Category Archives: Civil Rights

Two opinions in the San Francisco Chronicle

The SF Chronicle recently published two op-eds on education.

The first was written by three Bay Area school board members: Judy Appel, Roseann Torres and Madeline Kronenberg.

They called for an end to the charter school appeals process. Currently, charter schools that are rejected by school boards can appeal to the county (and the state). These board members want the right to reject charter schools, with no recourse for appeal.

Their opinion is that public charter schools are harming public education.

In their own words:

Charter schools do all of this — siphon public school funds, dodge transparency requirements, limit collective bargaining of educators, cherry-pick students and turn others away — with the claim of providing a superior public education. However, study after study shows that outcomes don’t differ between students who attend traditional public schools and charters. Instead, charters simply bleed public schools of precious resources, leaving educators and administrators to do more with less.

A second op-ed was written by members of three immigrant families: Rocio Arias, Gloria Aguilar, and Leticia Molina.

They want elected officials to stop blaming public charter schools for decades of poor results from public traditional schools. And they are frustrated that government officials often exercise school choice for their own kids (either through attending private schools or public schools that are zoned to wealthy neighborhoods), but attempt to block school choice for immigrant families.

In their own words:

We chose a charter public school because the traditional public schools in Oakland were not safe and had bad results, especially for Latino children like ours. Today the traditional schools are running out of paper, and the district is making harsh budget cuts after wasting millions in new money from the state. Voters have approved millions of dollars in bonds, but the district has made almost no progress building and fixing schools, and some schools have dangerous levels of lead in the water.

They end their op-ed with a call for political officials to stop attacking charter schools and to govern their districts in a way that supports all public schools, traditional and charter alike.

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I understand the desires of the school members: as locally elected officials, they want the power to control public education in their city, so that they can best fulfill their duty to children. I get it.

I understand the desire of the immigrant families: as families with children in public schools, they want the power to find the best public schools for their children, so that they can best fulfill their duty to their own children. I get it.

While I get both arguments, I find the second op-ed to be more compelling than the first.

I don’t think local elected government officials should have the power to prevent immigrant families from partnering with educators to find the right fit for their children.

Black Oakland Moms vs. Black Lives Matter

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I. Black Lives Matter 

I have immense respect for Black Lives Matter.

In a previous post, I reflected on how the movement has affected me.

But it will come to no surprise to anyone that I disagree with their call for a moratorium on charter schools.

II. Black Mothers in Oakland 

Recently, Black mothers in Oakland published an op-ed where they detailed why they disagree with Black Lives Matter’s call – as well as the NAACP’s call – for a moratorium on charter schools.

You should read their entire piece. It is powerful.

Here is an excerpt:

Like everyone else in our group, Mama recognizes that not all charters are great or even good. We know that while many charters play by rules that require them to accept and educate all children who come to them, some break the rules — and no one should stand for that.

But in this case, she saw a path to interrupt the intergenerational struggle of her family, and like a responsible parent, she took it.

Her choice was a personal one, not a condemnation of district schools. And for our group, exercising this choice requires personal sacrifice, while also dedicating our time working toward solutions that will strengthen the quality of education in community district schools.

We love our communities and know a quality school down the street is the sign of a community’s progress.

As our communities change, so will our choices. But it’s a choice we get to make. And our group is unanimous in asking that no one take that option away while claiming to speak in our name.

III. Segregation in Oakland 

Another piece, via KQED, also recently came out about education in Oakland. This piece detailed how segregated Oakland’s educational system remains, despite the fact that many people in Oakland profess a deep value for diversity.

The headlines says it all:

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IV. The False Liberalism of Charter Moratoriums and Neighborhood Schools  

So what happens when Black Lives Matter calls for a moratorium on charter schools and liberals cling to segregation via neighborhood schools?

You get a system where minority children are forced to attend bad schools because wealthy white people protect their schools via property values and Black Lives Matter abolishes the primary policy vehicle that might allow for better schools to be created in poor neighborhoods.

Black families are squeezed from both sides: they can’t access existing wealthy neighborhood schools and they can’t access new schools in their own neighborhoods.

Or to put it another way: the seemingly innocent desire to maintain neighborhood schools and protect school districts ends up having devastating consequences for black children.

V. Black Diversity

The conflict between Black moms in Oakland and Black Lives Matter should make it clear that black thought is not monolithic.

Black people disagree about a lot of things. Conversations with my African-American father made this clear to me at a young age. He often disagreed with various black thought leaders and would describe various tensions across black thinkers.

Often (as with white people), black disagreements occur along class lines.

Upper class, middle class, and lower class black people disagree about a lot of things – and classicism is rampant in the black community just as it is in most racial communities (my mother is Indian and the caste system epitomizes awful within race classism).

So I was not surprised at all that Black moms in Oakland disagreed with Black Lives Matter and the NAACP.

