HOW WE CAN GET TO GREAT SCHOOLS
WHAT’S REALLY BEING TAUGHT ABOUT RACISM
WHY COPS AND STUDENTS DON’T BELONG TOGETHER
BETTER THAN ‘NORMAL’: LET’S GO FOR EQUITY
August / September 2021
SPECIAL BACK-TO-SCHOOL EDITION
Please accept this gift from The Progressive, it is a mini-version of our magazine’s August/ September issue. Each article in this collection tackles a different aspect of how the COVID-19 pandemic and renewed attacks by the right have impacted education in the United States—and what educators are doing to make sure that public schools remain public. All of these pages are presented as they appear in the print magazine. If you like what you are reading, please subscribe to The Progressive and get this kind of independent journalism delivered to your mailbox every other month. The Progressive is a 112-year-old national political magazine based in Wisconsin. We publish in print six times a year, and add stories to our website daily. One of our two projects is Public Schools Advocate, which tracks the threats to public education (see the back cover of this mini-magazine for more information on this important project). If you see value in what we do, help us out. Spend the small amount it takes to become a subscriber, or, if you are able, please contribute more to help us continue this work for years to come.
Subscriptions: www.progressive.org/subscribe Donations: www.progressive.org/donate FEATURES 3
18 Young People Deserve Police-Free Schools
20 The Problem with Private School Vouchers
The End of School Reform
5 Outlawing the Truth
Republicans want students to learn a mythological version of U.S. history because the reality of the past threatens their power in the present. Adam Sanchez
6 What Schools in Minneapolis Are Teaching About Race
Hint: It’s not about blaming white people or hating the United States. Sarah Lahm
10 ON THE LINE
Refusing to Lie, Regardless of the Law The Zinn Education Project
12 SMART ASS CRIPPLE Separate and Unequal Mike Ervin
14 BLAST FROM THE PAST
The Movement for Progressive Schools Fola La Follette
15 Searching for Normal
Educators are bracing for an uncertain fall semester. Peter Greene
Maria C. Fernandez and Jonathan Stith
Harmful programs that redirect funds from public schools to private institutions are spreading rapidly across the country. Jessica Levin
23 BOOK EXCERPT
Welcome to Refugee High
A new book gives a portrait of students’ lives at one of Chicago’s most diverse high schools during Trump’s anti-immigrant campaign. Elly Fishman
25 The Fight for School Equity
What we need is not to return to “normal,” but to shape progressive education policies to take marginalized students into account. Jitu Brown and Beth Glenn
26 Make Schools a Catalyst for Change Omar Yanar
27 ONE QUESTION
Q: How Can Public Schools Emerge from the Pandemic Better Than Before? Diane Ravitch, Michèle Foster, and Carol Burris
©2021 by The Progressive, Inc., 931 E. Main Street, Suite 10, Madison, WI 53703. Telephone: (608)257-4626. Publication number (ISSN 0033-0736).
C O M M E N T b y J E F F B R YA N T
THE END OF SCHOOL ‘REFORM’
t was telling that few people noticed when Chicago’s Taken in unison, the three stories also contribute Board of Education announced in late May that it to the much larger narrative of how the once all-perwas closing down its school turnaround program vasive and generously funded policy movement and folding the thirty-one campuses operated by a known as education reform has ended—not with a private management company back into the district. bang, but a whimper. The turnaround program had been a cornerstone Other policy directives of the reform movement of “Renaissance 2010,” the education reform policy that are also being relegated to the dustbin of history led by former Chicago Public Schools Chief Executive include state takeovers of low-performing schools, Officer Arne Duncan, who became U.S. Secretary of evaluating teachers based on student test scores, and Education during the Obama Administration. As the flunking third-graders who score below a certain news outlet Catalyst Chicago reported, Duncan used threshold on reading exams. the core principles of Renaissance 2010 as the basis for Architects and cheerleaders of the reform move“Race to the Top,” his signature policy that he rolled ment have noticed how their cause has transitioned out to the nation. into a sunset phase. Conor Williams, a fellow at the Race to the Top, a successor to former President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” program, in- The once all-pervasive and generously funded policy cluded holding schools accountable for higher scores movement known as education reform has ended—not on standardized tests, inserting private management companies into district administration, and ramping with a bang, but a whimper. up charter schools to compete with public schools. Another news event affecting Chicago public Century Foundation who has lifted up the outcomes schools that got very little national attention was the of education reform in Washington, D.C., writes for decision by the Illinois state legislature to rescind The 74, a pro-reform media outlet, that “we’ve arrived mayoral control of Chicago schools and bring back at the end of an era in American public education,” a democratically elected school board. The plan is calling the ideas propelled by policies like Race to the backed by the state’s Democratic governor, J.B. Pritz- Top “pretty much toast.” ker (and, predictably, opposed by Chicago mayor Lori Writing in Education Week, Van Schoales, who as Lightfoot). For years, prominent Democratic leaders— president of the nonprofit A+ Colorado was a promiincluding New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and nent driver of reform in that state, declared the moveformer Chicago mayor and previously Obama White ment “over” and urged his reform-minded colleagues House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel—touted mayoral to “work directly with those closest to the problems” control and a rejection of school board governance. and “focus now on listening.” A third story from the Chicago education scene Anyone taking to heart advice to listen to educators was that, in December, Noble Charter Network, the and advocates on the ground had better be ready to city’s largest charter school chain, disavowed its “no hear a cacophony. excuses” approach to educating Black and brown students because of the racist implications. Noble’s owever, in school board meetings and other public decision added to other reports of no-excuses charter forums around the country, it’s been the voices of chains dropping their harsh behavioral control and angry parents and political agitators, often financially discipline policies during the past year. backed by rightwing think tanks and advocacy groups, Jeff Bryant is the These stories highlight the waning of three who are the ones being heard. “school improvement” approaches: strict accountThey have demanded that schools open for in-per- lead fellow of The Progressive’s Public ability with private management, mayoral control, son learning during the pandemic, pushed to lift re- Schools Advocate and no-excuses charter schools. Each approach was quirements that students wear masks and practice project, and a writing among the pillars of “education reform” favored by social distancing, and, most recently, denounced fellow and chief previous presidential administrations and heartily teachers for supposedly “indoctrinating” children correspondent for Our endorsed by Washington, D.C., policy shops, such in ideas such as critical race theory that, they argue, Schools, a project of as the Center for American Progress. shame white people and create divisiveness in society. the Independent Media
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Pitched battles over school curriculums and teaching practices—like the one being waged in Loudoun County, Virginia, where a recent school board meeting had to be shut down, a raucous audience member was arrested, and school board members now face a recall—have overtaken more sober and reasoned policy discussions about how to improve students’ academic outcomes and respond to their social-emotional needs. These conflicts, as Adam Sanchez reports in this issue of The Progressive, have led to a raft of new bills—many now enshrined as state laws—aiming to force teachers to teach a “mythological version of U.S. history” that omits shameful facts about racism and other forms of discrimination. “The expansive language of these bills,” warns Sanchez, a high school history teacher in Philadelphia, “will undoubtedly have a chilling effect on the classroom” and force teachers to “hide the truth of racism—past and present—in the United States.” Sarah Lahm, in her companion article, reveals much of what and who is behind these efforts to muzzle teachers from talking about the truth in their lessons. They are, she says, “rightwing provocateurs” prompted by former President Donald Trump’s call to rise up and demand that “students are receiving a patriotic, pro-American education.” But we would be remiss to focus on the culture war raging in schools without noticing the other education agenda that rightwing politicians have rolled out across the nation. As Jessica Levin explains, Republican lawmakers in more than a dozen states have introduced bills to create new school voucher programs, or expand existing ones, that redirect money meant for funding public education into private schools. Some of these bills failed; others have now become law. Levin describes the various ways these voucher programs shape-shift into deceptive “scholarships,” “tax credits,” and “savings accounts” that sound pleasing to the public but hide an intent to defund public schools, create a private “marketplace” of unaccountable private academies, and further “stratify communities along racial and economic lines.” It’s not hard to see how the two agendas—turning public schools into acrimonious battlegrounds over race and politics while enticing parents to abandon them—would work hand-in-hand. 4 | AUGUST / SEPTEMBER 2021
roponents of failed education reform are largely at fault for this current state of affairs, either because they didn’t see it coming or because they saw it coming but didn’t care. But the greater harm the education reformers committed was to leave, in the wake of their collapsed movement, virtually nothing of value. This created a void for the extremist factions that now dominate the GOP to fill, allowing them to foment a culture war against public schools. If proponents of now-defunct reform policies are at all sincere about listening to those closest to the ground, several authors in this issue should have their ear. Jitu Brown and Beth Glenn, for instance, channel the pulse of grassroots organizations across the country who are intent on making the reopening of schools an opportunity to renew calls for equity in the education system and “to push for full funding for schools” and its fair distribution to support our neediest students. Maria C. Fernandez and Jonathan Stith point to the demand bubbling up from the ground to reduce police presence in public schools and end the “criminalization of Black, brown, and poor students in the name of public safety.” They call attention to recent successes in removing cops from schools that are now quietly being undone, and they urge instead for increased investments in supports that address the real needs of young people. Whatever leadership imperatives become the new driving force behind the next education policy directives, they are doomed to irrelevance if they ignore the needs and interests of teachers. And teachers, as Peter Greene describes, are in a vulnerable place. “This summer has been about trying to recover, regroup, and recapture some sense of normal,” he writes. “And yet there is lingering concern that we may not get there.” Greene hastens to point out there are “real major issues” in our schools and “manufactured issues” that get in the way of progress. Clearly, teachers, parents, and students want us to deal with the real issues that need attending to in our schools and shed the manufactured ones that pervaded the reform agenda and dominate the current culture war carried out by rightwing radicals. Are we ready to do that? ◆
Some of the participants in Philadelphia’s June 12 #TeachTruth Day of Action pose for a photo after a successful rally.
h t u r T e h t g Outlawin Republicans want students to learn a mythological version of U.S. history because the reality of the past threatens their power in the present. Here are three things that could become illegal in my Philadelphia classroom if Pennsylvania House Bill 1532 becomes law: analyzing the original text of the U.S. Constitution, reading Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches, and discussing inequitable school funding. The Pennsylvania bill, introduced by Republican state lawmakers in June, is similar to many of the bills proposed in more than twenty states to ban “critical race theory.” HB 1532 bars teachers from teaching or using materials that describe the United States as “fundamentally racist,” that say “merit-based systems are either racist or sexist,” or that suggest an individual “bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by members of the individual’s race or sex.” The expansive language of these bills, if passed, will undoubtedly have a chilling effect on the classroom; forcing teachers to exclude lessons on each of these three points would, in effect, amount to them having to hide the truth of racism—past and present—in the United States. As a teacher of African American history, I find it impossible to look at this country’s founding without acknowledging that the U.S. Constitution originally counted enslaved people as three-fifths of a human being for the purpose of taxation and representation. And in terms of rights for enslaved people, the important number was not three-fifths, but zero.
