Public Education’s Long March to Equality: The Fight is Still Upon Us

On May 18, 2016, NACSA President and CEO Greg Richmond delivered these remarks to the 2nd Annual Independent Charter Schools Summit hosted by the New York City Coalition of Community Charter Schools.

 

The history of public education in America is a history of the struggle to provide an education for children to whom it has been denied.

We are the latest participants in this long struggle.

In colonial times, before there was widespread public education, the little formal schooling available was mostly for the children of the wealthy. They were educated in private schools or by churches that charged tuition. “A free education for all” was a concept that did not exist. When public schools were created, they first served primarily young boys, then later expanded to include more girls, then even later to African-Americans. As we know, when public education finally was provided to African-Americans, it was done in segregated and inferior settings.

A few years ago, I toured one of those early public schools for black children, no longer in use. It was in Savannah, Georgia and, of course, during most of the 1900s, it was segregated. I invite you to picture it if you can. It was on the outskirts of town, likely on a dirt road at the time, dark under the shade of moss trees. The school was a single room. No hallway, no office, no coatroom, no washrooms. Just a room on a dirt road. Can you picture it?

That room was about the size of a classroom today, one that would hold 25 or 30 students. But our guide told us that during segregation, about 100 young children were packed into this room.

Under Jim Crow, schools serving black children received less state funding. Black teachers received lower salaries. Certainly, the parents of the children who attended that school wanted them to attend a better school, maybe one in town with one classroom per grade, a gymnasium, and an auditorium. But during the first half of the 1900s, Georgia state law prohibited black children from attending school with white children.

Then in 1954, in Brown vs. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregated schools violated the U.S. Constitution. Now, if you were an African-American parent of a student in that Savannah school in 1954, you may have believed your child would soon be attending a good, integrated school in town. But you would have been mistaken. The Georgia legislature responded to Brown by passing a law that ordered schools to close rather than be desegregated. Four years later, as your child prepared for middle school or high school, you would still be waiting. That year, the Washington Post ran a story with this headline: “Segregation’s Citadel [is still] Unbreached after 4 Years.” The Post reported that segregation was still required by law in seven states, including Georgia.

In 10 other states, segregation was not required by state law but it was permitted if local officials wanted. And in many communities, locally elected school boards were still enforcing segregation. For example, in Maryland, every school district was segregated, not by order of the state, but by action of the elected school board.

Poor black and brown children have had to fight for a good education in this country since, well, forever. Often times, their fight has been against the very public officials who were supposed to be providing them with a quality education.

That fight has not been limited to the South and it did not end with Brown vs. Board of Education. It continues now, throughout our country, wherever state laws and local practices continue to deny poor, black and brown children the opportunity to attend a good school.

Here’s an example from this century in a northern city. A few years ago, I worked in the central office of the Chicago Public Schools. At that time, there was a popular charter school in a low-income, African-American community on the West Side of Chicago. It occupied a small, non-descript, rectangular building that they had converted into their school. They were bursting at the seams. The school had no auditorium and no gymnasium, not unlike the school in Savannah during the days of segregation.

This charter school asked our school district for assistance moving out of its tiny, overcrowded building into a larger building that would enable them to serve more children and to do so in an appropriate facility. Their request was denied. Our school district demographic planners rejected the request, saying that the West Side already had too many schools and did not need to add any more capacity. That decision was not motivated by race. But it did occur at roughly the same time that the school district was building not one, but two, expensive, brand new high schools on the mostly white North Side of the city that would only accept academically elite students based on their test scores.

Our planners believed that the North Side needed more, good schools but, somehow, the West Side did not. If they had simply looked at the academic outcomes for children on the West Side or had asked the mothers of the West Side, they would have learned that community desperately needed a new, good school.

Thankfully, because this was a charter school, it had the freedom to pursue its plans without the district’s approval. They went ahead and raised money to build a wonderful new school building that has now provided a better education to thousands more children—children who would not have received that superior education if it were up to the central office.

Poor black and brown children have had to fight for a good education in this country forever. And the fight continues.

NYCQuote_MLKYou are on the front lines of this struggle. New York’s community charter schools exemplify what it means to be part of a community and to be part of the struggle to raise up the children of your community. To give them the opportunities that would otherwise be denied to them.

When I say “denied to them,” let me be clear. “Denied” is not a passive verb; it is active. During Jim Crow, the Georgia legislature denied children the opportunity to attend a good school. After Brown versus Board of Education, Maryland school boards denied children the opportunity to attend better schools. A dozen years ago, Chicago’s school district planners denied the request of a small charter school to serve more children.

To overcome denial, we are called to act. In A Letter from a Birmingham Jail, nine years after Brown v. Board, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it is demanded by the oppressed… Justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

Here are two more examples, not from 60 years ago or 10 years ago, but today. In Massachusetts, right now, state law denies the establishment of more charter schools, no matter how good a proposed school may be, no matter how many children are in need. In Washington State, right now, opponents of charter schools are working to erase the very existence of charter schools. Sadly, these opponents are other educators—superintendents, teachers, school board members. New York too has known a few of these political brawls.

Truth be told, the opponents of charter schools believe they are on the side of righteousness. They believe charter schools do not adequately serve special education students. They believe that charter schools play favorites when admitting students and inappropriately expel or counsel out inconvenient students. They believe charter schools abuse the labor rights of teachers. They believe that charter schools do all of these things and are still no better, on average, than schools run by the district.

This is why you and your work are so vital. We know that across the nation and even in this city, there are charter schools that do some of these things. But I believe that most charter schools do not do these things. I believe that the members of the Coalition for Community Charter Schools exemplify all of the best in public education: serving all students, providing a quality education, respecting the rights of teachers.

