Seattle Public Schools unveiled a new strategic plan based on targeted universalism! Will it be enough?

Seattle Public Schools unveiled a new strategic plan based on targeted universalism! Will it be enough?

The opportunity gap, as we all know, is a byproduct of systemic oppression playing out in our schools. The way to upend systemic oppression is to find a way to turn the system on its head. Targeted universalism applies that table-flipping mentality in a constructive way. I’m so surprised and pleased to hear this idea mentioned as our schools’ strategic north star.

But…

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Thoughts and images from the Civil Rights Museum on Jackie Robinson Day in Memphis

Thoughts and images from the Civil Rights Museum on Jackie Robinson Day in Memphis

Yesterday was Jackie Robinson Day — the 61-year anniversary of the day Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier by becoming the first Black player in otherwise-all-white Major League Baseball (technically Jackie was not the first ever, but the first since Moses Fleetwood Walker played a season in the big leagues in the 1880s, but that’s another story).

This year, I spent the day in Memphis with my family, and it turns out I couldn’t have commemorated the day any better.

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The fact that we are even discussing arming teachers shows that we’re too far gone for my boys to be safe in public school. It's time to start preparing to get out.

The fact that we are even discussing arming teachers shows that we’re too far gone for my boys to be safe in public school. It's time to start preparing to get out.

The status quo is leading to increasingly disastrous results. Inequity, segregation and gun violence in our schools are only increasing. Things have been really bad since literally the beginning of public schooling, and things are continually getting worse.

Just like every school shooting before this one, if this isn’t the wake-up call that permanently changes our perspective and our behavior, then we ourselves have made sure that it’s nothing more than a pointless, senseless, meaningless tragedy.

Put another way, if you don’t do things differently now, then you’re choosing — knowingly — to continue to be complicit. If I don’t do things differently now, I am, too.

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Kids get hurt when the adults can’t stop playing with their double-edged swords

This in-fighting has no end in sight.

While we all agree that our kids are not being treated equally, that our systems do not value us all equally, we labor and argue over exactly how and when and what to change, continuing along each day in the same systems we talk about changing, perpetuating them by our presence.

Along the way, we get distracted. We form opinions and positions. Sides and factions develop. Suddenly, we find ourselves in a little mini-struggle that most people don’t know much about. We in education are debating about the everyday lives and futures of American kids and families, and the in-fighting is costing us time and energy and money that we can’t afford to waste on each other.

For instance, some say that charter schools undermine our public education system. Randi Weingarten, head of our nation’s teachers union, actually said recently that school choice is a “polite cousin” to segregation.

Others of us contend that our public school system has already been undermined by its own failure to adapt, and that we need new and different kinds of public schools. And we remind folks that school choice really just means a belief that parents should be allowed to choose what’s best for their kids.

Things have gotten so twisted up that some folks oppose charter schools for literally the same reasons people open them. It’s weird. It would be funny, actually, except that it’s no laughing matter.

We only first started trying to force schools to integrate in 1954. That’s only 63 years ago. Think of the change in demands on the system between now and 1950. We've needed to find ways to change with it, but we’ve tended to be inflexible, rigid, afraid. Those with privilege have clung to it, resulting in a mostly white teaching force, achievement and opportunity gaps along racial lines, and generations of kids who have grown up in schools that treat them unfairly.

I see charters offering that opportunity to innovate, to consider alternatives, to serve long-neglected students (and when I say charters, I only mean public charters. For-profit charters are corporate nonsense). If we limit our schools only to operating within the same framework they always have, how can we expect them to produce different results?

We can't.

Some decry charter schools as an attempt to privatize our public education system. I suppose that’s got a twisted legitimacy to it, in its way. People are basically asking, why should Bill Gates have so much influence over things?

Well, he shouldn’t — none of us should, unless it happens organically as opposed to financially.

But they’re missing the point: this isn’t Bill Gates’ influence. It’s the influence of many, many advocates and parents and students concentrated and magnified through Gates’ extraordinary wealth and power.

And here’s the extra-twisted-up part: limiting public charter schools actually does more to privatize our system of education as a whole, because you’re working to limit school choice only to those parents who can afford to exercise it. You’re setting up a profitable private school sector to thrive unchecked, and to entice a larger percentage of students than it would if there were more free public school options available.