BY ADAM SANCHEZ
Adam Sanchez is an editor of Rethinking Schools, the editor of Teaching a People’s History of Abolition and the Civil War, and a history teacher at Central High School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
As Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote for the U.S. Supreme Court in the Dred Scott decision of 1857, Black people were “inferior” and therefore “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Many students might rightly conclude from this that the United States is “fundamentally racist,” given that for decades the highest law and court of the land regarded Black people as less than fully human. While no one would argue that people living today are responsible for actions in the past, many prominent anti-racists—including Martin Luther King Jr.— have argued that white people have a responsibility to address the consequences of past actions by other white people. In his 1964 book, Why We Can’t Wait, for example, King made the case for reparations: “No amount of gold could provide an adequate compensation for the exploitation and humiliation of the Negro in America down through the centuries,” he wrote. “Yet a price can be placed on unpaid wages [and this] should be made to apply for American Negroes.” Elsewhere, in his 1967 book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, King argued that the average white person also has a responsibility to “rise up with indignation against his own municipal, state, and national governments to demand that the necessary reforms be instituted” to provide social justice and economic progress for Black people. Reading these words, it’s not hard to see how stuTHE PROGRESSIVE | 5
Bills similar to HB 1532 have already passed in Idaho, Iowa, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas; others are working their way through more than a dozen other state legislatures. While this is certainly alarming, rightwing operatives are also mobilizing white parents to demand local school boards ban “teaching critical race theory.” These bills—and the Tea Party–like movement they’ve stirred up—have little to do with critical race theory, which is an academic framework created to analyze how racism is perpetuated through the legal system. Few K-12 teachers have even studied critical race theory, much less taught it. But, largely due to Black Lives Matter protests, teachers are increasingly discussing systemic racism with their students, and it’s these discussions that the right is attempting to silence. What Republican politicians pushing these bills want taught is the version of history found in the corporate textbooks shaped by Texan conservatives, where the three-fifths clause is characterized as a “compromise” among the Founding Fathers (about half of whom enslaved people), where Martin Luther King Jr. is played on a loop repeating his famous line about judging people based on “the content of their 6 | AUGUST / SEPTEMBER 2021
character,” and where debates about unequal and segregated schools ended decades ago. This is the educational equivalent of the “Big Lie” that Trump won the election, occasioning the wave of voter suppression laws promoted by the same political forces. Denying the depth of our racist past makes it easier for rightwing politicians to implement racist policies today. For example, the Republican Party in Pennsylvania—including the sponsors of HB 1532— have presided over one of the most inequitable and racist public school budgets in the country. In 1992, Pennsylvania implemented a “hold harmless” policy that ensured that school districts could not receive less funding than they did the previous year. This means that districts with declining enrollments are given millions of dollars every year tied to students they no longer educate, while districts like Philadelphia, with growing student populations, struggle to receive adequate funding. According to research conducted by Public Citizens for Children and Youth, “Black and Hispanic students bear the brunt of the systemic underfunding. More than 80 percent of the state’s Black and Hispanic students attend growing school districts.” As of mid-July, there were twenty-eight sponsors of HB 1532. According to 2010 Census data, only eight of the bill’s sponsors represent districts that are less than 90 percent white and only two sponsors represent districts with a Black population of more than 5 percent. The Republican-led house has continually blocked fair funding legislation in Pennsylvania and pushed hard for the privatization of public schools, which has exacerbated segregation. After decades of denying Black and brown children the funding they should have, Republican legislators now want to deny them the right to discuss this robbery in their classrooms. And after decades of denying the resources Black and brown communities need to repair the harm of this country’s racist past, these lawmakers are trying to deny children the right to learn about that racist past in school. While Republicans have long feared educated and anti-racist Black and brown children, they now have an additional concern: In the face of inescapable evidence and ongoing police killings like the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, anti-racist discussions are seeping into majority white school districts. “Black Lives Matter protests have even emerged in smaller and whiter suburbs and towns in deeply conNITZAN ZIV
dents may reasonably conclude that King—a national hero with his own federal holiday—believed that individual white people do, in fact, “bear responsibility for actions committed in the past” by other white people. This fall, a lawsuit aiming to hold the Pennsylvania General Assembly accountable for decades of inequitable funding will go to trial. It documents how Pennsylvania spends, on average, $4,800 less per student in poorer districts that serve predominantly Black and brown populations than in wealthier, whiter districts. If I discuss this lawsuit in class—a compelling subject given that the outcome will have a direct effect on the quality of my students’ educational experiences—students might conclude that the “merit-based system” is a myth. They might come to regard the fiction they are told that individuals get ahead based primarily on talent and effort masks deep racist inequities where wealthy white kids are given more resources to succeed. Under HB 1532, these justifiable conclusions that students draw from engaging with the real history of the Constitution, Martin Luther King Jr., and school funding inequities could put my job and my school’s funding in jeopardy. And that’s the point.
Adam Sanchez discussing an essay with a student.
servative counties,” scholars Lara Putnam and Jeremy Pressman wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post. “This is compatible with evidence that young people in outer suburbs and small towns are becoming less conservative . . . . Even the very smallest cities—which tend to have more educated, more diverse, and younger populations than their surrounding regions—have shifted leftward in recent years, while the surrounding regions have often shifted rightward.”
Because good teaching means bringing the world your students witness and experience into the classroom, more and more educators are rightly joining the debates and discussions this country is having about race and racism. The Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action, brought to Philadelphia by educators in 2017 to promote the teaching of racial justice in the classroom, tripled in size this year. The Zinn Education Project, where I am a teacher leader, is a project of Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change that offers free anti-racist curriculum to teachers. In the months following last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, the number of visitors and new registrations at the Zinn Education Project website shot up to more than double previous months. There is a growing group of teachers dedicated to teaching racial justice who refuse to allow Republican legislators to hide the truth about this country from our students. The Zinn Education Project launched a “Pledge to Teach the Truth,” and within a few weeks more than 5,000 educators have committed to help students understand the roots of U.S. racism “regardless of the law.” Partnering with Black Lives Matter at School, the Zinn Education Project also called a national day of action on June 12 to “raise public awareness about the danger of these bills” and encourage educators to make their pledge public in gatherings nationwide. After two weeks of organizing, hundreds gathered in more than twenty-five states and territories. Many actions took place at historical sites that legislation might bar teachers from discussing in class. In San Bruno, California, educators gathered at Tanforan Racetrack, where 8,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated before being sent to internment camps during World War II. In Waterloo, Iowa, educators spoke out at several sites where Black Iowans experienced segregation and employment discrimination in the 1950s and 1960s. In Memphis, Tennessee, protesters also walked to several historical sites; Alex Iberg, a teacher at Memphis’s Grizzlies Prep, which
Philadelphia high school teacher Keziah Ridgeway speaks at a June 12 #TeachTruth Day of Action rally.
was built on the same block as the site of a former slave market, wondered: “Are we even allowed to talk with our students about our own school?” In Philadelphia, high school teacher Kristin Luebbert declared, “We are at the site of the house of our first President, the very site where a talented Black seamstress named Ona Judge—one of many people enslaved by the Washingtons—declared her freedom and fled north . . . . Ona refused to be treated like a candlestick or an heirloom vase—as a human being, she had a right to her freedom—and she took it! She lived as a free person for the rest of her life. We will teach this truth!” By gathering at historic sites that would be legislated off limits for classroom discussion, educators not only exposed the rightwing agenda, but continued to highlight the racist past in their communities that need to be reckoned with. At a rally in Philadelphia, Jordan Henry, a twelve-year-old Black student, cut through the conservative frenzy about critical race theory, when she said: “Up until this point in my education, most of my teachers have taught me how to count, rather than teaching me what counts.” The truth is that the canned, corporate curriculum that perpetuates racist myths is still dominant in K-12 classrooms—even in predominantly Black and brown communities. The right wing is committed to maintaining its power by mobilizing its shrinking electoral base around a mythological past and delusional present. The racial reckoning that began after George Floyd’s murder is pushing teachers to infuse racial justice into their curriculums. At a rally in Seattle, teacher Jesse Hagopian, a Public Schools Advocate fellow, pointed out that last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests were “led by youth.” He continued: “The media likes to talk about learning loss from summer break or from remote schooling, but the truth is the students have learned— and taught—the nation so much about the nature of structural racism. These youth who can think for themselves and challenge injustice really scare racists.” The fact that more educators are challenging racism in their classrooms and more young people are confronting racism in the streets is scaring the right. Republican lawmakers have thrown teachers into the frontlines of the battle against white supremacy. As Jordan Henry stated at the Philadelphia rally, “We need education that empowers students, not controls them. We need to be honest about our past, so that we can create a better future.” ◆ THE PROGRESSIVE | 7
What Schools in Minneapolis Are Teaching About Race Hint: It’s not about blaming white people or hating the United States. BY SARAH LAHM Lindsey West
Lindsey West, a Minneapolis-based middle school teacher, often starts classroom discussions on race with questions rather than answers. What do her students really know, she wonders, about the history of racism in the United States, beyond platitudes that come to them through one-off events such as Black History Month?
