It’s “School Choice Week” and as we think about the ways in which choice can deepen segregation, we hope you’ll enjoy this from teacher and guest-author, Hazel Kight Witham.
A few months ago, I walked onto my old middle school campus for a textbook training. I’ve been teaching for 17 years in the district where I went for grades K-12, and I was excited to return to my old school in the neighborhood I grew up in.
There were a lot of folks of color, just like when I went there, lots of welcoming faces. As I walked down the halls I was inhabiting that doublespace/doubletime we enter when we visit places of our youth—both re-living fragments of my old life—there’s my old locker, there’s where I snuck a cigarette on the last day of eighth grade, there’s the detention room where I was sent when I joke-punched our art teacher, there’s where I sobbed into my carrots the day everyone found out my mom was gay—and experiencing the changes from my current vantage of a veteran public school teacher and parent.
And then I noticed something very different.
In the area where we had our sixth grade classes there were a bunch of parents. They were clustered together, talking. They were helping their kids with backpacks. They were hanging out. I don’t remember ever seeing that many parents hanging out when I went there.
I’ll be specific: it was a bunch of mostly white parents and mostly white kids. Parents who looked like they could be the adult version of some of the kids I hung out with in middle school. Parents who looked like me now.
And there were signs: WISH Charter. I realized: Oh, this is definitely not where we went to school.
I turned to a friend who works at my “majority minority” alma mater, side by side with what appears to be a majority white elementary school and said, “So this is what modern segregation looks like, huh?” He turned to me, eyes widening, and said, “It’s for Real, Hazel.”
What We are Choosing when We Choose Charter
WISH (Westside Innovative School House) Charter is a separate elementary school on the same campus as the public school I attended. It is billed on its website as a “freepublic” independent charter school, but it doesn’t look quite as public as most schools in Los Angeles Unified School District, where I went, and where I now teach.
In 2012, LA Weekly reported WISH’s “student population as 43 percent white, 27 percent Black, 22 percent Latino and 8 percent Asian.”
That is quite different than the general LAUSD breakdown of 10 percent white, 9.6 percent Black, 72 percent Latino and 4 percent Asian.
My alma mater Orville Wright’s most recent racial breakdown is 5 percent white, 62 percent Black, 26 percent Latino and 3 percent Asian.
It seems that many of the white, well-resourced parents of my hometown are electing to send their children to charters. A friend who sends her kids to WISH said the waitlist this year pushed 900. There is high demand for these new schools that have created an education marketplace over the last decade.
Many “What school are you sending your child to?” conversations start when the kids are just babies, or even before, in prenatal yoga classes or over dinner with friends. I imagine that by the time all those parents tour their local schools and glance at test scores they may have already made up their minds based on what someone else said. When or if they visit classrooms they may secretly they feel there are not enough kids that “look like my kid” attending the local traditional public school.
But we need to understand: when we select a school because there are more “kids that look like my kid there” or “better test scores” we are perpetuating segregation. We are inherently saying that we don’t want our kids around so many kids of color or kids who underperform on standardized tests, which is saying we believe kids that don’t look like our kids are not worthy of the same education as our kids. We are saying this with our individual choice to segregate our kids from those kids.
For those who don’t quite understand what an independent charter school is, it is a school that calls itself public, uses the language of public schools, but is operated by an “outside organization.” A charter school can select its students through a lottery system, and then skate around certain requirements that traditional public schools must follow, like demographic transparency, school accountability, special ed support, and the mandate that they serve all students.
Independent charters, some run by for-profit companies like Green Dot, Alliance, and Rocketship, are not transparent or accountable in the way traditional public schools are. While they technically can’t discriminate by race or needs, they don’t have to work to serve all students, they don’t have to publish test scores, they don’t have to be open about the methods in their lottery enrollment, or accept students whether or not parents have the luxury to volunteer. Traditional public schools have to do all this, and with parents like those in my hometown, maybe you, dear reader, pulling your kids from the system, a lopsided portrait of what our traditional public schools can do emerges.
The Magic of Schools: A Teacher’s Perspective
I work at a traditional public school, and have been in LAUSD for 17 years, and over that time I’ve learned a lot about the magic of public education. When I first started my teaching career in 2001 at Webster Middle School I was intimidated by all the kids, and I noticed that the teachers were some of the only white folks on campus. It was a new experience to be the only white person in the room as a teacher, but one that was profoundly informative. For one thing, it helped me confront a whole lot of assumptions and obliviousness I had when I wasn’t immersed in the diversity of the classroom. And that initial surprise and discomfort dissolved as the school year unfurled and the school began to work the magic that schools work.
