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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.
By Randy R. Miller
November 10, 2015
Upward mobility is a part of the promise of America. Historically, African American attempts at upward mobility have been met with apprehension and opposition. Many whites have been on the right side of history concerning racial integration. However, if the people vote with their feet, there are whites who have elected wrongly.
During the 20th century, African Americans moved to major cities in search of housing and employment. Over time, many whites fled to the suburbs. With them went many good paying jobs and new economically exclusive communities were established. Left behind were African American and declining city governments. Also remaining was a declining tax base that negatively influenced basic services, including public education.
Many white public employees chose not to take flight to the suburbs. Emblematic of that are public school employees. As student populations become increasingly diverse ethnically, the composition of educators continues to look vanilla. This is particularly true in the nation’s biggest school districts. Nevertheless, these leaders attempt to educate children of color. These communities look very different from the ones from which they moved away. And, as time continues to pass, these school districts continue to get worse.
Various issues impact the ability of urban students to perform at high academic levels. Educators and reformers focus on poverty, crime and a perceived spirit of hopelessness as root problems. These are blamed for poor academic performance among urban students. Parents are also blamed. But there are other issues that hamper the academic performance of urban students. High teacher turnover, inexperienced teachers, poor administrative leadership and fiscal mismanagement of district resources are a few. Unfortunately, these are often regarded as inconsequential to the mission of education. Nevertheless, educators seek to combat all issues the best way they know how. But is their way really best?
There is a paradigm shift happening in urban education among reformers. The urban public school has lost the trust of the public. Many believe urban schools are a waste of taxpayer dollars. There have been calls for change and “reformers” have hit the scene.
In New Jersey, Governor Christie, along with the state legislature, established the Urban Hope Act. It allows private nonprofits the opportunity to operate public schools in Newark, Trenton and Camden. These “Renaissance” schools have hit the ground running. Most, if not all, of these schools are charter schools.
In New Jersey, charter schools function as their own school districts. The board of trustees functions as a board of education. These schools are independent of the local school boards in the towns where they educate. In Camden, a Renaissance school only has to answer to the superintendent. In Camden, the superintendent is a direct agent of the Governor. These schools are mandated to raise standardized test scores. Many people believe urban public schools are in chaos; located in neighborhoods equally chaotic. The popular philosophy is that to get students performing strong academically, establish law and order. If that is not happening at home, the school must step in.
Many parents, and reformers welcome these Renaissance schools in place of current underperforming schools. The expectation is these schools will facilitate academic achievement through high discipline and academic standards. However, the danger is these schools could create a dangerous precedent for the education of children of color.
Renaissance schools inadvertently reinforce segregation in schools along racial and class lines. Many public districts no longer have authority over educating most, if not all, of their local student population. Shared authority has been given, in many urban districts, to private entities and charter management organizations (CMOs) that may not have any connection to the communities they serve.
Some of these stakeholders have visions of a gentrified Newark, Trenton or Camden. They could create their own charter schools and run independent of what remains of urban districts. Doing so establishes a school system for the haves and the have-nots. All schools will have their own admissions, dismissal and academic performance criterion. They will only be required to meet state scoring benchmarks. In essence, schools can educate to meet standardized scoring benchmarks however they see fit. If parents have the skills of childrearing to a science, schools would only need to teach. However, if parents cannot rear their children effectively, these schools will step in and potentially do the rearing for them.
School is the new means for law and order for children of color. Unfortunately, the need for children of color to become critical thinkers is heavily outweighed by the desires for them to adhere to law and order. Children of color simply need to follow the rules and do as they are told. An assumption of many is that black and Hispanic parents cannot discipline or parent their children effectively. Thus, the “Renaissance” of the urban school is to do what the parent assumedly cannot or, at the very least, cannot do well. Discipline first tactics do not guarantee high academic performance among black students. They only guarantee results similar to the young person who was assaulted by a resource officer at Spring Valley High School.
Author: Randy R. Miller is an author, teacher and executive director of Manifesting Opportunities for Renewal and Empowerment, an education organization focused on empowering urban youth in the areas of academics and employment. He is currently a doctoral student at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey studying public affairs and community development. Randy can be reached via email at [email protected].