Sarah Lahm is a Minneapolis-based writer whose work appears in The Progressive, In These Times, and other national and local publications. She is a former community college English instructor.
West says that by age ten, many of her students have absorbed the idea that it is impolite to mention race. But West, who is Black, says she doesn’t have that option: “The very world I live in is not colorblind.” And so she puts together resources and curriculum materials that help her students understand the ways that race impacts every aspect of U.S. society. She wants them to know it is “OK to ask and to wonder” about racism and racial identity. West, who has taught fifth-graders in the Minneapolis Public Schools for the past nine years, will typically begin a social studies unit with a check-in of what students already know. Many are familiar with the history of slavery in the United States and its connection to the Civil War. They are also usually aware of some of the key figures of the civil rights movement, people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. She then prompts her students to think about why the civil rights movement was necessary after the Civil War ended slavery. “What happened in between?” she asks them. Or, she might ask, why did Jackie Robinson have to integrate baseball if all Americans were, by that time, equal citizens? West will guide her students through an age-appropriate poem, article, or piece of historical fiction, such as Christopher Paul Curtis’s novel, The Watsons Go to
8 | AUGUST / SEPTEMBER 2021
Birmingham—1963, which examines life in Alabama during a pivotal time in the push for civil rights. It “provides a safe landing for most students,” West says, by allowing them to discuss characters and situations that are a step removed from their own lives. West’s approach to teaching about race is grounded in building relationships with her students by helping them think critically about their world and about their own ideas. Her goal is to put students’ critical thinking skills into action, perhaps through a service project that raises money for people in need in their own communities. “This is an antidote to them feeling helpless,” she says.
hat goes on in West’s classroom is a far cry from the indoctrination fears around race and public education being fanned by rightwing activists such as Christopher Rufo. Rufo is a journalist-turned-failed-political candidate who once produced a conservative-funded documentary for PBS on poverty in the United States. These days, he has been credited with taking the relatively obscure academic approach known as critical race theory and turning it into the latest weapon in this country’s politically charged culture war. In July 2020, a disgruntled Seattle city employee reportedly sent Rufo a trove of documents leaked
from a workplace training session on anti-racism and implicit bias. While combing through materials connected to the training, Rufo stumbled upon the term “critical race theory.” Rufo believed he’d struck gold, or at least “political kindling,” as writer Benjamin Wallace-Wells put it in a profile of Rufo in The New Yorker. Before long, Rufo was all over Fox News, telling host Tucker Carlson in September 2020 that critical race theory had become the “default ideology of the federal bureaucracy and is now being weaponized against the American people.” It is being used, he alleged, to indoctrinate everyone into believing the United States is a “fundamentally white supremacist country.” Rufo’s declaration took place just two months before the 2020 presidential election, when Donald Trump was doing his best to stoke white rage. Smelling blood in the water, rightwing provocateurs followed Rufo’s lead and pounced on the term “critical race theory.” Before long, it had become a constant target for their furor, alongside cancel culture and the perceived pressure to be “woke.” Rufo soon had the ear of Trump, who in September 2020 signed an executive order banning the teaching of critical race theory in diversity-training sessions put on by federal agencies. (President Joe Biden promptly overturned this ban upon taking office in January.) It didn’t take long for this new Red Scare to find its way into legislation targeting public schools and the teachers who work in them. As of late June, nearly two dozen Republican-controlled state legislatures have pushed bills designed to root out any whiff of critical race theory—or, more accurately, any curriculums that could be used to directly address racism or other forms of oppression. Earlier this year, a Rhode Island state representative named Patricia Morgan proposed a bill that would forbid K-12 students from being taught that “the state of Rhode Island or the United States of America is fundamentally racist or sexist.” But this represents a profound, if not intentional, misunderstanding of what critical race theory is and how it applies to public education, says education policy scholar Gloria Ladson-Billings. Ladson-Billings, a professor emerita of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, spoke recently with reporter Audie Cornish on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. When asked how critical race theory might be used in the classroom, if at all, Ladson-Billings said she didn’t know, citing its origins as a graduate school–level construct. But she said it does make sense to use whatever tools are available to understand how racial injustice impacts schools. Having an awareness of the racist underpinnings of U.S. society can help education policy experts understand why students of color are disproportionately suspended or pushed out of school, Ladson-Billings said.
ourtney Antone just wrapped up her second year as an English teacher at Minneapolis’s South High School, a 1970s-era concrete monolith that sits blocks from where George Floyd was murdered. Antone’s students are not empty buckets, ready to fill with lectures on how racism and white privilege have shaped the United States, she says. Instead, many are living with the impact of these destructive systems every day. South High School is very diverse, with nearly equal amounts of white and Black students, along with smaller percentages of students from other racial demographic backgrounds. Just over half of the 1,600 students who attend the school qualify for free or reduced lunch, according to federal criteria. “They already come to school with so much,” says Antone, who sees her role as that of a guide to help students “identify what they are thinking about something and then help them articulate it.” Like West, who works with middle school students, Antone begins her discussions on race with an inquiry-based framework. “I pose questions, students pose questions, and then we come up with questions we want to answer together,” she says. The concept of abolition figured into their recent unit on police reform, and students were required to write an essay about it at the end of the school year. Antone says students came up with perspectives—including one essay that discussed police abolition through the lens of sexual violence—that surprised her. “This leads to a richer classroom,” she argues. Antone is well versed in critical race theory, thanks to her graduate school education, but says that, as a white teacher, she also has obvious blind spots. The fear of talking about race “hurts us,” Antone says. “We don’t have the language or the vocabulary to do it.” While many students expressed a desire to discuss what happened to George Floyd, some students of color were triggered by it. “Some moments were awful,” she acknowledges, saying that she uses the work of Minneapolis-based therapist Resmaa Menakem to help students understand the concept of racialized trauma and the way it might live on in our bodies. Menakem wrote a book called My Grandmother’s Hands, based on his family’s own experiences. He argues that efforts to deal with racism must begin with our bodies, where trauma lingers for both people of color and white people. On June 18, the conservative news site RealClearPolitics published an opinion piece by Donald Trump fanning the flames of white fear by invoking “the ridiculous leftwing dogma known as ‘critical race theory.’ ” The former President urged parents to rise up to “ensure that students are receiving a patriotic, pro-American education—not being taught that the United States is an evil nation.” That’s not what’s being taught in U.S. schools. Trump might want to pop into a classroom and see for himself. ◆ THE PROGRESSIVE | 9
O N T H E L I N E by T H E Z I N N E D U C AT I O N P R OJ E C T
REFUSING TO LIE, REGARDLESS OF THE LAW On June 12, in more than two dozen cities and towns across the United States, thousands of educators took to the streets to oppose the Republican-led drive to ban the teaching of “critical race theory.” As of mid-July, twenty-six states have proposed or passed legislation that limits how teachers can discuss racism or sexism in public schools. While it’s unclear what the impact
of these bills will be, at the end of each rally, the protesters signed a pledge that they “refuse to lie to young people about U.S. history and current events—regardless of the law.” The demonstrations, collectively named the #TeachTruth Day of Action, were organized by the Zinn Education Project and Black Lives Matter at School. Here are a selection of photos from rallies in Wisconsin, Tennessee, Texas, and elsewhere.
Sequanna Taylor, vice president of the Milwaukee School Board, emcees a rally against Republican legislation in Wisconsin that, if passed, would prohibit anti-racist or anti-sexist teaching and curriculum. (Photo by Barbara Miner.)
More than fifty students and educators gathered at historic sites in Memphis, Tennessee, such as the National Civil Rights Museum. In May, Tennessee became one of the first states to pass legislation banning teachers from discussing race and racism in classrooms. (Photo by Eddie Walsh / Alex Iberg.) 10 | AUGUST / SEPTEMBER 2021
Educator Jennifer Lee, speaking at the Day of Action rally in Belton, Texas, called the state’s anti-critical race theory bill, which passed in June, a “love letter to white supremacy.” (Photo by Jason Deckman.)
Educators in Waterloo, Iowa, demonstrated against a law signed by Governor Kim Reynolds that outlawed the teaching of socalled “divisive concepts,” including that systemic racism exists in Iowa or the United States as a whole. The speaker is Schnique Williams Rembert. (Photo by Anne Phillips.)
Educators in Washington, D.C., held their rally in front of the African American Civil War Memorial. (Photo by Marco A. Esparza.)
The Day of Action protest in Concord, New Hampshire, arose in “Racism is a complex issue,” said one educator in response to an anti-critical race theory bill that was proposed by state Portland, Oregon. “It requires digging, it requires an Republicans in April. (Photo by Troy Cromwell.) inquisitive mind.” (Photo by David Worthington.)