All of us in public education, whether we work in charter schools or other public schools, still have room for improvement in each of these areas. Let me comment on each of them briefly: serving all students, respecting teachers, and providing a quality education.

When it comes to serving all students, our public education system is still dominated by school districts and neighborhood schools with boundaries that keep some kids in and other kids out. We all need to be moving toward public education systems that give parents the opportunity to find and choose a school that best meets the needs of their children. Impressively, New York City made a big step in this direction a decade ago when it eliminated attendance boundaries for all high schools. Since that time, the on-time graduation rate in the city increased from 47 percent to 71 percent. That is remarkable improvement. You and your tireless work are a big part of that improvement.

When it comes to respecting educators, boy, do we have a long way to go. Our school districts, in my opinion, need to do a much better job respecting the abilities of educators in schools and pushing more decision making out of the central office and into schools. Give each school greater control of its curriculum, its budget, its facility, its school culture. This is the main reason I am a fan of the idea of charter schools, because the educators in the school have much greater control of the education provided by the school.

Finally, when it comes to the quality of education, we all have to do a lot better there as well. I just mentioned the 71 percent graduation rate in New York City. That’s a big improvement, but we cannot rest. A 70 percent graduation rates means that three out of 10 New York school children are not graduating on time, or at all. That is far too many. In addition, the graduation rate gap in the city is sizable. The difference in graduation rates between the communities with the highest rates and the lowest is 34 percentage points. So, if you are a child in Battery Park, Tribeca, Greenwich Village, or SoHo, you are far more likely to graduate on time than a child in Morris Heights, Fordham South, or Mount Hope.

That’s just graduation rates. Among students who do graduate, too many are not ready for college or employment. Remedial education in college is costing students one and a half billion dollars per year. One in four students who enter college must pay college-level tuition for high school-level remedial courses. Those students received a diploma from their high school but they did not receive the academic skills they need to succeed.

Standardized test scores are not the only measure of a quality school, but they are an important measure. We know that when more of our students are passing these tests, more of our students are ready to succeed in college, in a career, in life. We need to keep pushing ourselves to do better.

As important as those tests are, I also believe that too much of our current K-12 education debate is fixated on standardized tests—what they measure, what they don’t measure, how they are used, and who is or is not taking them. Standardized tests are important, and schools should be held accountable for their students’ performance on them, but other measures of school quality are also important.

Every school represented in this room is working to develop its students in ways that are not captured by standardized tests. I would like to highlight just one of those schools today, the Bronx Lighthouse College Preparatory Academy.

Earlier this spring, the principal of Bronx Lighthouse received the following letter:

Hello Ms. Duggins,

A group of students will be leaving during 4th period, as an act of civil disobedience in regards to the arrival of Ted Cruz to BLCPA. We have all considered the consequences of our actions and are willing to accept them. We respect you and all the staff at BLCPA as well as the expected guests. But we want you to understand that as passionate students, we have ideas and principles that should be heard and respected. This walk out isn’t a reflection of our discontent with BLCPA but our opportunity to stand up for our community and future. This walk out is taking place because we as students all share a common idea.

Yesterday, I visited with a group of those students at their school and here is what I saw:

  • students who are informed, and use that information to form opinions;
  • students who are aware of their value systems and are trying to live by them;
  • students who chose to publicly take a stand about those opinions and values;
  • students who understand the power of a well-communicated and authentic position;
  • students who are willing to accept the consequences for their actions.

Aren’t well informed, engaged students what every one of us would want for the children in our schools? For those of us who are parents, isn’t that what every one of us would want for our own children?

NYCQuote2_LongwaytogoHere’s what also strikes me. These are students whose actions go against the narrative about what kinds of kids charter schools are creating. We’ve all heard versions of this narrative: charter schools are just a way for billionaires to destroy public education and produce automatons to make them richer. Or here’s a different iteration: charter schools are simply white-led institutions created to control and limit the achievement of African-American and Latino kids.

I don’t see automatons or control. I see empowered, free thinkers, engaging in public discourse, carefully stating their opinions and respectfully dissenting.

When our parents’ and grandparents’ generations were fighting for a better education for more children years ago, these are exactly the kind of students they dreamed of. When we are fighting for a better education for children today, these are the students we envision.

As charter schools, you have the power to do so much. You have the flexibility to establish a strong school vision and culture, to provide an innovative curriculum, and to measure your progress in ways that go beyond traditional measures. I urge you to take the fullest advantage of those abilities.

Let me come back to the graduation rates and break them down in another way, not by communities, but by student characteristics. The on-time graduation rate for Asians in New York is 85 percent. For white students, 82 percent. For black students, 65 percent and for Latino students, 64 percent. Three-quarters of girls earned their diplomas on time, but only two-thirds of boys did. Only four in ten students who had a disability or were English Language Learners graduated on time.

The history of public education in America is the struggle to provide an education to children for whom it has been denied. We have come a long way since the days of official segregation in Savannah. We have come a long way by increasing the on-time graduation rate in New York from 47 percent to 71 percent. We have come a long way when 15-, 16- and 17-year-old students at Bronx Lighthouse can take a stand for their beliefs in the face of a Presidential campaign. Yet there is still a long way to go.

Poor black and brown children have had to fight for a good education in this country forever. The fight is still upon us, but I am more optimistic today than I have ever been. I am more confident today, than ever, because of your talent, your commitment, your passion, and your willingness to fight, every day, for a better education for your children.

Thank you for this opportunity to be with you today and thank you for all you do.