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Education-reform debate puts spotlight on institutional racism

The longer we continue to use poverty as an excuse for our failure to properly educate and prepare all of our students, the more challenges we will face as a state.

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Nekima Levy-Pounds

Recently, I attended the Reset Education forum sponsored by the Minneapolis Foundation, which featured Steve Perry, Ph.D., from Hartford, Conn. Perry, an African-American principal of a highly successful school that is diverse in terms of race and socio-economic status, spoke truth in a manner that is uncommon in Minnesota. He talked about the fact that many of our school districts and teachers unions are adult-centered as opposed to child-centered and how that focus is contributing to the intolerable disparities in public education that exist in our state.

Although Perry’s talk was provocative and clearly ruffled some feathers, the bottom line is that he demonstrated that yes, children of color, and even children of color who live in poverty and/or so-called “broken homes” can learn! What Perry did that was so profound was that he proceeded to bust every myth and upend every excuse that is used to explain why the intolerable gaps between children of color and white children exist. (Notice that I did not use the term “achievement gap,” largely because of the importance of language and perception in this debate.)

The gap that exists is not one of “achievement” or capability of children of color to learn, the gap has to do with access to equal opportunity and equity within the systems designed to enhance and shape the learning outcomes of all children. This gap also has to do with the structural and institutional racism that is deeply embedded within our public education system and is perpetuated from one generation to the next.

Systems not designed ‘for us or by us’

Whether this is intentional or unintentional does not matter. What matters most are the outcomes that are produced when a system seeks to police itself without critical reflection and meaningful input from key stakeholders who care deeply about such issues. As the parent of African-American children, I have experienced firsthand the disappointments and frustrations of navigating school systems that are not designed “for us or by us.”

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From a curriculum that is devoid of a rich exposition of African-American history and culture, to a stark shortage of teachers of color, to low expectations of those teaching my children in school, to being treated like a burden rather than a blessing as a school volunteer, to hearing stories of my children’s classmates being suspended, expelled, administratively transferred, or handcuffed on school property for minor infractions, I have seen it all — and I am deeply disturbed by what I have seen. The civil-rights attorney in me cries out for justice on behalf of these children. My children. Your children. Our children.

It is unfathomable to me that rather than approach these challenges with a sense of urgency, we continue to sit by while fully half or fewer of our African-American, Latino, and Native American children are graduating high school in four years. These children will make up our future work force, especially as baby boomers begin to retire in droves over the next few decades.

This is not just a problem that affects children of color, as even the four-year high-school graduation rate for white children has been on the decline in recent years. These challenges illustrate that our system is broken and we must work pretty hard to restore, and in some cases completely revamp it, in order to meet the needs of children in the 21st century.

Part of problem, or solution?

There comes a point in time when we must ask ourselves whether we are a part of the problem or a part of the solution; this question must be asked and answered by every stakeholder group, of which teachers’ unions are not exempt. This is not about launching unwarranted attacks on our teachers’ unions, but about taking the time to critically examine the crisis in public education and the solutions that are within reach, as schools like Harvest Prep and Hiawatha Leadership Academy clearly demonstrate.

Thus, it is high time that we stop making excuses and start working together to address the multifaceted challenges within our public school system. The longer that we continue to use poverty as an excuse for our failure to properly educate and prepare all of our students, irrespective of race, ethnicity, family status, or income levels, the more challenges we will face as a state, including increased spending on criminal justice.

In order to ensure sustained regional economic competitiveness, we must guarantee that every one of our children is provided with a high- quality education and a pathway to higher education and vocational opportunities, as studies show that roughly 70 percent of the jobs of the future will require at least some college. Let us resolve to remember that this battle is not about parents versus teachers, or unions versus community groups and foundations. This battle, plain and simple, is about educating and preparing all of our children and establishing the legacy that we intend to leave for the great State of Minnesota.

Nekima Levy-Pounds is a law professor at the University of St. Thomas and the founder and director of the Community Justice Project, an award-winning civil rights legal clinic.  She is also a trustee of the Minneapolis Foundation.


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