Thursday, September 2, 2010

School Daze: Racism and the School System

Today several of the neighborhood children were going to their first day of the new school year. They were nervous and excited. I smiled at them and wished them luck, and I remembered my many first days of the school year. I went to a public school down the street from my house. Girls had to wear dresses and boys had to wear long pants. We all had to bring two #2 pencils and tablet of paper. We had a library, music program, art once a week, and recess. I hated dressing up (and still do) so I am happy to see that the children seem to be able to wear whatever they want, and some even seem to be in uniform. I loved the library and hid out there during recess, which I did not love.

Most of the children in my neighborhood go to public schools, as they are decent in Berkeley. However, a friend told me that she is sending her daughter to a private school. She said she had kept careful track last year of how much time she spent fundraising for her daughter’s school so that they could have a library, an art program, a music program, and physical education. She also kept track of how much of her own money she spent on events related to the school. She is a single parent who works as a bank teller so she doesn’t make a lot of money. She is African-American, which will figure into the story momentarily. She had seen kids coming in and out of a very fine private school not far from her bank. She observed the wonderful arts and crafts the children proudly showed to their parents, the ways the teachers greeted each child in the morning and waved good bye at the end of the day. She decided to go into the school and see how much it would cost to send her daughter there. This private school has set a goal to be more racially diverse and their financial aid is based on income, so her daughter, who is also a good student, would help this school meet its goals. When this person calculated how much time she would free up to actually spend with her daughter instead of fundraising, and how much money she was already spending, and what kind of financial aid package this school would give her, she realized it would cost her about $1,000 a year more to send her daughter to private school than to public school. Her daughter starts today in a class of 12 students, compared to last year when she started in a class of 32.

Another friend, who is an activist with an organization that teaches high school students community organizing told me this story: in one high school in Oakland, the students participating in this program were asked what they wanted to organize for. After a much briefer discussion than my friend expected, they said, “Clean bathrooms where the toilets have doors and toilet paper.”

A friend in Hawaii wrote to me this summer and said that the public schools last year had been shut for 17 Fridays, giving that state the shortest academic year in the nation, and turning her and other parents into pretzels as they tried to arrange something for their kids to do on those Fridays. She finally used up most of her vacation taking care of her kids, but she made a little bit of money from parents giving her money in gratitude that she was willing to take care of her kids’ friends as well.
And the list goes on…..

Our children have fallen victim to the neoliberal view that I have written about before, which commodifies everything, including people. In a country where enough people can send their children to good schools and then to college, and in an economy where there are not enough jobs, having thousands of alienated students and frantic parents, overworked teachers with too many students in crumbling buildings doesn’t matter. In fact many of the students from very poor schools will form the workforce that prisons provide on contract with corporations.

To turn this around will require not just working for high quality public education. We will have to look and talk about the racism that informs so much of who is valued and who isn’t. I believe that racism is at the root of most of what is wrong with our public schools, and with our national failure to prioritize education. Obviously, white people suffer as much from poor schools and a poorly educated population will contribute to a poorly run country, but one can’t help but notice that the poorest schools also have the most kids of color, and that a private school seeking to diversify its student body would probably not see a white child as helpful to that goal. And most of all, we see racial overtones to the way that public schools have been made into charities. Foundations, corporations and wealthy individuals contribute money to them, create and fund programs to improve them. Public schools, being one of the main sources of poor people, are the “needy” and an industry of benefactors has been created to meet that need.

A commons frame says that high quality public education, like health care, is what you provide to everyone. Everyone helps pay for it, everyone benefits from it. If foundations, corporations and wealthy people were serious about education, they would pool their resources and advocate for proper tax funding for every school, for higher taxes on themselves to provide the revenue needed, and to funding anti-racism work which would actually address the root cause of most of our current problems.

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