Sunday, March 16, 2014

Rally for NJ Public Education Part l: It's the Poverty, Stupid!

This is a story about a hospital in an inner city neighborhood that serves a very high population of low-income people of color. Many don’t have the resources to properly care for themselves. Unemployment is high, and many still don’t have health insurance. A significant number live in poverty, and about one third don’t speak English as their first language. Many have seen their SNAP benefits cut so they can’t provide proper nutrition for themselves and their families. Some areas around the hospital are dangerous; gangs, gun violence, drug trade and crime have proliferated.

The hospital cannot turn anyone away who comes in for treatment. Some patients follow the prescribed course of treatment and get better, but others, because of any number of reasons outside the hospital’s control, don’t. There is only so much they can do once a patient leaves, especially if the patient is homeless.

Although it has an experienced and dedicated staff and has instituted successful education, service and outreach programs that have helped unify the community, this hospital has been under state control for almost 20 years and there has been a lot of dysfunction in management. Resources have not always gotten to the areas where they were desperately needed. Repairs to the actual structure of the building have long been neglected, so parts of it are unsafe to occupy. It’s top heavy with state-appointed administrators and supervisors, so doctors and nurses don’t always have adequate supplies with which to treat patients. The state bases the success of this hospital on the overall health of the citizens in its surrounding community. But despite the fact that many staff put in a lot of extra hours to help patients and their families, they alone cannot overcome the obstacles they face. While it has gotten extra state funding in the past because it’s in a high poverty area, recently its funding has been slashed. Staff has been blamed for the ‘failure’ of the hospital and let go, caseloads have increased, and the state is putting more and more pressure on it to ‘perform’.

So, despite all the research that shows this will not work because the problem isn’t a ‘failing’ hospital, but the effects of high poverty, the state decides to shutter its doors and open a new one across town that has fewer beds and staff, and that patients have to win a lottery to enter. The community is very angry. This hospital is a cornerstone for them. It will be very difficult for some to make the trip across town, but the state doesn’t care. They have staged protests and spoken out, but their voices fall on deaf ears. 

While the new hospital technically serves everyone in the city, any public hospitals that lose patients to it will also lose funding. Once there, patients may get treatment at first, but if the hospital decides their treatment is too expensive or will sully their ranking in any way, the patient is told to take their illness elsewhere.

Sound crazy? If so, then you are well aware of what’s happening to public education in our major cities. From Los Angeles to New Orleans to Chicago to Philadelphia to Newark and all points in between, public schools in high poverty neighborhoods are being labeled as failures, their staff fired, their doors shuttered because, in the eyes of education ‘reformers’, poverty doesn’t matter despite the fact that research shows this to be true. Parent, teacher, education blogger and researcher, and doctoral student, Jersey Jazzman hammered home this point when testifying recently in front of the New Jersey State Legislature’s joint committee on education about the damaging effects of Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson’s One Newark plan (at 5:25 mark):

“Yes, Newark charters are among the schools in Newark with higher proficiency rates, but they… also serve fewer free lunch eligible students. The graph shows a clear correlation between economic disadvantage and test-based outcomes—a dynamic that has been studied extensively and is not debated among education researchers. Poverty indeed does matter.” (emphasis his)

Newark’s schools have been under state control for almost 20 years. During that time—starting decade or so earlier—the rich have gotten richer, the poor poorer, and the middle class has shrunk so much that many more are now struggling to make ends meet. Parents and community members there are sick and tired of not having local control over and a say in the functioning of their community public schools. Central High School Principal Ras Baraka is running for mayor in part because of the destruction of Newark's public schools.

Closing schools and ‘turning them around’ or flipping them to charter schools is not the answer. Anthony Cody, Nationally Board Certified science teacher who taught in Oakland for almost 20 years and who blogs at Ed Week, points out the flaws in Arne Duncan’s attempts at turnaround when he was CEO of Chicago’s school system:

“The schools that have approached improvement with patience, working to build community support and teacher stability, following principles of democracy and inclusion, have made gains far beyond those being seen at the mayor's ‘Turnaround schools,’ which have been showered with resources.”

Diane Ravitch said it best in her latest book, Reign of Error:

“Closing a school is not a reform. It is an admission of failure by those in charge, an acknowledgement that they do not have the knowledge and experience to evaluate the needs of the school, help the students, strengthen the staff, and provide the essential ingredients needed for a good school.” (p. 223)

The front lines of the attack on public education are in our nation’s big cities. From Los Angeles to Chicago to New Orleans to Philadelphia to Newark, parents and community members are fighting back. But that’s not enough. The death of public education will occur in part because not enough of us in the suburbs did something to stop it. So what can you—and everyone who cares about public education—do? Come to Trenton on Thursday, March 27th at noon for the New Jersey Education March and stand up for public education everywhere in New Jersey.

This is not just a rally about Newark’s schools. This is not just a rally about Newark’s citizens. This is a rally about all of us, all our schools, all our children, all our neighborhoods. Because if we let mass closings of schools, disruption of neighborhoods, and segregation of students happen in Newark, it can happen anywhere.

Martin Luther King said it best:

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

Friends, please join us. We must stop this madness.