When History, Politics, Economics and Education Intersect!
(A Warning to Democrats Everywhere on the Eve of the 2020 Elections and What It Would Take to Improve Our Schools in the Bronx!)
On November 19, 2019, I was invited by Senators Shelley Mayer, Brian Benjamin, John Liu and Luis Sepulveda to participate in the Foundation Aid Formula Roundtable at Bayside High School in Queens. I thank the senators for the invitation and that deeply enlightening roundtable dialogue. I was especially excited to see many stakeholders exchanging and defending their positions – sometimes educating and agreeing with one another – and at other times vehemently opposing one another. I was grateful to be a part of that discussion because I was able to do the things I do best: listen, learn, analyze and attempt the pronunciation of a sustainable solution. Being a thoughtful speaker and a careful deliberator, I listened a great deal before I offered any suggestions of my own.
As I listened, I was reminded of something I had written to then President Obama on behalf of my school and my students at Samuel Gompers Vocational & Technical High School, which Mayor Bloomberg had designated for closure. Demagogues should not scapegoat teachers in the discourse for “educational reform” and the privatization of public schools. Secondly, I was reminded of something I had responded to a question asked by Journalist Gary Axelbank in the 2018 Bronxnet’s debate for the 87th Assembly District. Even if every school was given the millions of dollars it is owed by New York State as per the calculations of the Foundation Aid Formula, we still would not have solved our problem with underperforming schools.
The reasons for these two observations are very simple. As a society, we are in fact not having a conversation on education funding policy nor a conversation on the nature of a sensible, effective and adequate school system. The reality is we are having a much larger socio-economic discussion – even dispute – around the topic of education. Even the resulting political discussions are not on education, but are really centered on the disparity of power and wealth between those who have it and those who do not have it. And until we in the Bronx start talking about education in those terms and in that nuanced manner, we will have accomplished exactly nothing around education – or anything else for that matter. For the intersectionality of the social, economic and political issues that weigh on and exacerbate the education issue must be part of that discussion if we are serious about solving the education problem. Education doesn’t happen in a vacuum and the truth is the schools as they stand now are not equipped to efficaciously respond to the myriad circumstances of the students and families they serve.
As a borough, a city and as a state, the time has come for us to clearly envision and decide on the role that education and our schools must play in a Bronx and an urban renaissance. And once we have decided on that vision and that role, we need to begin working on the infrastructure and the systems that will not only support that endeavor, but make it indisputably successful. But where should we start for such an intricate, multi-layered problem? At the roundtable, I heard a lot of talk about the need for money and the fact that we are at a loss on how to generate the funds. This took me back to a different conversation that I had in preparation for the Foundation Aid Formula Roundtable. The day before the roundtable, I sat and discussed extensively with a highly seasoned principal. I wanted to try to encapsulate the gist of the education problem in less than three sentences. He said something that I knew was always the base of the problem: “I don’t know that the State can demand that Chelsea do more to support the schools in the poorest areas of the Bronx or the City.” I quickly understood Chelsea to be a metaphor for the richest among us.
At the roundtable, I heard an activist, who is as passionate as I am about equity in education, talk about taxing the rich more to give more to our underserved schools. As I said during the discussion, I didn’t particularly disagree – but I also know that solely taxing the rich more is not entirely/necessarily the silver bullet solution. I also heard her speak about institutional racism – and I was taken back to my days as a student when I was fascinated with colonialism in Africa and India, in the Americas and the Caribbean. I rewound in my mind my fascination with liberation movements such as the American, Haitian and French Revolutions, the Abolitionist and Emancipation Movements, the Civil Rights Movement, the independence movements of former European colonies. I reread in my mind passages from the writers that marked my intellectual development the most when studying classism, racism and hypocrisy. I replayed in my mind some of the most compelling speeches and interviews from some of the most impressive and credible leaders that ever inspired me. And something quite incredible occurred to me. From the beginning of our American experience and experimentation, we have been treating our lower classes – regardless of race – the way the great European colonizers treated their colonies. Obviously, where race and class would intersect, the advantage would go to whites, non-blacks and light skinned blacks.
Today, I associate myself with the teachings of some our greatest teachers and leaders, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., President Lincoln and President Kennedy. (More on that in Part III.) It’s long overdue, but it is time that we revisit history and seek to finally finish the works that were preempted when we should have completed them. Now, we need to concretely and holistically address the biggest issues that continue to divide us. As I see it, the biggest of all the issues is an economy that not only doesn’t work for all of us, but actually strips us of our humanity in every way that it touches us. As a consequence, we need to address not just income inequality, but economic inequity. The reality is: it is economic inequity/economic injustice that prevents us from growing the economy enough to properly fund our schools and much needed services for our youths, our seniors and the people in between who are aspiring to attain the American dream. We need to talk less about wages and jobs. And we need talk more about wealth building, wealth acquisition and upward mobility for poor people and economic development for poor urban and rural areas.
Fixing our schools will require nothing less. Earlier in this piece, I mentioned that even if the state gave every school every penny that is owed, our schools would still not perform to expectation. Why is that? The truth is the greatest weight on the underperformance of our schools in the Bronx (and places like the Bronx) is economics and the environment that the lack of economic power produces. I am not understanding why poorer areas must depend so heavily on richer areas to fund their schools.
There is a simpler solution that will eradicate the need for all other patched up solutions that would supposedly help bring equity to our schools. It is called an economic boom, real investment in those communities so that they will become rich enough, educated enough and strong enough to equitably participate in the support of schools in the NYC school district and more specifically their local school districts in the five boroughs. It simply means making the decision to start treating our lower classes with the dignity, the attention, and the humanity they deserve – as written in the constitution. The Declaration of Independence states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” And the Preamble to the Constitution states, “ We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” My question to us as a society and to those who are responsible for government policies, do we think that we can achieve quality of life, true liberty, happiness, a more perfect union with justice, peace, and the well-being of our ourselves and our children without economic security and economic prosperity? Are we – in public and private partnerships – incapable of constructing a robust five to ten-year Bronx economic development plan that doesn’t include gentrification and pushing out our current residents? Are we incapable of a Bronx stimulus package plan that would mean elevating the current residents of the Bronx? Because that is what it would take to fix our schools.
It would be much cheaper and more harmonious in the long run. We wouldn’t have to pit communities against other communities when trying to diversify the specialized high schools. The resources for test preparation and supplemental educational programs would be available to help more Black and Latino students prepare for those exams. We wouldn’t have to offer charter schools as supposed education saviors to poor parents. We wouldn’t have to offer a multitude of small schools as a solution to a problem that doesn’t have anything to do with the size of schools. While I applaud our Chancellor’s and Mayor’s attempts to diversify the schools, address racism, classism, bias and hatred in our schools, none of these things will give the results that we want – because at the end of the day – at the root of racism, classism, bias and hatred in our schools and society at large is the competition for resources and the need for equity. As a mother, a former DOE classroom teacher and college instructor, I know that there are several ways to bring about equity and keep the peace. But I know the smartest way to do it is to quickly bring in more resources so that everyone feels properly valued and has what is needed to perform to his/her fullest potential without distractions.
How would things change in our public schools if we were to not just invest more in poor schools, but to simultaneously and aggressively invest in the poor neighborhoods and communities in which reside these schools? Please stay tuned for Part II as we explore that novelty. In the meantime, please join our drive for one million pencils in District 8 and urge your elected officials to join us at our Legislative Breakfast on Education on 1/31/20.
Signing off – for now!
From the desk of an educator and former DOE teacher,
Farah Despeignes, Permanently Certified ELA Teacher