school. The difference in treatment for students in St. Bernard Parish and neighboring Lower Ninth Ward serves as a case study in structural inequity. Both were ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. The difference is that St. Bernard’s Parish is nearly 72 percent white and the Lower Ninth is 96 percent Black.

The working-class white residents in St. Bernard’s suffered greatly, evidenced by 15 schools damaged, many beyond repair. To date, 11 of the 15 schools have been completely rebuilt (with a 12th on the way), including a state-of-the-art K-12 complex, less than 200 yards from the Lower Ninth Ward.

In the Lower Ninth Ward, only one school, Martin Luther King High School, has been completely rebuilt. Many students still go to school in trailers or are forced to catch buses outside of their neighborhood because many parts of the Lower Ninth are still barren.

In Chicago, one of the US’s most segregated urban spaces, there are many stories of inequity.

One tells the difference between Agassiz Elementary and Irvin C. Mollison Elementary, two neighborhood grammar schools in different communities. Agassiz, nestled in the Central Lakeview Community on Chicago’s north side, is not far from the home of Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Mollison sits in the historic, predominantly Black Bronzeville community on the southside of Chicago.

Agassiz, which is about 40 percent white, has 468 students, while Mollison, which is more than 95 percent Black, has approximately 370 students. The size of the student population is where the similarities end, however. Mollison has one teacher’s aide in the entire building, while Agassiz has a teacher aide cadre of 10. Students at Agassiz have a fully-stocked library with a librarian, while Mollison students have a library but — as is the case in many schools in Black and Brown communities in Chicago — no librarian.

Students at Agassiz learn Arabic and Spanish while parents at Mollison had to advocate for more than two years for a part-time Spanish instructor. The student-to-teacher ratio at Agassiz is 14:1, while at Mollison in 2017 the ratio in the combined kindergarten/1st grade class was 42:1The school is so crowded that the students with special needs meet under the stairs on the first floor. Under the stairs.

Parents at Mollison have filed a Title VI civil rights complaint to the US Department of Education Office of Civil Rights documenting the conditions endured by students; the complaint is under investigation.

The inequities in these cities have been ignored and instead, Democrats have called for and benefited financially from massive school privatization, despite the harm it has caused to our children’s education and our communities.

In Chicago, arguably the birthplace of the school privatization movement, former Mayor Richard Daley implemented the Renaissance 2010 initiative, which sought to close 60 public schools and open 100 new charter, contract or district schools by 2010.

The conductor on that fateful journey was former Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan, who, after being promoted to be the US secretary of education under President Obama, said that “Hurricane Katrina was the best thing to ever happen to education in New Orleans.” This was the 2005 hurricane that killed more than 1,800 people and displaced thousands. He backed that statement up by making sure that the initiative to charter the entire school district was bankrolled in part by massive federal investment. How did that work out for the impacted families in both cities, nearly 90 percent Black? We know that seven years after Katrina, 79 percent of the charters received a D or F grade on the state exam; and that number has improved over the past three years primarily because the standards were lowered to improve how the outcomes looked.

We also know that in Chicago, according to Catalyst Magazine and WBEZ, since 2002, only 18 percent of the schools that replaced closed schools perform well, and half of those schools are selected enrollment.

Yet Democrats and Republicans ignored the dismal returns to continue to pour resources into an education model that very few (if any) of their own children were subjected to. To Democrats, many of whom label themselves “progressive,” inequity and suffering in Black communities is acceptable, and this lack of courage runs rampant through the party.

Indeed, public education needs dramatic improvement, but it is not enough to use urgent messaging to usher in failed, corporate, top-down education interventions. In the Journey for Justice Alliance, we believe that we must face the fact that some 60 years after Brown v. Board, education is still very separate and unequal. Many more white students have access to curriculum, programming, technology and other resources that foster environments where inspiration happens. A greater percentage of Black and Brown students are denied those same opportunities; they are in many cities subjected to narrowed curriculum and the pressure of improving their “failing school” or risk its closure.

While it is not exclusively a racial divide, given historical and structural conditions in the US, the breakdown in services and resources too often falls along lines of income and race.

This is where stress and trauma happen.

Now Democrats feign outrage at Betsy DeVos, without the honesty to see that their refusal to champion a commitment to equity, to own up to the promise of Brown v. Board set the tone for what we are facing now.

The #WeChoose campaign is organizing to advance a progressive public education agenda in our local cities, and building national demand for an end to school privatization, and sustainable community schools as a remedy for the US’s struggling schools. On July 22, in Seattle, Washington, and Albion, Michigan, we launched a series of “Critical Conversation Town Halls” in 30 cities across the United States. We have united communities to fight for equity in public education and defeat voucher and charter expansion initiatives pushed by Devos and unfortunately, many of our Democratic elected officials. Our children deserve it.

One of my most vivid memories was going to an assembly at Mollison in 2014, some six months after they received 200 children from a recently closed school in the neighborhood. As I walked into the gymnasium, a group of more than 30 second- and third-graders ran up to me, pulling on my pants leg, asking: “Mr. Jitu, are they going to open my school again? Are we going back to Overton? Please?” All I could do was hug these children as they mourned and tell them no, but we are going to do our best to make them happy at Mollison.

To those students, there is no school choice. The choice of a great neighborhood school was snatched from them. We say to Democrats: Either you are with Trump and DeVos or you are with us, the constituencies who have continued to support you, often with little or no consideration. Join us in the important work of transforming education in this country to choose equity, not the illusion of school choice.