The inherent contradiction in progressives’ promotion of neighborhood schools

As someone who comes at life from what might generally be considered a politically progressive perspective, I’ve long struggled with a fundamental disconnect between many progressives’ (especially ‘woke’ white progressives) stated views about educational equity and some of their actions and beliefs regarding public education.

This is a theme to which this site will return repeatedly, and on which we will provide perspectives from a variety of thinkers and practitioners in the coming weeks and months.

Rather than lay out my basic arguments here, I am instead going to offer the following excerpt from a column posted on the74 website, written by Derrell Bradford, the executive director of the New York Campaign for Achievement Now (NYCAN). You should read the entire piece, which is forceful and compelling. But these paragraphs struck me especially hard (the emphasis represented by bold italics below is mine):

The revelation about public education is simply this: We can’t have an “all education matters” approach to the challenges of black education. One that doesn’t require states or districts to meet the needs of kids who, too, are fighting to be free and equal, but instead demands that they conform to systems that have not historically worked for them in the name of the public good. All education cannot matter until black education does.

As the only people in this nation’s history who have been both physically enslaved and intellectually starved as a result of not just sentiment, or economics, but public policy, no solution that requires the sacrifice of black people to be successful will be a solution that works for black people. No policy that maintains the arrangements enshrined in leafy school assignment zones or funding orchestrations will ever meet this standard. No edict that maintains the racist history of redlining in the name of neighborhood schools will rise to this high bar. No directive that tells children where to go to school instead of helping them find the school that works best for them will ever attain this standard. What may work for others cannot be the framework by which what works for black families is determined. As with the public debate about the police, which has crossed into fundamentally new territory, so, too, with education, where, for black folks, something wholly new must occur.

As with all problems that are large and that have race at their core, it is easy to believe real change is impossible. Where education is concerned, that is not the case, and indeed, the change has already happened. There are families and educators and schools of all types in this nation that have respected the history of blackness in this country and worked to close the chasm between the reality of the education black children receive and our expectation that education allows you to become the best version of yourself, with an equal shot at a future that surpasses that of those who came before you. Now is the time to look to them and learn.

If you are absorbed, however, in the “all education” conformist view espoused by many notably white schooling advocates and policy experts, you might think there are no schools like this, in the same way every black man whose life is ended too soon by the police is guilty until proven innocent. That there are not more of these institutions is a deliberate policy decision, just as qualified immunity is. One either acts to enable or obstructs to inhibit in both of these cases. And one does so with the knowledge that a price in lives is paid in each. While an errant police officer can end a life all at once, a substandard education means a person spends an entire life not truly living.

Here’s my bottom line: I still struggle to find an argument that favors neighborhood schools that isn’t inherently patronizing, inequitable, and, if taken to its logical extreme, racist. If, as a progressive, you accept the well-documented fact that redlining and other acts of overt racial discrimination have created racially segregated neighborhoods that are starved of resources — including good schools — then how can you support neighborhood schools as any part of a solution?

And don’t come at me with “all we need is more resources for these schools” argument. It’s bogus and you know it.

Alan Gottlieb
Alan Gottlieb
Alan Gottlieb is Boardhawk’s editor. Alan has been a Denver-based journalist for more than 30 years. He covered DPS for the Denver Post in the mid-1990s, worked as an education program officer for The Piton Foundation, and co-founded Education News Colorado and Chalkbeat. For the past five years, he has worked as a contract writer and communications consultant.