Here’s what happens inside schools from a teacher’s perspective: when you show up every day with a bunch of people, you inevitably begin sharing stories. Sometimes it’s the kid who wrenches your heart when they share that they just got evicted from their apartment and are now living with grandma and so, you know, homework has been on the back burner. Sometimes it’s the kid who shares that there are young children in the house, and parents work nights, and so the student has to get up when the little ones need him. Often it’s a kaleidoscope of loss—loss of sibling to cancer, loss of parent to prison, loss of home to economics, but shining forth too are stories just as moving: resilience in the face of struggle, a tireless work ethic, a certainty in the power of education, kindness to one another, a passion for art, or dance, or the tuba. Those stories balance the stories of struggle, and they make the classroom a luminous place.
With stories your heart expands inside the shared struggle and the shared wonder. Sometimes it’s me, sharing the story of my own particular middle school hell, when I was the white girl with the bad skin who was aching for a boy to like her so that she didn’t have to feel so unpretty. Sometimes it’s me, standing broken before a group of kids that have become family, sharing the new loss of my stepmom. Stories are what unite us, and as an English teacher, I have the honor of inviting them out of students, onto paper, into air. We breathe in our shared stories over the course of a school year, and we start to love each other. We start to see what we can do together, united in community.
You can be part of this magic. If you are like most of us in liberal L.A., this past year has been a doozy. You might still be reeling from the election and cataclysm of chaos that continues. You might have been knocked back by all the hate that seemed to take center stage in our country. You might have been rethinking your pride in America.
But here’s the beautiful thing that I believe is breaking through the events of last year. More people are interested in, as Gandhi said, being the change you wish to see.
I can tell you one place you can be the change, in a concrete way. Choose public schools for your children. Public: places that welcome everyone who comes to their door regardless of race, need, ability, class, or status. Public: not private, not charter. Good old traditional public school, where a quest for equality is something we practice every day.
Be All In Like Finns
I know I’m asking a lot. To be specific, I’m asking you to leave the school you’ve been sold on our new “freepublic” education marketplace—this charter-strewn landscape—and return to the public school that may have been here for you, that continues to welcome and serve every student who shows up at its door. I’m asking you to question what it is that has been sold to you, this idea of a more boutique, gourmet, artisan “public” school where you imagine you will have more sway and more say. You’ve bought an idea about what your child deserves, and by extension, what the kids across the same hall do not.
Let’s talk about a place where one of the best education systems is working for all kids. Finland has a comprehensive public school system that serves every one of its children. Their entire system is public: no private schools, no charters. Students are not tracked or segregated during their elementary and secondary schooling, and the entire country goes to public schools. They are all in it together. Everyone’s skin is in the game. Can you imagine that? This is one of the best education systems in the world, and they’ve figured out everyone needs to be all in to make it work for all kids.
New York Times reporter and recent MacArthur Genius Grant recipient Nikole Hannah-Jones has been studying the effects of segregation and public education, and she knows more about this on a macro-level than most. I’ve seen these ideas at play first-hand as both a student for 13 years in Los Angeles Unified School District, and a teacher for 17 years in the same district. Here are a few things you might be worried about and that we know thanks to Hannah-Jones’ reporting on this messy issue of modern schooling and segregation.
- Your kid is going to do just fine. Let me repeat: Your kid is going to do JUST FINE.
“…the research shows that higher income families who go into high poverty schools, the education of their students – their children does not suffer,” according to Hannah-Jones’s extensive education reporting. She traces the history of desegregation and the insidiousness of modern segregation since Brown vs. Board of Ed in her article “Choosing a School for my Daughter in a Segregated City.”
Hannah-Jones reports how in the 80’s we started to see the positive results of integration, and what we found was that “The improvements for black children did not come at the cost of white children. As black test scores rose, so did white ones.” And that was also when integration began to be dismantled by individual choices and parents with an inordinate amount of political power. Parents, perhaps, like you.
- You, the parent, are your child’s educational foundation, and chances are if you’re reading this, you’ve set a strong one.
Some things you probably provide that you don’t even realize are significant: stable meals, stable bedtime, stable study space, an in-home library, time with your kid, travel to places that broaden perspective, safe neighborhoods where the stress of survival is not an everyday menace.
And then of course, there’s that intergenerational wealth you have benefited from. That’s a big one. Hannah-Jones cites Pew Research from 2013 that found that white households have on average 13 times more wealth than Black households. With that wealth comes tremendous power, political clout, and social savvy, which you could use to make your local traditional public schools stronger for both your kid and those who don’t enjoy such advantages. Instead of paying the $1200 per student a charter like WISH asks each family to donate each year, you could donate something to improve your local school. At the middle school where I worked, a socially conscious group of local parents decided to do just that, to embrace their “underperforming” local school (defined so by test scores, but not by classroom magic) and we saw how the infusion of their resources and time helped our school’s rising tide lift all boats.
Consider too, in a traditional public school your kid may well become a big fish in a smaller pond with all these advantages. They will have a fuller perspective of the diversity of our city, one that represents the changing face of our nation. They’ll even see kids who offer the negative model, which will help your kid learn what they need to avoid. In a boutique charter or private school, your kid will be alongside mostly kids of similar means or higher means, and they will have to cope with the effects of that stress.
- The hardest one: Your child does not deserve better than another child.