VI. Black Children Matter

Every child deserves an amazing school.

Given our nation’s history, black children deserve especially amazing schools.

We should support policies that give black children access to amazing schools (policies such as unified enrollment), and we should also support policies that allow educators to open amazing schools for black children (policies such as charter schools).

Supporting these policies will require some sacrifice. White people will have to give up their chokehold on exclusive neighborhood schools. And black people will have to pressure an institution (school districts) that have been a source of historical pride and employment.

None of this is easy, but it’s all worth fighting for.

 

How Black Lives Matter Has Affected Me

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I don’t know that I have anything particularly insightful to say about the deaths of Alton Sterling or Philandro Castile, or regarding the deaths of police officers in Dallas.

There are other more important voices to be heard, including the families of the victims and all of those putting their lives on the line in the on-going protests.

But the events of the past few weeks have surely been cause for further introspection – and in case it’s of use to others – I’ll share those below.

One additional note: for me, there has often been an inverse correlation between the intensity of a situation and my emotional tenor. When blood is boiling around me, my blood cools – this has had both positive and negative effects in my life, and in part explains the tone of this post.

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How has Black Lives Matter affected me?

I feel the issue in a way I never did before. Working in education in New Orleans, I’ve surely been exposed to the idea that too often black lives don’t matter. But there is nothing as visceral is video. Watching Tamir Rice being slain; Walter Scott being mowed down – the videos have dug into my conscience – and they have forced me to emotionally and intellectually confront a dark corner of America that I don’t experience in my day-to-day life.

It’s made me question myself. In my younger days, I was more willing to throw myself into the most difficult situations. As a law student, I lived in a war torn Sierra Leone and worked at an international war crimes tribunal because I thought I could be a part of serving those who had been devastated by violence. I thought much less about my own well-being in those days. Now, when I watch the protests, I wonder: do I still have it in me? How much am I willing to sacrifice my own well-being for others? Or am I only willing  to do good if I’m well compensated and get to work with my friends in a cool organization? I also am struck with deep admiration for those who do have it in them.

It’s made me question my role. Due to some combination of temperament, intellectual interest, and ego – I’m wired to be a doer and not an ally. It’s much easier for me to throw myself into something if I’m a leader in the charge. I’m realizing how difficult it is for me to throw myself into something when I’m a walk on player in the fight. Despite my heritage (my father was African-American and mother is an Indian immigrant), I’ve never deeply internalized either of these cultural identities; they are surely part of who I am, and they make me different than white Americans, but still, I find myself on the outside looking in… perhaps I need to broaden my definition of what it means to be a leader.

It’s made me listen more: Reading the twitter feeds and blogs and Facebook posts of Black Lives Matter leaders has drilled into me that you can’t understand something without listening to those who are most affected by it. This doesn’t mean data and analysis is not useful, only that it will always be incomplete. Additionally, I’ve also found myself reading Fox News a little bit more, as I’ve tried to deepen my understanding of those who are troubled by Black Lives Matter. This has also made me empathize with the dangers that good cops face in very difficult situations.

It’s driven home a view that we need to hold physical peace as sacred: In watching the videos of black people being killed – as well as police officers being killed – there has been one constant refrain in my  head: couldn’t death have been avoided? As a nation, if I had one wish, it was that we would be more physically peaceful. Everything can be walked back but death.

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So I’ve been affected by Black Lives Matter in deep ways – but what to do?

I’m still struggling with this, so all feedback is appreciated.

First, I want to do my job better. When I’m being lazy, or not thinking things through hard enough, or not being obsessively anxious about solving the hardest problems, I want the videos of the victims to be seared in my brain on replay. I’m in the fortunate position of being able to deploy a lot of capital to increase educational opportunities for black children. And while I don’t think education is the primary issue here, it is the area I have the most control over, so my opportunity for impact is probably greatest. And I do believe that providing great educational opportunities to black children will help them defend themselves against racism, as well as help them fight it. This should not be their burden, but it likely will be.

Second, I want to increase my effort to listen to more diverse voices. It shouldn’t take a video of someone being murdered for me to stay woke. To operationalize this, I’ve set a quarterly goal of reaching out to three people in each city I work in – people who don’t fit neatly into my existing personal and professional circles.

Third – and this more about mindset than immediate action – but I want to better define when and why I’d be willing to accept chaos and upheaval in my own life in order to help others.

A Sentence that Captures So Much About Education Reform

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Over at WonkBlog, Max Ehrenfreund wrote this sentence:

… public education is an issue that sets two important Democratic constituencies against each other: school teachers and advocates for civil rights.

At first I read the sentence and thought nothing of it: it is common knowledge that many civil rights groups disagree with unions about issues such as standardized testing and choice.

Then I re-read the sentence and realized what was novel about the sentence: it was the fact that “school teachers” was used instead of “unions.”

For some reason, I don’t always think of a union as a collection of school teachers.