If you want to keep as many kids in public education as possible, then you have to expand the options. Too many parents are already choosing out for us to pretend this isn’t the case.

Speaking of choosing out, we find another double-sided coin in the debate over standardized tests known as the “opt-out movement.”

Some parents say standardized tests put too great a burden on students. Others say the tests are inherently biased, written and administered in such ways that favor white students and perpetuate gaps.

They might have a point. The creator of the standardized tests himself said, “These tests are too cruel and should be abandoned.”

And on the one hand, yes! We grade and evaluate students from the very beginning as if they are products, conditioning them to judge and compare themselves to each other. We consider whether or not kids have hit our invented benchmarks at the “appropriate” times. We subject kids to hours of monotonous testing that is for the edification of adults, not the kids themselves.

Yet without those tests, we would never have had the evidence we now have of the opportunity and achievement gaps. And how do we measure progress without them? How will we know if those gaps are closing if we do away with the tests? How will we be able to prove (to skeptical white folks, mainly) what most low-income families and families of color already know from experience?

There’s no single solution. Charters, Montessori, home school, traditional public school, outdoor education, project-based learning, whatever. Families need freedom. They need high-quality, free options for their children’s education.

In the end, all the arguments about education are two sides of the same coin. So, maybe it’s something to do with the coin, you know?

Let's be clear: 'Brown v. Board' was about school choice as a civil rights issue

Evidently “school choice” is a complicated idea.

I thought it was pretty simple. Parents should be able to choose a good school for their child. Seems it’s easily misunderstood though.

For instance, members of an NAACP task force wrote this week about being "concerned that the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education victory that promised a quality education for all was at risk” because of charter schools and the expansion of school choice.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, even went so far recently as to suggest that school choice’s roots are in racial segregation.

Brown v. Board of Education was not about saving Black children from inferior schools, as Malcolm Gladwell discussed recently on his Revisionist History podcast, even though that’s the version of history we were all taught in our traditional public schooling.

Brown v. Board was about school choice as a civil rights issue. It was also a case of Black children being left on the front lines during a fight between the adults.

 

Act I: Meet the Browns

In the early 1950s, Oliver and Leola Brown’s daughter, Linda, was a student at Monroe Elementary, an all-Black school in segregated Topeka, Kansas. To get to school each morning, Linda had to walk seven blocks and cross a busy street, often in cold winter weather, and then take a bus from there to Monroe. An all-white school, meanwhile, was four easy blocks away.

Some of these details are probably familiar.

At the urging of the NAACP, Oliver Brown walked into that white elementary school one day and tried to enroll his daughter. But it wasn’t, despite the popular narrative, because the all-Black school with its all-Black faculty was sub-standard in some way.

“We didn’t have any bone to pick with our school as far as education was concerned,” said Leola Brown in a 1991 interview, “nor with the teachers, because they were qualified and did what they were supposed to do.”

Leola Brown had attended Monroe herself as a child, so she knew what she was talking about. She gave her supposedly inferior elementary school rave reviews — not only for the quality of the education, but also for the quality of care she received:

“I loved it. I loved it. The teachers were fantastic. We got a fantastic education there. This case wasn’t based on that, because we learned. We learned a lot and they were good to us. More like mothers. They took an interest in you.”

She felt seen and valued by her teachers, which makes all the difference. She also felt they knew their stuff, and history tells us she was probably right. Because most professions were fully closed off to Black people in those days regardless of their qualifications, a huge number of highly educated Black folks became teachers.

The lawsuit, then, was fully a matter of principle. The Browns weren’t trying to escape some ghetto-school nightmare. They just thought they should be able to choose the school they felt was best for their daughter. They thought the school board, which the white principal blamed as objecting to integrated enrollment, shouldn’t be limiting their daughter’s options, especially based on the color of her skin.

The Supreme Court reached the same conclusion. Sort of.

The Court agreed that the Browns should be able to enroll Linda wherever they saw fit, but its reasoning gave birth to a whole host of unintended consequences. Or at least, the Browns didn’t intend for any of them. It’s not clear what anybody else expected.