I know this one requires a major mindset shift. As Hannah-Jones puts it: “True integration, true equality, requires a surrendering of advantage, and when it comes to our own children, that can feel almost unnatural.” You want the best for your child, because we’ve been told that fighting and working to offer the best for our children is what makes us good parents.
But what if it’s not that simple? What if you teach your child through your individual choices this: that they are part of a larger community of human beings who are just as valuable, regardless of their skin color, income level, or status in this country. What if you teach your child that those kids come with their own wealth, one that may not be measurable in the same way as yours, but that matters nonetheless: stories of struggle, or celebration, or immigration, or discrimination, or the abiding intangible richness of love.
This is about acknowledging the advantages we’ve been handed, and those we’ve sometimes earned because of the unequal footing we started on, through the luck of our skin, our heritage, our parents, our freedom from intergenerational poverty, and the benefits conferred and accumulated over generations of inequity that favors white folks in this country in countless ways. When you look at the unearned advantages you’ve been handed, and the idea that really, nothing is owed to you, perhaps you’ll open to the idea that these unearned advantages carry their own consequences to the heart and the soul.
Lilla Watson, a native activist in Australia said, “If you have come to help me you are wasting your time. If you have come because your liberation is bound up in mine, let us work together.” If 2017 has broken us open, perhaps it is to bring new awareness: we are not here to only seek the best for ourselves, nor to only help those less fortunate, we are here to work toward common uplift. That often requires sacrifice of individual advantage by those who still wear the skin and privilege of the oppressor. We work together and are all liberated in service of a greater good.
The single most accessible way to do this is in your choice of where to send your child to school. Because along with your child go all the advantages you enjoy.
I suffer—and you suffer—under the yoke of wearing the skin of the oppressor. I want freedom from this paralyzing mess people that look like us—our ancestors—have created in this country. Isn’t it time, after 2017, that we reimagine our place together? Looked each other in the eyes? Smiled? Assumed the best? Connect through our common humanity and our diversity? Get down to hard work together? Isn’t that what we hear people do in extreme adversity like natural disasters? How unifying shared struggle can be?
And aren’t the inequities in our public education system one form of slow-churning devastating disaster? Isn’t this an opportunity to shine?
Here’s how I’m putting my skin in the game, beyond the 17 years I’ve been teaching in this messy, sometimes paralyzing, yet ultimately rewarding and promising public school district: I’m sending my own kids to our local schools. Granted, right now those local schools are on the west side of Los Angeles, just like yours, but the traditional public school I’m sending my kids to is open to all, first come, first served. It mirrors LAUSD’s larger demographics. It is fully diverse, not a “curated diversity,” serving kids of all backgrounds and income levels and abilities, who are ultimately like all kids who show the blooming hope of the next generation.
A generation in which we could all have skin in the game.
An educated populous benefits us all, and I want all kids to have the same tools mine do. If the school is missing something I think it needs, I’ll put my resources to work to obtain it for the benefit of all of us. If I don’t realize it’s missing something because that absence doesn’t impact me, I’ll listen to those who are impacted, and work to support our shared community.
Our individual choices matter. I know independent charters start marketing to you early, in the form of those prenatal yoga conversations where you ask people who look like you, “Where are your kids going to school?” and you enter the arms race of where the parents of means—that adult version of cool—send their kids.
If you want to support truly public education, if you believe that quality education matters for all kids, and that all kids deserve a quality education, not just your own, you have to put your skin in the game. You have to trust that you have already set a strong foundation for your child, and they will have a rich experience wherever they go, because you will ensure that with your bounty of resources and advantages. And if you choose a truly public school, you will be supporting a shift in a system that should be the foundation of a strong democracy.
You can be the change you wish to see. You can put your skin in the game. You can chose consciously, and not just buy what independent charters and private schools and fancy friends are selling you.
One sure way to ensure your child has a rich education is to redefine rich, and remember the value of all the other kids they will be surrounded by, learning with, growing with.
Think back: remember the innocence and love many of us felt in elementary school? We can get back to that through the choices we make not just for our children, but for all children. It starts with you. Be all in on the frontlines of social justice in 2018 through your individual choices. Put your skin in the game.
Hazel Kight Witham is a writer, teacher, activist, and artist whose work can be found in Bellevue Literary Review, Rising Phoenix Review, Angels Flight, Zoetic Press’s NonBinary Review, Lunch Ticket and Lady/Liberty/Lit. As a proud public school teacher, she loves listening to young people and challenging them to think more critically and creatively about their place in the world they wish to live in.
WISH Charter website: http://www.wishcharter.org
L.A. Weekly Article, from May 3, 2012: http://www.laweekly.com/news/playa-vista-vs-special-needs-kids-2174798
Nikole Hannah-Jones’s Interview with Terry Gross
“How The Systemic Segregation Of Schools Is Maintained By ‘Individual Choices”
Hannah-Jones, Nikole. “Choosing a School for my Daughter in a Segregated City.”
New York Times Magazine