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SMART ASS CRIPPLE by MIKE ERVIN
SEPARATE AND UNEQUAL
W MIKE ERVIN, a writer and disability rights activist living in Chicago, blogs at Smart Ass Cripple, “expressing pain through sarcasm since 2010,” and writes regularly at Progressive.org.
hen I was growing up in Chicago, most of the kids in my neighborhood either walked a few blocks to the local public school, John H. Kinzie Elementary, or to one of the nearby Catholic schools. But a big yellow school bus would arrive to take my sister and me to Walter S. Christopher Elementary, a Chicago public school for kids with disabilities. It was a round trip of about twelve miles. That was because my sister and I were in wheelchairs. It was the 1960s, and public and parochial schools were allowed to turn us away simply for that reason. There were no laws to stop them. Kinzie wasn’t wheelchair accessible anyway. There were stairs on the entrances and I sincerely doubt it had wheelchair-accessible bathroom stalls or anything like that. Such schools were not meant for kids like us. No, Christopher was the school for disabled kids. Many of our classmates were bussed in from neighborhoods much more farflung than ours. And these weren’t just kids in wheelchairs. There was a Black girl who walked and talked just fine, but she had no nose. It looked as though she had a homemade prosthetic that was vaguely shaped like a nose and maybe was made of clay. It was several shades darker than her skin tone and literally glued onto her face. It would sometimes fall off when she did something physically active, like jump rope. She’d pick up her nose and run off to the office of the school nurse to get it glued back on. There was another Black boy whose face was scarred and dis-
12 | AUGUST / SEPTEMBER 2021
torted by a fire. Another kid had neighborhood school on the first rotten teeth. He just had a few day of kindergarten. The principal grayish-brown spikes in his mouth turned Judy away, saying that bethat looked like tiny stalagmites cause she was in a wheelchair, she and stalactites. But it sure didn’t was a fire hazard. seem like there was anything else So, instead, Judy was tutored disabled about him. at home for two-and-a-half hours All of these kids could easily get a week. In her memoir, she writes, into and around a neighborhood “The idea that I could learn anyschool like Kinzie, but still they thing meaningful in two and a half were turned away. hours of instruction a week was, of The Americans with Disabil- course, ludicrous.” She described ities Act defines a disability as a the homework as “meager.” physical or mental impairment Thanks to her mother’s perthat substantially limits one or sistent advocacy, when Judy more major life activity. It seems was nine years old and halfway that in my grade school days, the through fourth grade, she was fiunwritten definition of disability nally admitted into a public school being applied by school districts program for disabled kids called was a physical or mental imper- Health Conservation 21. It was fection that makes others feel un- housed in the basement of a pubcomfortable. lic school. The students in Health We were segregated away be- Conservation 21 ranged in age cause we were freaks. from nine to twenty-one. Nondisabled kids went to uring my school days, the school throughout the rest of the only public high school for building. She writes, “They were disabled kids was Jesse Spalding. taught a regulated curriculum that Most kids who graduated from required them to be in school from Christopher or one of the few eight-thirty in the morning until other public schools for disabled three in the afternoon—about six kids would be bussed there. My hours of instruction. The quantity local high school, John F. Kennedy, and quality of their instruction was as inaccessible as Kinzie. was designed to ensure that they The generation of disabled kids would progress in school, from elbefore us were even more isolated ementary school to middle school, and shunned by the public school and then to high school and, idesystem. Judy Heumann, an in- ally, college. ternationally renowned disabil“Nobody, not the teachers, not ity activist, grew up in Brooklyn the principal, not the New York and became disabled as an infant City Board of Education, expectduring the polio epidemic of 1949. ed the special-ed kids to learn. In her memoir, Being Heumann, Many didn’t expect us to progress released last year, she recounts from elementary school, to midthe day in September 1953 when dle school, high school, university. her mother got her all dressed We were expected to stay in Health for school and lugged Judy in her Conservation 21 until we were wheelchair up the stairs of the twenty-one years old, at which
point we were supposed to enter a sheltered workshop.” But in 1975, the U.S. Congress passed the landmark law that is known today as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). It states that disabled kids
Even forty-five years after Congress made equal access the law of the land, many school facilities, and the people who run them, are not very welcoming to students with disabilities. have the right to a “free and appropriate public education.” That was intended to ensure that school districts would no longer ignore or segregate kids with disabilities, as they did with Judy and me. IDEA has produced several generations of students that we older folks often call “mainstream crips” because they went to school with their nondisabled peers. But even forty-five years after Congress made equal access the law of the land, many school facilities, and the people who run them, are not very welcoming to students with disabilities.
t the request of Congress, the Government Accountability Office conducted a physical access survey of K-12 public schools. The GAO’s subsequent report, which came out in June 2020, drew many sad conclusions. It found “barriers that may limit access for people with disabilities” in all fifty-five schools visited by GAO officials in sixteen school districts nationwide. The report estimated that, as a result, 17 percent of school districts— enrolling more than sixteen mil-
lion students—have one or more valuable learning time I will never schools that “are not typically at- get back.” tended by students with physical Anja says she “struggled with disabilities due to the number of all manner of access issues” as she barriers.” tried to get an education. “There Schools with accessibility prob- were the times that the elevator lems shut out disabled people who was broken, keeping me from are not students, too. The GAO re- reaching my classes upstairs. None port said, “People with disabilities of the classroom doors had been have too often been excluded from outfitted with access buttons, so I participating in basic civic activi- had to beg my teachers to please ties that can take place in school leave the door ajar.” facilities—such as voting, seeking When Anja toured her present refuge at an emergency shelter, or high school for the first time early simply attending a high school in 2019, she encountered barriers sporting event or parent-teacher “ranging from steep ramps to heavy conference—due to physical bar- metal doors that I wouldn’t be able riers that limit access.” to push open” that made her feel Anja Herrman’s education unwelcome. experience gives credence to the But, ironically, because the GAO’s findings. She’s fifteen years pandemic forced all classes onold and has used a wheelchair line, Anja didn’t have to deal with since she was in third grade. In the the physical access struggles at her fall, she will be a sophomore at her new high school. This she found to local high school in the Chicago be quite liberating. suburbs. “Once the physical barriers were Anja wrote a first-person essay removed, I could actually particithat was recently published on- pate academically to the fullest line in Input magazine. In it, she extent possible—the same way my lamented the prospect of being peers did,” she writes. “I’m feeling required by state law to return to like a bigger part of my broader school in-person, in the fall, now school community, and I’m overall that the pandemic has subsided a much happier person. My grades somewhat, after completing her have gone up significantly.” freshman year entirely online. That’s why Anja now dreads In the essay, Anja recounts how, navigating around access barriers in grade school, in order to cover that will slow her down, wear her the great distance between classes, out, and cause her to be left behind, she left one class five minutes early again. and arrived at the next class five “When we go back to the tired, minutes late. Thus, she calculates, inaccessible way of doing schoolshe missed eighty minutes a day ing, I am anticipating a terrible and twenty-four hours a month of sophomore slump, and I will classroom instruction time. mourn my freshman year, when I “What did I miss?” she asks in was finally able to soar,” she writes. the essay. “I don’t know, maybe In some ways, the school days how to solve for X? Or how to of the mainstream crips are very conjugate a French verb? Perhaps different from mine. But in other how to dismantle a bomb? This is ways, they are not. ◆ THE PROGRESSIVE | 13
B LAST F R O M T H E PAST
In April 1928, Fola La Follette, eldest child of Belle and Bob La Follette, filed this report from the Progressive Education Association conference in New York City. Here is an excerpt:
The Movement for Progressive Schools By Fola La Follette
he conservatives may be in the ascendant politically in this country, but in the world of elementary and secondary education it is evidently now the popular thing to be counted “progressive.” At least this seems a fair deduction after observing the many shades of educational [preaching] and practice which joined in the Eighth Annual Conference of the Progressive Education Association in New York City the week of March 5. Not long ago, there were schools which had made radical innovations in their practice and yet hesitated to allow themselves to be called “progressive;” today there appear to be many quite formal schools that consider it desirable to be thus classified. Does this mean that an increasing number of parents are demanding something different from the old formal academic factories for their children? Certainly the Progressive Education Conference demonstrated that a prophet may be honored even in his own country. For eighteen hundred people gathered in the East Ballroom of the Commodore Hotel to hear Dr. John Dewey’s address:
“[T]hat pupils in progressive schools are themselves progressing, and that the movement to establish more progressive schools is progressing, I have no doubt. Nor do I think that the old question, once a bugaboo, as to what will happen when the pupils go to college or out into life, is any longer an open one. Experience has proven that they give a good account of themselves; so it has seemed to me that the present is a fitting time to raise the intellectual [and] theoretical problem of the relation of the progressive movement to the art and philosophy of education.” Another public school teacher expressed the view that the antiquated methods and the deplorable rigidity of the public school system were not the fault of the parents and teachers, but of the public school supervising force. “It isn’t a question so much of parents as it is a question of the teachers uniting and demanding better conditions under which they work. The conditions under which teachers work in the public schools are hideous for them and for the children.”
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Educators are bracing for an uncertain fall semester. BY PETER GREENE
March 13, 2020, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf called for schools in his state to shut down due to COVID-19. At first it was for ten business days. Then it was for some more. Then the end of the school year was lost; it just slipped away. Finally, it was “maybe we’ll be able to go back to buildings in the fall of 2020,” which also didn’t happen. Here in rural Pennsylvania, the impact of the pandemic followed its own peculiar trajectory. The total number of cases in Venango County, where I live, was just eighty-eight between March and September 2020, according to local news accounts. By October 15, the case number had almost doubled. By December 1, it was 1,000. At the beginning of the summer, there were 4,095 confirmed cases and 100 deaths in a county of about 50,000 people. The advice that came from the state and federal government was largely unhelpful. “Stay locked down in your home” made little sense in a place where you can step out your door and walk fifteen minutes without seeing a soul. “Shut down all inessential businesses” seems pointless if your business is a staff of three people who are all related. And former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s Trump-backed insistence
that all schools should unilaterally reopen last summer was not very helpful, either. In rural areas, people are already easily spread out and distanced. But we also love our high school sports and our church services, and we are not always very trusting of the government. So for a year and a half, schools have been feeling the tension between getting back to normal and making responsible choices. They’ve pinballed back and forth from open buildings with restrictions, to a hybrid model, to half-days every other day, to being fully virtual. All this has meant chaos for teachers and families. Administrators made decisions at the last possible minute, waiting to see what the most current conditions would be. Teachers spent hours preparing different versions of lesson plans, knowing that only some of them would be used. Parents scrambled to make
Peter Greene has been a classroom secondary school English teacher for more than thirtyfive years. He lives and works in a small town in northwest Pennsylvania, blogs at Curmudgucation, and is a fellow with The Progressive’s Public Schools Advocate project.