See, the judicial branch of the U.S. government concluded that segregation was inherently inequitable, but they claimed this was because it was deeply harmful to Black students to be educated separately. Continued segregation, per the government, would continue to “retard the educational and mental development of Negro children.”

That’s a galaxy away from Leola Brown saying, hey, Monroe was a good school, and the teachers were great, but as a matter of principle, we should be able to choose our daughter’s school.

Let’s act it out for effect.

 

The Man: Monroe is a bad school.

The Browns: Uh, no, not exactly. Monroe is a fine school. We just believe we’re entitled to choose our daughter’s school. It’s a matter of principle that we be allowed to decide what’s best for our own children.

The Man: No, you don’t know what you want. Your educational and mental development has been retarded by your inferior schooling. Someone get a gun and escort these poor Black kids into our hallowed white halls!

Narrator: And then they all watched as most of the Black teachers were fired and most of the Black schools were closed...

End of Act I


 

Act II: The Grass is Browner on the Other Side?

If we’re wondering where all the Black teachers went, well, they got fired in the wake of the Brown v. Board decision, and the profession hasn’t recovered. It hasn’t helped, though, that other reforms and so-called improvements have managed to escort more black teachers out of the profession along the way as well, seeming like a good idea at the time. A large number of Black teachers were replaced in New Orleans, for example, after Hurricane Katrina, primarily by young, well-meaning white folks.

Black teachers being squeezed out of schools is certainly problematic in its own right, but the real trouble here is that this isn’t just an issue of adult discrimination. Our children have been impacted by the ripples for decades. Studies and anecdotes alike indicate that Black students were often faring better academically prior to integration, which seems counter-intuitive. Kind of like how Massachusetts’ literacy rate was 96% in the year prior to compulsory public schooling, and has never been as high since. Is anything what it seems?

Anyway, getting more teachers of color into the classroom is widely known as one of the most effective ways to close the opportunity gap between students of color and their white peers. A study in North Carolina showed that Black male students were 39 percent more likely to finish high school if they had one Black teacher between third and fifth grade. That’s it.

It’s not usually intentional racism that produces these discrepancies. Teachers are often unwitting interpreters, an act that relies heavily on our implicit biases unless we are consciously self-monitoring. Was that kid’s behavior an act of menace or of innocent energy? Whose struggles are due to a lack of effort and whose come from a lack of potential? Which kids just need to be challenged and which kids just can’t handle more advanced coursework? Who gets your attention as opposed to your indifference? Whose culture is reflected in the curriculum and whose is othered? Whose is erased?

Through constant subjective decisions and interpretations like these, teachers have the subtle power to shape a child’s education — and often his or her future. Think about your own experience. We know when someone doesn’t believe in us, no matter what they say. We know when we’re being paid lip service. Having someone take a genuine interest in you as a student can have a profound impact on your outcomes. It’s not that this can only happen with same-race teachers, just that it’s statistically more likely.

“Once you grant this idea that a teacher is a gatekeeper and a child needs a teacher to take an interest in them, it changes integration,” said Celestine Porter during an interview as part of Duke University’s “Behind the Veil” project. “Teachers should have integrated first, then students. Instead, we sent all these Black students to white schools, fired the Black teachers and closed the Black schools.”

Instead, white folks interpreted and implemented integration.

Who, as a result, truly saw the sharp edges and dark corners of integration? Black children.

Who was coddled and allowed to continue in their privileged ignorance? White adults.

Ever since, we’ve had everyone, regardless of race, getting schooled in white, government-run institutions.

Everything is more complicated than it appears.

Let’s act it out again. I think you’ll like Act II. This is where we start to introduce the more fantastical elements of the drama.

Our cast of characters has expanded to include the representative for the white schools and white teachers, whom we’ll arbitrarily name 1950s Randi Weingarten, as well as ageless Al Sharpton as himself. Here we’ll also meet Time-Traveling Mr. T, a spirit being who leaps eternally throughout the web of time pitying the fools who perpetuate racism on the backs of innocent children and occasionally laying the smack down.