But this is of course what a union is.

I’m really not sure what to make of this, but it’s an interesting world where two groups of people generally considered to be fighting the good progressive fight – teachers and civil rights groups – find themselves on opposite sides of key educational issues.

On very important issues, the representatives of teachers and the representatives of civil rights organizations fundamentally disagree about how to best educate African-American and Hispanic students.

Again, none of this novel: but sometimes the turn of a phrase can drive home a reality.

For me, it was striking to see school teachers, rather than unions, being set against civil rights groups.

Lastly, I do think it’s worth emphasizing that the disagreements between teachers and civil rights groups are about strategy rather than desired outcomes.

I’m confident that teachers and civil rights advocates want the same thing for minority children.

Misdirected Outrage

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The Cowen Institute just released a report: Beating the Odds. It is well worth a read.

See here for the Times Pic article on the report. And see here for Pete Cook’s take.

What I find striking is this: there appears to be a correlation between performing well academically and being sued by civil rights activists.

At the end of the piece, I’ll try to explore why this might be. But first the data.

Beating the Odds 

See below for two charts that show which high schools are “beating the odds.”

Note: there is much more data in the actual report that is worth exploring. I chose to look at end of course exams because all high schools take these tests (while high schools that have not fully grown to serve 12th grade might not have ACT or graduation scores).

The analysis is based on analyzing the at-risk nature of a school’s student body (% 9th grade over age, % 9th grade previously failed test takers, % FRL, % special education) – and determining if the school is outperforming its predicted level of achievement.

Who is Serving the Most At-Risk Students?

As the chart below details, schools in the Recovery School District are clearly serving the hardest to serve student populations.

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Who is Beating the Odds on the End of Course Exam Performance?

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Misdirected Outrage

The data is pretty clear: high schools in the RSD are serving a very at-risk population, and many of the schools in the RSD are beating the odds with these students.

In particular, six RSD high schools score significantly above their predicted performance: Cohen College Prep, Sci Academy, Carver Collegiate, Carver Preparatory Academy, Landry-Walker, and KIPP Renaissance.

Collegiate Academies operates three of these “beating the odds” schools (Sci Academy, Carver Collegiate, and Carver Preparatory).

As it happens, the Souther Poverty Law Center is currently spearheading a civil rights complaint against Collegiate Academies. Unions and civil rights advocates also filed a civil rights complaint against the Recovery School District for closing traditional schools and replacing them with charter schools. Two of the high schools in the complaint, Carver and Cohen, have been replaced by “beating the odds” schools above.

To date, no civil rights complaints have been filed against schools that are not beating the odds.

What is Going On?

I’m an ardent civil rights activist. Outside of waiting tables in the French Quarter, most of my adult life has been spent working on civil rights issues. My father is African-American and grew up in an era where he was constantly discriminated against because of his race. My mother is an Indian immigrant whose family had to flee what is now Pakistan because of religious persecution. I went to perhaps the most liberal law school in the country to, in part, be surrounded by likeminded activists.

So it is difficult for me to continue to be on the opposite side of lawsuits being filed by the likes of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the ACLU, and the NAACP.

In law school, these organizations were my heroes.

So what is going on?

Clearly a lot – and I’m not sure if I have a full grasp on the situation…

First, it’s obvious that the “beating the odds” schools are not perfect. They are doing incredible work for very at-risk students, students that were often completely failed by the old system. Yet, if you’re looking to find flaws in the schools, you will find them. Instruction is not yet rigorous enough. There is an ongoing tension between the need for strict discipline and goal of empowering students to own their learning. Many students graduate not fully ready for career and college.

Second, the civil rights movement has often been connected to the labor movement, and teachers unions do not support the New Orleans education reform movement. To the extent civil rights advocates are taking their cues from labor, they will continue to attack charter schools that beat the odds, especially if these schools draw from a younger, non-unionized teaching force.

Third, civil rights activists seem much more concerned with discipline practices than they do with academic outcomes. Activists sue schools for high suspension rates. Activists do not sue schools for low graduation rates.

This, in my mind, is their greatest failure.

The Road Ahead

I’m really not sure. While I think reports like “Beating the Odds” are important, I don’t think the issue at hand is solely one of data.

Mostly, it’s one of trust, relationships, and community.

The most vocal advocates on either side are fairly hardened in their positions. This is not surprising given the emotional intensity of the debates.

However, there is a younger generation of leaders, perhaps in the 16-30 range, that are still forming their opinions on the issue.

Locally, it is these New Orleanians that will determine the future direction of public education in New Orleans.

My hope is this: that they recognize the incredible work being done by the “beating the odds” schools; that when they see flaws in these schools they partner with the schools, or actually work at the schools, to make the schools better; and that they reserve their lawsuits for the schools that are constantly failing students academically.

And of course my greater hope is this: there will be no failing schools in New Orleans for them to sue.