THE PROGRESSIVE | 15
ALLISON SHELLEY FOR EDUIMAGES
SEARCHING FOR ‘NORMAL’
ALLISON SHELLEY FOR EDUIMAGES
child care arrangements. Facilities didn’t necessarily match up—this school is open, that school is closed; the day-care center is closed, but the school is open. Virtual teaching was a problem because a significant number of rural families have no Internet connection; many teachers had to create another option that involved making phone connections with parents to deliver packs of paper copies of lessons. Teachers had to either plan ahead for several possible scenarios, knowing some might never be used, or scramble to plan lessons and materials quickly. Stu-
Students line up by class on colored dots in the school gym to wait for their rides after dismissal at Wesley Elementary School in Middletown, Connecticut.
dents were bounced back and forth, keeping them from developing the kind of rapport with teachers that helps a school year run smoothly. Meanwhile, teachers had other issues to deal with: how to follow current protocols. How to deal with students’ families—or colleagues—who did not take any of this seriously. How to take care of their own families. And how to handle the avalanche of staffing problems that can occur due to post-exposure isolation. There were dozens of possible responses to the crisis, and all of them seemed bad. As one principal told his school board as it considered whether to reopen, “There’s no easy answer. I’m riding the fence, too. Are we digging a ditch educationally? Yes, but we could be digging a ditch to put somebody in.” For many teachers, in Pennsylvania and across the country, this summer has been about trying to recover, regroup, and recapture some sense of normal. Just about every teacher I talk to about returning to school this fall uses the word “normal.” And yet there is lingering concern that we may not get there.
am excited for things to seem a little more normal in the classroom,” says Stacy Garcia, an English teacher at Franklin High School in Franklin, Pennsyl-
16 | AUGUST / SEPTEMBER 2021
vania. “I hope conditions are safe enough for students to remain in-person learning for the entire year.” Jami Lyons, a social studies teacher at Franklin High, agrees: “I am hopeful that some semblance of normalcy will be seen in the fall. Am I a little apprehensive about continued issues? Yes. Do I think this will be completely ‘normal’? No.” Much of the coming year is riding on factors beyond most teachers’ control. “Learning loss” has been pushed as a major issue for the fall, mostly by people who don’t actually work in schools. For teachers, learning loss will not be one of the biggest issues of the fall. Teachers will do what they always do as the school year begins; they will use an assortment of formal and informal assessments to determine where their students are academically. Teachers know that many students didn’t get the usual background from their previous year, and will adjust their expectations accordingly. Teachers will also watch for students’ social and emotional development, because they know the last year and a half has been rough. This is an area where rural and small-town teachers may have an advantage, because they know the community, the people, and often the families of their students. But all teachers are aware that many students are a bit raw and jangled after last year. Then there is, of course, the virus itself. A summer’s worth of variants spread through the unvaccinated population may force some districts to face a new COVID-19 reality. The public is getting used to living without a pandemic; a district that announces that students are supposed to mask this fall is likely to hear from some cranky parents. Matt Gustafson, an economics teacher at Franklin High School, is trying to stay optimistic. “I’m hopeful that our district can do better at being ahead of the challenges the pandemic might create instead of feeling like we are always just responding, at the last possible minute,” he says. But his district’s track record on this isn’t great, and he’s “already been told that I’ll have a class of thirty-five next year in my already overloaded thirty-desk classroom.” Some school districts have built trust over the past eighteen months. Some have burned through the little they had. Some have put policies and procedures in place, and then ignored them when outbreaks actually occurred. Others have paid lip service to safety measures, but failed to fully implement them. Teachers also have concerns about what teaching will look like. Some cities and states have mandated that all public schools must be in person, but Pennsylvania was offering public virtual schools long before the pandemic hit. Pennsylvania is a highly
had “seriously considered” leaving teaching in the previous few years. “I felt like I was being experimented on,” said one Louisiana-based teacher who left the classroom. And that was certainly a common thread for teachers. In many communities, there was a certain callousness that did not go unnoticed, an insistence that teachers were public servants and should just get back to work so that everyone else’s life could get back to normal. In too many conversations, official guidelines of “teachers and students can go back to school buildALLISON SHELLEY FOR EDUIMAGES
profitable playground for cyber schools, which are paid based on the cost of educating a student in a bricks-and-mortar school, and not the actual costs of virtual schooling. They are also highly ineffective; not one cyber school in Pennsylvania has ever made passing scores on state evaluations. Most public school districts have created their own virtual schools, both to have more control over the academic program and to mitigate the loss of funding to the cyber schools. Enrollment in those virtual programs increased dramatically, testing the capacities of those district programs. In some cases, teachers have been assigned virtual teaching duties for part of their day. In others, the virtual school program has been farmed out to vendors who handle some or all of the virtual school program. Nobody really knows what virtual enrollment will look like in the fall, or what effect it will have on teaching jobs. Managing it is one more issue that rests on trust and cooperation between administration and staff. Guidance from state and federal authorities might be helpful, but there, again, trust has been eroded. And most solutions have to be local.
small town moves to the rhythm of its schools, and for eighteen months those rhythms have been jangled and jerky, like a radio switching stations every thirty seconds. Students and their parents are concerned about academics, but also about football and basketball seasons, about prom, about a graduation ceremony fully open to the whole community. The pressure is enormous to put these markers of a normal year back in place. But some teachers and families are leery of just how much safety will be sacrificed to create a normal year. At the same time, the same folks who have been demanding that their children not be subjected to the “tyranny” of masks in school are now energized to root out any telltale signs of critical race theory in local schools. Schools are already dealing with real major issues; in some communities, they must deal with manufactured issues as well. There has been concern about a teacher exodus, but the actual numbers don’t show an uptick in teacher departures. A RAND survey from early 2021 found that one in four teachers said they were considering quitting, primarily due to pandemic job stress. That may sound alarming—RAND says that previous years turned up a figure of one in six. But other surveys have actually shown worse numbers pre-COVID-19. Phi Delta Kappa International runs an annual survey of teachers; in August 2019, it found that 50 percent of all U.S. teachers
ings once appropriate safety measures are in place” were shortened to “teachers and students can go back to school buildings.” Still, when asked about the fall, one teacher told me, “I’ve never looked forward to going back more than I do right now.” That sentiment has been echoed in dozens of talks with educators, as has “I think students and staff expect to be back without restrictions, but I think we’re going to be in for a rude awakening.” Kelly Zerbe is an elementary school teacher in Oil City, Pennsylvania, and a dance teacher at a private studio who usually spends her fall choreographing community theater productions, but not this year. “This past school year was very tough . . . and we haven’t been told much about the upcoming year. Although I’m optimistic, I’m worried about taking on too much at the start of the school year.” But perhaps Amanda Greene, a second-grade teacher in Pennsylvania’s Cranberry Area School District (and, incidentally, my wife), put it best: “I dread going back. Also, I am really, really excited about prepping room decorations and lesson materials.” Excited. Exhausted. Apprehensive. That’s how many teachers are feeling about facing the new school year. ◆
An elementary school student has his temperature checked by a thermal scanner as he enters the school building.
THE PROGRESSIVE | 17
Young People Deserve Police-Free Schools BY MARIA C. FERNANDEZ AND JONATHAN STITH
n 2015, a student-recorded video of the #AssaultatSpringValley went viral; it shows Shakara, a sixteen-year-old Black girl from Columbia, South Carolina, being placed in a headlock, flipped over in her desk chair, then dragged and thrown across her classroom by a school police officer. The student who recorded the video, Niya, was arrested; the cop who assaulted Shakara, Ben Fields, was not charged. After this assault, young people came together to seek to end the criminalization and abuse of students of color, and support those young people who have experienced police violence firsthand. They wrote letters to the students, Niya and Shakara. They modeled the world they would like to see, a world without police. When young people and organizers talk about police-free schools, they are fighting for a world that does not yet exist. They’re fighting to dismantle school policing infrastructure, culture, and practice, to end school militarization and surveillance, and to build a new, liberatory education system. We can’t build the future our students deserve through modest reforms. Instead, we must heed their calls to transform safety in our schools through resources that meet students’ needs. And that includes getting rid of the police. 18 | AUGUST / SEPTEMBER 2021
he police murder of George Floyd forced communities to grapple with the fact that the police who target, terrorize, and kill Black and brown people on the streets are the same police in schools with our children. Over the past year, at least thirty-five school districts have taken steps to end policing in their hallways. And federal legislation has been introduced to end federal funding of police in schools. It’s called the Counseling Not Criminalization in Schools Act. Last summer, as school districts from Minneapolis to Denver to Oakland to Phoenix took action to remove police from schools, the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) responded with calls for “rigorous training” and “appropriate use” of police in schools. But years of research and lived experiences of students show that school police do not make students safe; in fact, they make students less safe, even when certain measures have been adopted to try to increase their training or limit their roles, tactics, and responsibilities. NASRO is deploying alarmist rhetoric about “potential violence” to justify sustained police presence in our schools; it claims the “unprecedented break” caused by the pandemic could exacerbate violence
High school students in New York City unfurl giant banners near City Hall during a June 25 rally calling for policefree schools and the defunding of the NYPD.
Maria C. Fernandez is managing director of campaign strategy at the Advancement Project National Office. Jonathan Stith is national director of the Alliance for Educational Justice.
when schools reopen that school police must be “prepared for.” As schools reopened their doors in the spring, young people were met with violence—by the police. Two Black girls in two separate Florida school districts were physically assaulted by law enforcement on the same day in January. Yet NASRO has been silent about police assaults against young people. We have seen this before—school police justifying the criminalization of Black, brown, and poor students in the name of public safety. In 2014, uprisings had spread like wildfire in response to the murder of Black youth at the hands of police. Young people in the Alliance for Educational Justice moved member organizations to take stronger positions, engage in direct actions, and make clearer connections between police violence, schools, and educational justice.