 

1950s Randi Weingarten: Well, Black children, ye whose development has been so unfortunately impacted by your perfectly capable and loving teachers and the ill-advised choices of your perfectly capable and loving parents, we have been instructed to allow you passage into our lily-white sanctuaries of learnedness. Black parents, please find an appropriately white manner in which to express your unquestioning gratitude.

Time-Traveling Mr. T: You are a fool. I pity you.

Al Sharpton: The note I wrote to myself on the back of this large check from the white teachers union says that I agree with Randy Wine Garden.

Time-Traveling Mr. T: Reverend Sharpton, I respectfully disagree with your purchased assessment. I’m going to lay the smack down now.

End of Act II

 

Act III: Back to the Future

More than 60 years after Oliver and Leola Brown decided they wanted to choose a different school for their daughter, genuine school integration remains elusive. We continue to battle the demons of opportunity gaps and structural racism. But perhaps most puzzling is the fact that we are still squabbling about school choice. If nothing else, shouldn’t Brown v. Board have put that issue to rest?

Last fall, the NAACP called for a moratorium on the expansion of school choice in the United States, viewing the charter sector as a threat to our hallowed system of public education — as though it’s ever been what it claims to be for Black students and families — and drawing an inexplicable line in the sand between two parts of itself. After all, more than 800,000 Black students attended charter schools in the United States this past school year. That’s more than 25 percent of charter students, even though Black children account for just 15 percent of the total student population nationally.

Let’s be clear about a few things: I am not advocating for segregated schools, by any means. My son attends our “low-performing” neighborhood public school specifically because of its exceptionally diverse student body. And I understand that schools, in our capitalist present, are often where people make connections and build social capital. Schools are power hubs, like it or not.

I’m also not strictly “pro-charter,” to be frank. I’m also perfectly opposed to for-profit charter schools, and I do not support charter schools that are just more of the same — schools that claim to be different, but are run by white adults who don’t understand what’s at stake and don’t genuinely know how to educate kids of all races.

Honestly, I’m not pro-charter any more than I’m anti-traditional public school. My bone to pick is with the status quo, the one that has been perpetuating discrimination against kids of color and, thus, has led to inequitable outcomes. The status quo the unions are paid to protect. I’m opposed to bad schools and the bad propaganda that perpetuates them. I’m opposed to dogma that limits dialogue and progress. I’m opposed to ignoring the truth about our public schools.

See, I’m not saying I have any answers, but goddamn do I have a lot of questions. And instead of sitting in our respective corners waiting for the next bell to ring so we can knock each other’s lights out over nothing, why not sit down and have a conversation about some of these big questions? Why not talk through some of these real issues and strange truths and move forward together?

We’ve not only been wasting our time and money and resources in a fruitless argument, but we’ve been gambling with kids’ lives in the name of this intellectual debate about the minuscule difference between public charter schools and traditional public schools.

Enough already.

I’m calling for a moratorium on petty bullshit, on self-righteous adult egos getting in the way of what’s long been settled as a fundamental right for children and their families.

Let’s act it out one more time.

 

Matt Halvorson: Dear government and your compulsory schools. Dear teachers unions and your compulsory memberships. Dear NAACP and your pointless bought-and-paid-for squabbles. First do no harm. Then I will be open to your opinions.

Crickets: Chirp.

End of Act III

 

8 Key Insights from 'The Only Black Man on the Seattle School Board'

Stephan Blanford is the outgoing school board rep for District 5, and as he leaves the post, we bid farewell to our strongest, most consistent voice for equity on the otherwise disastrous Seattle School Board.

Stephan talked with KUOW's Ann Dornfeld for about half an hour recently: "On being the only black man on the Seattle school board." They touched on race and equity in Seattle's schools from just about every angle. The entire conversation is absolutely worth listening to. I can't possibly share every detail here, as much as I wish I could. Still, here are eight key insights from their chat (I originally planned to do five, but I couldn't contain myself):

 

1. The dysfunction of our school board continues to drive good people away from Seattle Public Schools.

Stephan Blanford: “I’ve come to realize that you get the opportunity to put a brick in the wall. You don’t get the opportunity to just totally transform systems. That said, I’ve struggled with the fact that I’ve been on the losing end of way too many votes on issues that affect our achievement and opportunity gaps, and that’s part of the reason that I chose not to run again.”

