Diary

These black lives should matter to EVERYONE.

The Black Lives Matter crowd has a reason to be outraged. A darn good reason. Every thinking and caring person should join with them in their indignation. But it’s not about police use of force. They should be up in arms over this sobering fact: African-American students, in the country’s capital, scored significantly lower than their white counterparts in the public school system. So significantly that Washington Post columnist Colby King calls the gap a “chasm.” He summarizes DC public school test results thus in a New Year’s day commentary:

Overall English and math proficiency rates reached 25 percent and 24 percent, respectively, only because white students, who make up 12 percent of the school system, scored proficiency rates of 79 percent in English and 70 percent in math.

The stark truth: Black students, who constitute 67 percent of the school population, had a 17 percent proficiency rate in both English and math, trailing Hispanics, who comprise 17 percent of the school population and recorded proficiency rates of 21 percent in English and 22 percent in math.

He goes on to point out that these under-scoring students most likely face grinding poverty, disinterested parents, violence, and peer pressure to choose the wrong path. Okay, fair enough–those are valid reasons for children being unable to learn. But they shouldn’t be used as excuses. Teachers in those classrooms have a responsibility to help those students master gateway skills such as English and math. And if those teachers can’t make headway in the six hours or so a day they have with those students, I’m sorry, but they shouldn’t be teaching, certainly not in inner city schools faced with students from families that might not provide much in the way of educational respect at home. We’re not talking about advanced physics here. We’re talking about teaching a kid to read and comprehend English.

For poor children, school is everything. Everything. Many don’t have parents reading to them at home. They need to get that from school. Many don’t have parents making sure their homework is done. They need to get that from school, in school — doing the work at their desk if necessary. But there should be no excuse for not giving these kids what they need to turn their lives around. That’s the whole point of the public school system, to ensure that every child in America has an equal opportunity to succeed. And if the public schools can’t do that job, then, frankly, shut them down and try something else.

I’m a big supporter of school choice — I ran an education reform/school choice organization in Vermont when we lived there  — and I firmly believe that the definition of public education should be changed to: the public’s responsibility to educate all children, wherever their needs are best met. The current public school system is an artifact of an earlier time, used by nativists to blanch threatening “papist” views from new Catholic immigrants’ minds. (For a good history of this, read The State and the Non-Public School by Lloyd Jorgenson.) It’s way past time to revisit that history and how it affected the setup of the current system, where district residence determines if a kid goes to a good or bad school.

But in the meantime, we all should be demanding accountability from our current public system. Republicans do jump on that bandwagon, for sure. But, sad to say, I often found that enthusiasm for school reform and accountability was motivated more by antipathy toward the teachers’ unions (particularly the NEA) than by a true desire to improve schools and help kids. So, for example, if a legislator gets pushback from the NEA on a reform, he’s fine with powering through, continuing to support change. But if he gets pushback from a local school board member or local teacher (as happened often with No Child Left Behind, which had many good reforms in it), then he goes wobbly. Hatred of the NEA sustained him. Love of education reform wasn’t as strong.

I’m sorry to sound so harsh, but disappointment does that to you. I saw NCLB “penalties” — where kids got to choose better schools or access tutors if their school was failing them — watered down because of this phenomena. Hatred of the NEA trumped love of the reform. So if opposition came from someone outside the NEA, legislators would crumble in the face of them. They didn’t care deeply enough about the reform; they care more about hating up on the NEA.

That has to stop. Republicans could own this issue — education reform. They could be far more vigorous champions of choice, of teacher accountability, of truly believing that no child should be left behind. But they must love the issue and who it benefits more than they hate those who stand in the way of reform.

Libby Sternberg is an Edgar-nominated novelist. One of her teen mysteries, The Case Against My Brother, is set against the backdrop of an anti-private school referendum in Oregon in the early 1920s.