As students begin to return to school, we must invest in the support they need to be safe and thrive. We can’t return to an unacceptable “normal.” As we return to school this fall, the federal government has taken steps to provide schools with resources to meet the needs of young people during the pandemic. But instead of guaranteeing restorative, trauma-informed practices, tech companies are swooping up these funds to surveil students (including with products typically reserved for cops). And the U.S. Department of Justice continues to offer schools hundreds of millions of dollars to police students under the guise of “school safety,” using anonymous reporting systems, social media surveillance, and threat assessment teams that coordinate with law enforcement. These dangerous and unproven practices will disproportionately criminalize Black and brown students and threaten their safety.
n some of the districts that took action last year to end policing, school policing is simply evolving—not ending. A few months after cutting its ties with the Minneapolis Police Department, the local school board used tools to digitally surveil their students and hired “public safety support specialists” to provide security and serve as a “bridge” between in-school intervention and law enforcement; many of these “specialists” come from law enforcement backgrounds. Los Angeles Unified School District voted to rehire the school police officers they previously terminated as “school climate coaches,” which was
denounced by students and organizers at Students Deserve and the Labor Community Strategy Center. As Denver passed the one-year anniversary of its police-free schools resolution, won by Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, and the deadline to remove all school police from schools, the district began expanding the authority of its Department of Safety and is considering installing “community resource officers” with law enforcement backgrounds to replace its school resource officers. Since the #AssaultatSpringValley, the Alliance for Educational Justice and the Advancement Project have documented more than 150 police assaults of students in their schools—including tasering, pepper spraying, using force, and even sexually abusing students. And these are just the assaults that make the news. We know that verbal harassment, the controlling of students’ movements in classrooms and hallways, questioning and detainment, and referrals to law enforcement and arrests are everyday experiences for students who attend schools with police. This is why our partners in the National Campaign for Police-Free Schools are demanding police-free schools that include investment in resources that support the whole child; hiring adults that do not fear Black youth; community collective processes that craft alternatives for safety; school-based violence interrupters; restorative and transformative justice; and anti-racist training and decolonizing school curriculums. These demands aim to ensure there are caring adults dedicated to cultivating the genius of Black and brown youth, and ultimately, to shift power in our schools. As students begin to return to school, we must invest in the support they need to be safe and thrive. We can’t return to an unacceptable “normal.” We must address all the ways “normal” is unjust and unacceptable: drastically underfunded Black and brown schools, privatization and takeover of Black and brown schools, schools where Black and brown students lack access to the same rigorous coursework as white students, and millions of students attending schools with police but without counselors, nurses, psychologists, or social workers. And we must hear the demands of the young people and their allies who have been learning, working, and engaging in the struggle for police-free schools for years now. An approach that invests in schools without divesting from the harm and trauma caused by policing in all forms cannot claim to be transformative. We must live up to the dreams and imaginations of our young people, who can see beyond normal and envision a new, liberatory education system. ◆ THE PROGRESSIVE | 19
The Problem with Private School Vouchers Harmful programs that redirect funds from public schools to private institutions are spreading rapidly across the country. BY JESSICA LEVIN This year was supposed to be better for the nation’s schools. Hope sprung from the receding threat of COVID-19 and a new administration committed to public education. But the legacy of the Donald Trump presidency and continuing pandemic-related disruptions for students have led to the enactment of numerous state laws establishing or expanding private school voucher programs. Republican state legislators, exploiting the crisis to invigorate their school privatization agenda, are using school closures to push for vouchers. The decades-long underfunding of public schools by these same legislators meant the resources needed to ensure student and staff safety in the pandemic weren’t there. And many state capitol buildings were closed to the public earlier this year, preventing the demonstrations and testimony that often put pressure on state legislators to vote against school voucher bills. This was a perfect storm for privatizers, and re-
sulted in the introduction of voucher bills in dozens of states. Many failed but too many passed, and the effort to undermine education as a public good and a key pillar of our democracy got a significant shot in the arm. The effects of this will be felt for years to come. Private school vouchers, in a nutshell, redirect public money to private institutions. They undermine the fundamental promise of a high-quality, equitable education for all students, as private schools often discriminate based on factors like religion, fluency
Jessica Levin is a senior attorney at the Education Law Center and director of Public Funds Public Schools.
20 | AUGUST / SEPTEMBER 2021
in English, disability, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Vouchers also drain resources from public schools, which are not only required to serve all students, but are also vital community hubs and local units of democratic government. There are several kinds of private school vouchers: 1. Traditional vouchers pay for a student’s private school tuition with direct payments from the public treasury. Legislatures typically don’t enact traditional “voucher” programs because voters don’t like them. 2. Education Savings Accounts, or “ESA” voucher programs, direct public funds (generally a percentage of the per-pupil amount provided by the state to public schools) into a personal account. These funds can be used to pay for a student’s private school tuition, as well as a broad range of other private education expenses, including tutoring, online coursework, transportation, or even homeschooling. 3. Tax credit scholarship programs, also known as “neovouchers,” provide individuals or corporations with up to a 100 percent, dollar-for-dollar credit to send the money they would otherwise owe in taxes to private organizations. These organizations then fund private school vouchers for families to pay for tuition and other private education costs.
t least eight states have enacted new voucher programs in 2021 (as of mid-summer). Some of these states, including Arkansas and Indiana, already had one or more existing voucher programs. This multiplication of voucher schemes is common once an initial program is pushed through. Other states with new voucher schemes this year had previously been voucher-free. Kentucky, for example, established an education opportunity account program, an ESA voucher funded by a tax credit mechanism that provides $25 million annually in tax credits to individuals and corporations in exchange for donations to third-party voucher-granting organizations. The bill was vetoed by Democratic Governor Andy Beshear, but the state legislature overrode his veto. The Kentucky law places almost no restrictions on voucher-granting organizations, which can set their own criteria for the distribution of voucher funds. The private schools accepting these vouchers have virtually free rein to operate. They are often not held to high standards of academic quality or fiscal management, nor required to meet state accountability standards. The voucher law allows charter schools,
like private schools, to discriminate on factors that would otherwise be protected by federal laws like Title IX in standard public schools. The law is now being challenged in court by Kentucky public school parents and school districts. West Virginia also enacted the state’s first voucher program in 2021. The state zoomed from zero to sixty, enacting a near-universal voucher that is the broadest in the country. The new voucher law permits any student enrolled in public school or entering kindergarten to receive an Education Savings Account voucher, with the public school enrollment requirement ending in 2026 if participation is low in the first few years. The ESA amount is 100 percent of state per-pupil funding. The West Virginia law, notably, requires parents be notified that the use of vouchers to send students with
Private school vouchers undermine the fundamental promise of a high-quality, equitable education for all students. disabilities to private schools constitutes a “parental placement” under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. This means students and families waive most of their rights under the federal law that protects students with disabilities and guarantees them a free public education with all the programs and services required to meet their needs. The loss of rights isn’t what’s notable—this is true for almost all voucher programs. The fact that parents are informed of this loss is what’s unusual. At least fourteen states expanded their existing voucher programs this year, sometimes extending eligibility to a broader set of students or lifting the cap on the number of vouchers or the ceiling on tax credits. Unlike new programs, these expansions often fly under the radar, but they are far from trivial. In Montana, the voucher program enacted in 2015 provides 100 percent tax credits for donations up to $150. The expansion bill passed in 2021 raised that amount to $200,000. The bill reduces the cap on the size of the program from $3 million to $1 million in 2021, and $2 million the following year, but provides that in the future it will increase by 20 percent following any year where at least 80 percent of the cap is used. The new law also raises limits on the size of the voucher and does away with a requirement that voucher schools administer and publish the results of standardized tests. The expansion of initially small voucher programs is a favored tactic of pro-voucher groups. First, legislators propose a targeted or pilot program for a vulnerable group of students—often students with THE PROGRESSIVE | 21
disabilities. Then they expand that to other student subgroups, even if there’s no evidence of need or clear evidence of harm. In 2021, Arkansas passed two bills expanding the existing voucher program for students with disabilities and youth in foster care. This was despite a 2020 report by the state revealing inequitable enrollment by race and income, a glaring lack of usable data on academic outcomes, and little accountability for the public funds funneled to private schools. The new laws expand the definition of a disability that makes students eligible for vouchers and now include children of military families in the program. In Georgia, the establishment of a new voucher program was avoided in 2021, but the state still expanded its special needs voucher. Kansas, Oklahoma, and South Dakota, like Montana, expanded their tax-credit voucher programs. Florida, which already diverts nearly $1 billion per year to private school voucher schemes despite severe and chronic underfunding of its public schools, streamlined and expanded the state’s myriad voucher programs. Much of the school privatization battle is fought at the state level. Thus, despite the ouster of pro-voucher former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, and the Biden Administration’s opposition to voucher programs, the struggle over policies that divert public funds to private schools has only intensified.
t a very basic level, private school vouchers don’t do what education policies are supposed to: promote positive educational results. Study after study has shown that students who use vouchers to attend private school don’t perform any better than their public school peers. In fact, some studies have found that academic outcomes worsen for voucher students. The claim that vouchers save money is only persuasive if you don’t have all the facts. The idea that vouchers simply shift to private schools the funds that would have been used on public education is a myth. Voucher programs often subsidize private education for families that can already afford it, and whose children would never have attended public schools. The amount of a voucher often falls far short of the full cost of private school tuition, meaning families must make up the difference. And vouchers often shift expenses for essential services to parents that are normally included in a free public school education, such as transportation, free and reduced price lunch, and disability-related services. If vouchers save the state money, it is on the backs of children and families. But vouchers don’t save money for the government, either. A recent study published by the National Education Policy Center concluded that implementing 22 | AUGUST / SEPTEMBER 2021
universal vouchers would increase the total cost to the public by 11 to 33 percent, or up to $203 billion per year. Because private schools can discriminate in enrollment and services, voucher programs can concentrate in public schools those students who require increased resources to access equitable educational opportunities, such as students with disabilities and those learning English. Public school systems also have substantial fixed costs—including facilities and staff contracts—that cannot be reduced when students from different classrooms, grades, and school buildings exit to use vouchers. Fraud and waste are common in voucher programs, and there is scant fiscal accountability for private schools or voucher-granting organizations.