 

2. Seattle’s “unconscionable” opportunity gaps are not closing yet.

SB: "It’s hard to know what the baseline was, but I do know the study that came out last year from Stanford that said that we are the fifth-worst large urban school district in the nation in terms of our achievement and opportunity gaps between our white students and our African-American students. And I believe the numbers are similar for the other subgroups of students. I believe really strongly that in this community, that is as wealthy as it is, and as committed to public education as it is, and as educated as it is, that is a pretty unconscionable metric, that we would have such large opportunity gaps for a school system that serves all of the city."

Ann Dornfeld: "And, of course, it’s hard to know what the current status is, right? Because the Stanford data was looking back only to 2012 and earlier."

SB: "Right. But I would believe that number hasn’t changed significantly because, again, it’s difficult to all-of-a-sudden make huge change happen."

 

3. Some teachers are on a mission for equity, while others aren’t. The district’s cultural pendulum needs to swing toward the teachers focused on closing the opportunity gap.

SB: "In my three-and-a-half years on the board I have seen very excellent teachers who care very deeply about the achievement and opportunity gaps, many of them were inspired to go into the classroom because they saw the disparities. We also have teachers that that’s not their primary concern, so trying to figure out ways to make it part of the culture of the entire school is the work of those racial equity teams inside of schools. I’ve had the opportunity to work with many of them, and I see them as catalysts for moving that conversation forward and then making sure that it changes the culture of the school. I would argue that we’re not moving fast enough on that issue, but I also recognize that it takes time."

 

4. Seattle is home to the same latent white fear as all other U.S. cities. We need to air this out.

AD: "Of course, it could be argued that part of the quality of the school is, in fact, how diverse it is. It’s not just who’s teaching and what’s being taught."

SB: “I would agree wholeheartedly to that notion. I wonder sometimes, though, if our community as a whole doesn’t recognize how important that is. That part of education, particularly in the 21st century, is going to be the ability to work across culture, work with people who are not like you. Many of our schools are not very diverse, and many of our constituents are pushing toward efforts to ensure that that is happening. When we try to promote the idea that a diverse school and classroom is beneficial, we actually get pushback from folks and communities.”

 

5. Our own individual decisions must reflect our principles. White parents in Seattle in particular are making decisions that perpetuate segregation and opportunity gaps.

SB: “I hope i don’t get myself into trouble, but I believe that in many ways, for our parents — many of our white parents — there is a disconnect between what they believe in their heart of hearts and how they act. And, you know, as  parent myself, I know that my first and primary responsibility is to advocate for the best possible situations for my child, and I believe that is what all parents do all of the time. There is a fundamental dissonance between if you have a preconceived notion that black and brown kids can’t learn at the same rate as white and Asian kids, then I think there is automatic default to wanting your child to be in a diverse class, but not too diverse.

 

6. Segregation and discrimination aren’t always easy to spot from the outside looking in.

AD: “Do you see issues of segregation within school buildings that on paper would appear to be diverse schools?”

SB: "Yes. There are three schools in the district that I represent, and I would believe that probably in every district in Seattle, there are a number of schools where the teachers have come to me and said, ‘There is rampant segregation in our building. When we line up all of our kids and we send the highly capable kids in one direction and we send the general ed kids in a different direction, you can see the racial segregation play out just by kids lining up.' That has played out in several of the schools in my district, and so again, I believe that probably plays out in most districts. Where it’s profound, and it’s right in your face, where you see all the black and brown kids on one side, and all the white and Asian kids on the other side."

 

7. We have to look at every issue through an equity lens.

SB: "In school board meetings, in the email campaigns that go on, and in lots of other ways, parents articulate and advocate for their individual school, but sometimes at the detriment of other schools. And I try to figure out ways to get folks to see the big picture, and that if we pit one school versus another, eventually those who lose are those parents who are not organized.

"There are winners and losers with every decision that we make, and if you are truly an advocate for educational equity, you have to factor that into your advocacy."