The idea that vouchers simply shift to private schools the funds that would have been used on public education is a myth. Finally, privatizers’ assertions that vouchers promote civil rights are absurd. Voucher programs came about after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision so white families could attend segregated private schools and thereby avoid integration. Today vouchers often play a similar role, or at least have similar segregative effects. A 2017 Century Foundation report concluded that “voucher programs are more likely to increase school segregation than to promote integration or maintain the status quo.” Private school vouchers rob the public treasury, pay for discrimination, do not improve student outcomes, increase segregation, and weaken an enormously important public good. Many parents and community members know this, and through their advocacy a significant number of these bills die, including bills proposing larger expansions or additional programs in states like Arizona, Georgia, and Kansas during their 2021 legislative sessions. Public education supporters have succeeded in beating back voucher legislation by forming bipartisan coalitions, including recruiting rural Republican legislators, and through grassroots mobilization. Strategies like these have defeated voucher proposals every year in Republican-controlled Texas. That’s good news but not good enough. Much work needs to be done to counter this push to defund the nation’s public schools, stratify communities along racial and economic lines, and create an education “marketplace” with no regard for quality or accountability. That work is happening everywhere, taken up by students, parents, educators, advocates, lawyers, elected officials, and everybody else who values public schools as crucial community institutions. ◆
Welcome to Refugee High A new book gives a portrait of students’ lives at one of Chicago’s most diverse high schools during Trump’s anti-immigrant campaign. BY ELLY FISHMAN
n the nine months since Donald Trump took office, he’s been a source of fear at Chicago’s Sullivan High School. As soon as his term began, the “Forty-fifth,” as Chad Adams, the high school’s principal, calls him, started a campaign to reduce the number of immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers entering the United States. Shortly after Trump’s Inauguration in January 2017, he announced a travel ban barring citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the country. The President pushed to allot $18 billion toward building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and prioritized the prosecution of criminal immigrant violations such as illegal entry. Chad knows that such rhetoric could shake students living in already tenuous circumstances. There are a lot of such kids at Sullivan: more than half of the school’s students came to the United States as immigrants or refugees. At 7:30 a.m., students start to pour into the hallways. Groups of girls in hijabs squeal as they greet one another. Congolese mothers, clad in bright Liputa dresses, admonish their children to stay nearby. Boys from the football team arrive in packs, their shouts to one another cutting across the wall of sounds. In many ways, Sullivan, which is small by Chicago public school standards, operates like several mini-schools within the same building. Immigrant and refugee students tend to stick together and to classrooms in the north wing of the school. Their U.S.born classmates, by contrast, tribe up based on sports teams, school clubs, grade levels, and academic tracks such as the medical and business programs, and the Reserve Officer’ Training Corps.
n Friday, October 13, a Sullivan sophomore named Belenge, a Congolese refugee, starts his
school day at the glass bus shelter on the intersection of Birchwood Avenue and Clark Street. He waits for a few of the other Congolese refugee students to meet at the corner before the group makes its daily trek the 1.2 miles south to Sullivan. The street is both busy and deserted. The corner is bounded by largely empty parking lots, one for a generic strip mall with off-price clothing stores, a big athletic shoe shop, and a discount makeup store. Another lot is for a national bank. Beyond that is a string of rubble-strewn lots left empty by demolitions. The landscape is a familiar one in Chicago, a city where entire neighborhoods can go underserved and overlooked for decades on end. Chronic disenfranchisement propels rates of poverty, trauma, and crime, too. Belenge is uneasy. Idling there even for just a few minutes at seven in the morning, he feels unsafe after being confronted and intimidated by a group of boys just a week before. Felix and Asani, two other students from Sullivan, arrive and flank Belenge as they head to school. The boys spend much of their time together, especially now that Belenge and his three younger siblings sleep next door at Felix’s family’s apartment most nights. During his first six months in Chicago, Belenge
Elly Fishman teaches in the journalism department at the University of Wisconsin– Milwaukee. Her 2017 article for Chicago magazine, “Welcome to Refugee High,” became the basis for this book, which recently won the Studs and Ida Terkel Prize for a first book in the public interest. Excerpted with permission from Refugee High: Coming of Age in America by Elly Fishman. To be published August 10 by The New Press.
THE PROGRESSIVE | 23
was in charge of his younger siblings. His Felix leaves for Esengo’s apartment. The unfold inside Sullivan. Each time the bell eldest brother had moved north to Wis- walk north will take him fifteen minutes. rings, students stream into the hallways. consin, where he worked at a meatpackJust past 9 p.m., Felix returns home. Boys race toward the cafeteria as they ing facility outside of Green Bay. During Belenge, Felix’s neighbor, sees his friend tug on one another’s backpacks. Young those months, Belenge would pick up the is frustrated. “Esengo wasn’t home,” Felix couples find hallway nooks where they three youngest children from school and says in Swahili, plopping himself into a whisper private messages in each other’s scrounge a dinner from whatever he found chair. “I waited for two hours. He never ears. Class comedians loudly quote snipin the kitchen cabinets. Most of their food came back.” pets from viral videos and employ creative was donated by RefugeeOne resettlement Felix explains that he called Esengo jabs to poke fun at their teachers. agency or U.S. co-sponsors. when he arrived at his friend’s apartment. Friends challenge one another to imA few blocks from Sullivan, Belenge Esengo’s sister had let Felix in. He was wet promptu flossing and Benny Whip dance passes the McDonald’s on the west side of from walking in the rain. When Esengo competitions while others pose for photos, Clark Street. There’s always a long line of answered the phone he told Felix that he each one meticulously edited to blurredcars waiting in the drive-through. Belenge was headed to Walgreens because his fa- pore perfection. All while Sullivan’s six can still recall the first time he stepped in- ther asked him to get some juice. The phar- full-time security staff belt out “Get to side a McDonald’s. Standing in front of macy was only a few blocks from Esengo’s class!” over the crowds. the cashier, neck craned upward, Belenge apartment, so Felix figured it wouldn’t Later in the morning, a detective from froze. Before coming to Chicago, Belenge take longer than fifteen minutes. “Maybe the Chicago Police Department arrives at knew little about the United States and he went somewhere else,” suggests Belenge. Sullivan. Tall with blonde hair, she stands the information he did possess stemmed Later that night, as the boys begin to inside the school metal detectors beside a mostly from movies and music. drift in and out of sleep, Felix’s phone buzz- security guard who sits at the front desk. As a result, Belenge’s impression of es. He holds it up to his face examining the She wears a black Chicago Police DepartU.S. culture was formed by songs like 50 number. When he answers, Belenge can’t ment vest with blue jeans. It’s never good Cent’s single “In da Club” and testoster- quite decipher his friend’s expression in when a detective shows up at the doors of one-fueled movies like Rambo and Com- the glow of his phone screen. Felix is quiet a school. She’s arrived from the hospital mando. They left him with a narrow and and stoic and doesn’t emote much. where she interviewed Esengo. often problematic understanding of his “Felix, this is Joseph, Esengo’s father,” Once there, she tells Matt Fasana, Sulnew country. None of the action movies Belenge hears the man explain in Swahili. livan’s assistant principal, what she knows: included a wall of monitors filled with a “Have you seen Esengo? I haven’t heard Esengo was likely shot near Ridge and tiled pattern of what looked like the same from him since I sent him to the store Touhy Avenue, and Esengo gave descripimage: a hamburger and fries. earlier today.” tions of two black men, one tall and the This morning, the group passes McBelenge sits up. He feels pangs of fear other short. Donald’s just before 7:30 a.m. If the boys punching against his chest. He can hear The detective also tells Matt she knows pick up their pace, they can still make it Joseph crying. “Esengo has never done Esengo was attacked earlier in the week, to Sullivan for the free breakfast. Belenge anything like this before,” he says. and she believes the shooting could be the and his friends are among the 90 percent Belenge’s entire body tells him some- result of gang recruitment gone awry. The of Sullivan students whose family incomes thing terrible has happened to Esengo. meeting is brief. are low enough to qualify them for free or Before the detective leaves, she tells reduced-cost school meals. n recent years, Chicago’s Rogers Park Matt she’ll be in touch. Elsewhere in the One of the cafeteria workers rolls a neighborhood, like much of the city, building, teacher Sarah Quintenz and mobile cart back toward the industrial has turned into a complicated mix of school social worker Josh Zepeda visit kitchen. Belenge doesn’t care much for the block-level gang territories run by young Esengo’s classes. Josh has come up with free breakfast—usually a limp, lukewarm men who have splintered off from the a simple, scripted version of the events. waffle or an English muffin paired with long-standing “super” gangs such as Gang- “Esengo is alive,” he tells the students. “We fruit and a small carton of milk. ster Disciples and Vice Lords. Like all of don’t know what happened to him. He is the city’s neighborhood schools, Sullivan in the hospital. We are doing everything t 6 p.m., Felix gets a phone call from has students who affiliate with local gangs. we can to support him and his family and Esengo, his friend at Sullivan and felPassing periods in the hallways include all of you. And if anyone wants to come low Congolese refugee. “Can you help me handshakes and hand symbols, but these talk to me, please do so.” with a pencil portrait for my art class?” his are intricate, complicated codes difficult One student raises his hand, sheepishly, friend asks, knowing that Felix is a skilled to decipher at first pass. Such gestures also and says, “I didn’t know this happened in and disciplined artist. exist among a sea of private languages that America.” ◆
24 | AUGUST / SEPTEMBER 2021
The Fight for School Equity What we need is not to return to “normal” but to shape progressive education policies to take marginalized students into account.