 

8. Our only African-American school board member experienced a long line of racial microaggressions during his tenure. We all have to do the personal work if we want our community and our country to change.

SB: "There have been racial microaggressions manifested by board members on other board members and on staff and on community members who’ve come to testify. Those have been well-documented. It’s not very hard to find. But I think they highlight the fact that there’s a need for the board — and I think for the boards of most communities, so not singling out Seattle specifically — but there’s a need for us to do lots of personal work in order to fulfill our role on the top of the org chart of a billion-dollar organization that impacts the lives of 54,000 students. And because we are a district that has more students of color than we do white students, there is some sense of urgency around that. It’s not something that we should do at some point in the future. There is, in my mind, because of the huge disparities that we have, there’s a requirement that we do that soon."


I just want to reiterate that if you have even a passing interest in Seattle’s schools, it’s important that you listen to this entire interview. We need more and more conversations like this, and we need our actions to start reflecting our words and our thoughts.

Thanks, Stephan, for your time and energy on behalf of all kids over the past four years. You must be exhausted.

Talking with Chris Stewart about school choice in 'resource-rich, equity-poor' Seattle

I talked with Chris Stewart last weekend to close out the Washington State Charter School Association Conference. Chris is a writer, speaker and advocate for school choice as a means to a better education for students of color.

We talked about equity and disparity in Seattle, and Chris accurately described us as “resource-rich but equity-poor.” It made me wonder what will ever motivate us to change if we continue to have this much capital flowing into a city with this much racial segregation and discrimination baked into its schools.

We talked also about the national perceptions of charter schools, too, and about how to distinguish Washington’s charters from an unhinged federal administration advocating for odd versions of school choice. How do you stay on the right track when you’ve been given a longer leash for all the wrong reasons -- or by someone you fundamentally don’t trust?

Chris said he's "agnostic about the school, but religious about results,” talking about the pointless in-fighting about process that is happening among folks who agree that our inequitable education system needs to change. Later, someone asked a great, fairly obvious question: what results is Chris looking for exactly? What constitutes a high-quality education in the end?

Chris’ answer was simple: he wants schools to start by teaching black and brown boys to read and do math. He said you can find most of the benchmarks on the road to prison or to college in terms of literacy and algebra. First teach all kids to read and write, he said, and then let’s go from there.

That’s such a low bar! And yet it makes too much sense. If we haven’t mastered the first step, we can’t expect to take the 10th, but it threw me for a loop, for sure. Why are we having high-level conversations about education when we haven’t gotten to a point where we can teach all kids to read and write?

Yet that very truth necessarily brings to mind deeper questions. To ask what results I’m looking for is essentially like asking why I am sending my kids to school in the first place. And to frame those expectations against a school system that isn’t teaching all kids their letters and numbers… well, what’s realistic? What’s ideal?

My mind had started racing the moment the question was asked, thinking about social-emotional nurturing and liberating curriculum. About whether he’ll be taught, as I was, that Black history is the history of slavery, that communism is to be feared, and that manifest destiny explains the disappearance of indigenous people.

I’ve spent a lot of time and energy writing along these line about what's wrong with our schools — and rightfully so, I think, since there are, frankly, so many problems. I'd like to continue exploring the more positive manifestations of this work, though, and to start thinking creatively about building the positive characteristics we do want as we educate our kids.

What "should" school be? What do I want and expect for my own kids and their education? For all kids?

These are big questions to explore, and I don’t think anyone has all the answers yet, but one thing I know for sure is that the charter school sector in Washington is having the conversation. The conference showed that charter leadership in our state has a keen awareness of the inequity in our schools, along with a willingness to ask tough questions and then take new, bold action. That’s something I haven’t seen from our traditional public school district in Seattle.

A grassroots coalition just stopped the Seattle School Board from adding $11 million to the deficit

The dynamics of the Seattle School Board perfectly captured in one photo: the four white people are smiling as the three people of color look less thrilled.

 

A truly grassroots coalition of parents and community leaders swooped in last week to stop the most recent example of dysfunction on the Seattle School Board threatening to fortify and perpetuate inequity in the district.

With Seattle Public Schools already facing a $74 million budget shortfall, and with many district schools in dire need of more teachers and support staff, the board’s chronic commitment to inequity was on full display last week as it prepared to allocate $11 million for new textbooks.

On Saturday, Jan. 21, Erin Okuno, executive director of the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition (SESEC), learned about the board’s proposed expenditure and sent an email to a group of friends and colleagues. By Tuesday, when the vote to approve was scheduled, her letter to the board and district staff (below) had signatures from 27 concerned stakeholders.

To: Seattle School Board Directors and Leadership Staff
We are asking you to defer approving and purchasing English Language Arts Curriculum. Educators need to be prioritized over books – Educators Not Books. Purchasing $5-million in new curriculum means money will be taken from elsewhere. Students will bear the burden if new curriculum is purchased; adding another $5-million to the already devastating deficit will mean students of color will see more loss of educators in their schools.
We recognize curriculum hasn’t been purchased in 20-years — this is not the year to make such a hefty investment. The investment made will be on the backs of students who will benefit more from stable relationships with educators than from new books.
The board and school district has publicly said they will prioritize and protect educators in this budgeting process. Purchasing curriculum is counter to this public commitment. Our message is simple: Educators before books.

The Seattle School Board has been dysfunctional for many years. It is currently controlled by a four-member white majority whose common thread seems to be a shocking willingness to articulate their basic ignorance for issues of racial and socio-economic inequity in our schools.

To be clear, much of this budget shortfall will evaporate as soon as the legislature passes its funding package and closes the levy cliff, whether temporarily or forever, so there is some understanding that this $74-million issue won’t truly mean carving $74 million out of the existing budget.

But at the same time, the board still has to balance the books. They still have to pass a budget. And many schools in the district, especially on the south end, are staggeringly under-resourced. Emerson Elementary, as just one example, is running two long-term substitute teachers out there every day in two different classes all year this year. This textbook gambit was just the most recent case study in the board’s oblivion to the racial and socio-economic implications of their decisions and positions.

Rick Burke, District II School Board rep, is passionate about math textbooks.

Rick Burke, who represents north-end District II, ran on a “better textbooks and curriculum” platform. In fact, first on Burke’s list of his “educational passions” is “providing explicit, effective instructional materials for our classrooms. Instructional materials are the shared communication tool for students, educators, families, and student supports. Good ones are an asset, ineffective ones slow down learning and take more time from already-busy teachers.”

Jill Geary (District III) articulated a similar concern that teachers are spending evening and weekend hours preparing lesson plans, thinking this math expenditure would lessen that burden. Maybe it would, to some extent, but teachers have to differentiate their instruction anyway, so a new textbook does not take the place of preparation.

This is how much of the board dysfunction plays out. Board President Sue Peters (District IV) and Vice President Leslie Harris (District VI), along with Burke and Geary, form an all-white, all-un-woke voting bloc, and so naturally they all agreed on this particular issue.

Stephan Blanford, District V school board rep, must wish he was't so alone on this crazy board.

Betty Patu, who’s my rep in District VII, and at-large member Scott Pinkham seem to be swing votes, so they’re not fully part of the bloc, but they’re not reliably there for us either.

Stephan Blanford (District V) is the only consistently bold voice for equity we have on the board, and in the days leading up to the Jan. 24 vote, he had heard from the Bloc in no uncertain terms that, despite his vocal opposition, he would be outvoted and the textbooks would be purchased. This seemed doomed to be another 6-1 board vote serving evidence of his perpetual solo mission.

Instead, this particular story has a less-lopsided ending. After hearing from Okuno and company, the board temporarily changed directions. They came to a consensus to put the curriculum on the buyback list, meaning when they get money back from the legislature, it will be one of the top things to spend on at that time. That’s reasonable.

But the board also quietly showed they were willing to sacrifice staff for these math textbooks without ever quite owning up to it. Had they bought this curriculum, they would have had to displace staff.

The board indicated they would probably be able to bring those teachers back in the fall. But if you’re a first-year teacher who has worked hard, you’re about to get a notice telling you you’re on the chopping block — that you might not have a position to return to, no matter how hard you’ve worked, no matter how successful you’ve been. Are you going to stay and wait for that maybe, or are you going to go down to a district like Highline and get a job under stronger leadership and a functional board of directors?