BYJITU BROWN AND BETH GLENN
As the COVID-19 pandemic winds down, calls to return schools and communities to “normal” have become ubiquitous. But, as grassroots organizers with decades of experience advocating for equity in public schools, we know that normal often means disparity and injustice for Black and brown children and families. If we go back to the status quo without working to remedy racial and economic imbalances, students in Baltimore and Philadelphia will be stuck with freezing classrooms in winter and suffocating ones in the summer and fall. Under “normal” conditions, the proportion of Black students facing out-of-school suspensions is four times that of their white peers. In half of majority-Black high schools, opportunities to study advanced math and science subjects are limited when compared to their majority-white counterparts. And in these schools, despite being in the majority, students of color are unlikely to see themselves accurately reflected in teachers or lessons. It is likely, however, that they’ll be surveilled by “school resource officers,” as fourteen million students go to schools with a police presence but lack a counselor, nurse, psychologist, or social worker. We also know that education equity neither begins nor ends at the schoolhouse door. So when Journey for Justice Alliance (J4J), the coalition of community-based organizations with which we organize, gathered thousands nationwide in a virtual Equity or Else rally from May 17 to 18, we called for a complete revolution in the quality of life for low-income and marginalized communities. Linked to that promise were demands for justice in housing, environment, youth rights, economic development, community safety, health care, and ending food apartheid. Achieving this vision will take a holistic approach. In education, that means developing more sustainable community schools. These schools are guided by a diverse staff, committed to culturally responsive and affirming learning, and overflowing with challenging courses and wraparound services to develop the strengths and meet the needs of each child. Our network of grassroots organizations are demanding 25,000 community schools by 2025 in the neighborhoods most impacted by COVID-19, racism, disinvestment, and poverty. This would more than
double the nearly 10,000 schools currently working toward that model. With hundreds of grassroots voices answering our surveys starting last fall and joining listening projects that will run until next spring, J4J is crafting a truly collaborative platform. We will be addressing local and federal officials in a speech at Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C., in September 2022. What we’ve heard from respondents so far offers a vision for transforming our most neglected schools. They’re calling for increased funding for students living in poverty, students with disabilities, and students struggling academically, as well as for schools serving large homeless and foster populations. They also want smaller class sizes, higher pay for teachers, and culturally responsive curriculum and training. We are encouraged by President Joe Biden’s commitment to triple funding for Title I support, and the administration’s proposed budget that doubles the current funding levels for our neediest students. We are also hopeful that Congress will adopt the administration’s proposed framework where new funds will be allocated to encourage states and districts to target their spending more fairly. Finally, we hope Congress will require every state to form the equity commissions currently proposed as optional in the budget. Models including Maryland’s Kirwan Commission have inspired legislation promising to equip every school serving impoverished students with the enhanced staffing, services, and learning supports to become a community school. Rather than return to an inequitable status quo, we need to push for full funding for schools. We need the innovation and determination we witness from our communities daily. We are confident that these communities, charged with investing new dollars to increase fairness, have the power and vision to catalyze urgently needed change. ◆
Jitu Brown is the national director of the Journey for Justice Alliance (J4J), a national grassroots organization focused on education equity, and a Global Racial Equity Fellow with the Atlantic Institute. Beth Glenn is a visiting scholar at the New York University Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools and a policy and strategy consultant with J4J, which partnered with the Center for Popular Democracy, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, the Alliance for Educational Justice, the Schott Foundation for Public Education, the Dignity in Schools Campaign, the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, and Clean Water Action to launch the Equity or Else Campaign.
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Make Schools a Catalyst for Change BY OMAR YANAR Omar Yanar with students at the El Paso Leadership Academy.
Now that students are returning to in-person classes, schools have an opportunity to reimagine how they prepare young people for the complex world that awaits them after high school graduation. My proposal: Turn schools inside out and create civil rights organizations that use education as a catalyst for positive social change. After earning a master’s degree in education from Stanford and another in public policy from Harvard, I founded a public charter school in Texas that challenges assumptions about how to deliver education to our nation’s most underserved population—Black and brown youth. The El Paso Leadership Academy, with a staff of thirty and student body of more than 200, teaches grades six through eight. We are opening our first high school this fall. Our goal from the start was not to run a school. Rather, we set out to form a civil rights organization. It sounds like a radical idea because it is. Our critics predicted that our bold pedagogical approach would sidetrack students from the core academic curriculum. Instead, the opposite has happened. In 2018 and 2019, the academy ranked first and second, respectively, in academic gains in the state of Texas, even though our student body is composed of 64 percent English Language Learners—more than six times the national average. Students often come to us three or four years behind their grade level in math and English and are mostly up to speed in two to three years. How do we do this? First, we reject the traditional model of education, which is
historically rooted in the subjugation and assimilation of people of color. We embed honest conversations about racial equity and systemic racism into all of our curriculums. If students understand how their families have been targeted by predatory lenders of subprime loans, discriminated against in housing and business lending, and exploited by an economic system rigged against them, you’d better believe they’ll take their math classes seriously. Starting in eighth grade, our students are taught to be responsible consumers of news. We study the use of propaganda, news as entertainment, and responsible sourcing. The goal is to empower young people to transform the world by understanding our history. When coursework is relevant to people’s lives, it sticks. We are committed to rethinking every element of school design and structure. Class schedules, bus routes, and calendars are typically created to serve adults. As educators, we must center our children’s needs as we create new models. Part of the civil rights approach is understanding that education is a family and community affair. We must create a culture where the doors are open to families and community members who want to
learn more. To some, this sounds like the addition of hundreds of staff hours and bottomless coffers. In fact, the opposite is true. While developing workshops for parents does mean extra work, it also results in greater engagement from volunteers and donors. During a community event on campus, two El Paso residents in attendance asked why our basketball court wasn’t a blacktop with regulation lines and boundaries. Sadly, it was a luxury our school could not afford. After learning about our innovative approach to education, though, they were moved to support our students. These guests owned a construction company and volunteered to upgrade our courts. Inspired by this, a second local business stepped up and bought our basketball team uniforms and new equipment. Educators across the United States are also embracing curriculums that incorporate social justice issues into learning. That is a wonderful first step that should be applauded. But these efforts are currently coming under furious attack from political conservatives, with more than a dozen states taking up legislation to limit the teaching of ideas related to critical race theory. This is the wrong way to go, as our experience with the El Paso Leadership Academy shows. To best serve Black and brown students—who are being failed by our current educational system—we must fundamentally transform the way we think about school. ◆
Omar Yanar is the founder of the El Paso Leadership Academy and regularly speaks about educational reform to educators and policymakers.
26 | AUGUST / SEPTEMBER 2021
Q: “How Can Public Schools Emerge from the Pandemic Better Than Before?” DIANE RAVITCH
Author and historian of education at New York University. When in-person school resumes this fall, students will return to their classrooms, teachers will be delighted to see their students, and parents will heave a sigh of relief. The hawkers of “Ed-Tech” will find that their vision of an online-immersive future is suddenly harder to sell. The greatest threats to public education are twofold: the expansion of privatization in Republicancontrolled states and the readiness of the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down the separation of church and state by legalizing vouchers for religious schools. Voters must not elect legislators who are happy to dispense public funding to privately managed charters or religious schools. The way to preserve and improve our public schools is if voters throw out those who want to defund and destroy public education.
Author, professor, and Henry Heuser Jr. Endowed Chair for Urban Education Partnerships at the University of Louisville.
The pandemic reinforced things we already knew about U.S. society and schools. The resource gap was on full display: Families with lower incomes had fewer tech devices at their disposal, less broadband access, and parents—more likely to be essential workers—unable to help with online classes. To emerge from the pandemic better than before, we must support families and children, making sure families have sufficient income, safe housing, adequate food and nutrition. We must provide parental leave, health care, dental care, mental health services, and free or subsidized day care and kindergarten. We must diversify the teacher corps, invest in teachers, and trust their expertise to do their jobs as professionals and pay them accordingly. Schools must focus on helping students to learn, not merely pass tests. Schools must also offer relevant curriculum, including teaching those aspects of U.S. history that are unflattering. In short, society and schools must focus on equity.
Author and executive director of the Network for Public Education.
The question is vexing because it ignores the exhaustion of principals and teachers, who in many cases ran online and in-person schooling at the same time, while personally suffering the hardships of the pandemic. But schools should and can improve over time, absorbing lessons learned from the past year. They can facilitate authentic and respectful conversations about race, power, and privilege. They can identify and eliminate policies in discipline and curriculum that result in racial and socioeconomic inequality. They can build emotional and social support plans for children who suffered in social isolation during the pandemic. They can use the best technology offered during school closures, while also realizing that no computer program can ever “personalize” learning. Public schools can never emerge better unless we recommit to public schools as a public good, not a commodity. The challenge of “better” is on us all.
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Public Schools Advocate aims to pull back the curtain on those individuals, foundations, and groups working both to privatize our public schools and to limit the role of schools in creating a critically democratic citizenry. Launched in 2013, and originally called Public School Shakedown, the project covers the fundamental struggle for democracy going on around the country, as teachers, parents, and others rally to protect our public schools. We recently changed the name to Public Schools Advocate, embracing a broader goal to empower teachers, parents, and other community members to organize and advocate for strong public schools that serve all students well. To that end, we work with a diverse group of fellows—teachers, advocates, activists, thinkers, and others in the progressive education movement. We regularly publish their writings, support them in attending conferences and other events, and assist them in getting the word out about one of the most important issues facing our democracy today.
Xian Franzinger Barrett Chicago Fellow
Ashana Bigard Southcentral Fellow
Jeff Bryant Lead and Southeast Fellow
Peter Greene Midwest Fellow
Jesse Hagopian Seattle Fellow
Yohuru Williams Minnesota Fellow
Sarah Lahm Northcentral Fellow
Cynthia Liu Los Angeles Fellow
Rann Miller New Jersey Fellow
Dora Taylor Northwest Fellow
John Thompson Oklahoma Fellow
Julian Vasquez Heilig Kentucky Fellow
You can find their writing here in the pages of The Progressive and online at www.progressive.org/public-schools-advocate THE PROGRESSIVE | 28 For more information, contact The Progressive, P.O. Box 1021, Madison, WI 53701 • (608)257-4626.