That type of ripple effect multiplies the negative effects of our board’s oblivious decisions. Each individual vote has its own ramifications, but collectively it also builds a district-wide culture of inequity.

Seattle Public Schools are extremely segregated racially and are producing one of the country’s largest opportunity gaps along racial and socioeconomic lines. Letting this kind of leadership guide our schools is what dug this hole and created these gaps to begin with. Letting it continue is to openly fail to represent the kids who most need a voice in their corner.

We owe a debt of gratitude to Erin Okuno and everyone who joined her to swoop in from their regular life and intervene on this small issue. Like with everything else, we can’t count on anyone else to take these bold actions. If our kids are going to have better schools, it’s up to us to make that happen.

Gibbs-Bowling: 'Segregation is not an accident of American history. It is the story of American history.'

Like virtually everywhere else in the country, Seattle and the broader Puget Sound region are largely segregated based on race and income. This isn't without handfuls of exceptions, but on the whole, it's true.

Our schools are a reflection of our society. My son just finished first grade at Emerson Elementary in Seattle's Rainier Beach. There are quite a few white families in the neighborhood, and almost none are sending their kids to Emerson.

Nathan Gibbs-Bowling has written another sharp blog post, this time reminding us that this segregation was no accident:

 

We have the power and tools to dismantle segregated schools. To do so, we must disabuse ourselves of the notion that somehow, organically, in every major urban area in our nation, a uniform pattern of segregated housing, segregated schools, and disproportionate policing practices simultaneously arose. That is, at best, magical thinking. Segregation was constructed by the government, at the behest of the people (for more on that construction see herehere and especially here). It something we chose to build; it is no different than the transcontinental railroad or the Washington Monument.
We make a choice, we make it everyday. When young, white professionals, live in a working class, mixed race neighborhood as long as they must, but flee to whiter wealthier confines, as soon as they can or when it’s time to have children, they serve as the foot-soldiers of neighborhood and school segregation. Most urban segregation is the result of the absence of white families--white flight. Put differently, people of color do not choose to live in segregation. Segregation is created by white families when they make the choice, conscious or otherwise, to leave communities, en masse. This framing is essential in understanding and solving the problem.
The hallways of my school tell this tale all too clearly. Abraham Lincoln High School was built in 1913 and we have portraits of every graduating class from 1914 through the near present. These are amazing historical markers. I often walk my students through the pictures. I point out famous grads, we discuss how the senior classes in 1942-45 were smaller because so many males enlisted. We note the appearance of the first afros. Every year the same question comes up… “What happened to all the white students?”
The photos are nearly uniformly white until the late 60s (there are a few Japanese students in the late 30s photos, but they vanish after the internment). And then poof somewhere between 1968 and 1972 everything changed. Lincoln is now 75% students of color; it is situated in a city that is 65% white, in state that is 77% white--nearly the perfect inverse. These figures are neither organic nor an accident. 
School segregation is the result of intentional policy choices and governmental interventions. It was constructed, and to end it we must deconstruct it through further interventions. We also must acknowledge that segregation was created at the behest of middle class white voters and business leaders and it can only be undone at their behest.

 

Let's revisit that last paragraph one more time, because it's important: segregation can only be undone by middle class white voters and business leaders because it was intentionally created.

But not here, right? Segregation? Racism? Couldn't be. I live in progressive Seattle, where everybody's raising chickens and going to farmer's markets and voting Democrat. Where the ills of a Trump-addled America are beneath us.

Or where, as a friend puts it, "gay people can smoke weed at their weddings, but black kids can't get an education."

To be clear, it was a triumph to have been able to vote in favor of marriage equality. But we can't rest on those laurels. We are closing our eyes as a city and as a region to the intertwined realities of race, class and the rest of our lives, and it seems to me that it's happening because it conflicts with our self-image. Our collective ego is so wedded to the idea of being unimpeachably liberal that we can't acknowledge our shortcomings.

As long as that persists, the racist, classist systems that built our segregated liberal bastion will persist as well.

Let's take a deep breath. Here we are. What are we going to do about it? What are we going to do differently?