How public schools have failed Black People

During one of my bits of toddler-induced insomnia, I came across this scathing criticism of the proposed PA House Bill 1800, which would offer an $8,200 voucher to any private school of choice for students in the Harrisburg City School District. I spoke with a couple of members of my synagogue, who are bit more ‘in the know’ in regards to politics, and they feel that ultimately the bill will not pass. But if it did, it would be a game changer. Many of the parents within the Jewish community already send their children to the local Jewish day school. Several of these families have also opted to purchase homes that lie within Susquehanna Township…which has a Harrisburg mailing address, but who are covered by a different, ‘better’, school district then Harrisburg City.

But this bill should not only be of interest to families who already send their children to private schools. I also believe that those who do not send their children to private schools should support this initiative as well. This is especially important among the Black community, who find themselves subject to rampant and widespread racial segregation in schools. By lowering the economic barrier of private education, we can truly have real ‘school choice’.

Public Schools in Urban Environments

When I was in elementary school in the 1980s, I spent 5 years in the Allentown School District. Even as a child, I saw the vast improvement in the education offered in Allentown vs. what I had available to me back in Western Pennsylvania (Clairton). So it was disheartening, but not surprising, to read this article that exposed the current dire straits of the district. The reason why it was not surprising is that even when I left the area back in 1991, there was ‘White flight’ occurring…with open talk and hand wringing about all of the Hispanics that were moving into town. Living in the city of Allentown was no longer desired — and the outlying suburban areas (which used to be farms mostly) grew by leaps and bounds.

Mosser Elementary – where I attended for 4th & 5th grades.

Of course it is easy to say, “Ok, so if you don’t like the schools, move to a better district”. But this statements completely ignores the fact that the rate of Black homeownership is at a 50-year low. And rental units that are located in these ‘good’ school districts are either small, expensive, hard to come by, or all of the above. So then what you have is a snowball effect. White families move out…now new White families do not want to move in due to the low White population. The exception to this are areas which are subject to gentrification. But guess what? Many of those (White) high-income families choose to not send their children to the local public schools. So low-income urban residents are again, trapped.

Sadly this issue is not a secret; it just seems to be one where we can’t get any traction on (in regards to improvements). Even Michelle Obama mentioned it in her book Becoming. Each year, her class in her local public school became less and less diverse. Eventually she ended up in a magnet school for academically gifted students.

A generation later the landscape of public school is different. Many urban school districts have lost their tax base. Well-off families (who are mostly White) have ‘spoken with their feet’ and moved their families away from cities and created new, exclusive (yet public) school districts. The older, urban school districts that were left behind did not adjust to this loss in resources and have been slow to adjust.

The Problem With Charter Schools

For many, charter schools seemed to be a god sent when they began to pop-up about 20 years ago. Many court battles had to occur before they could really establish themselves…but they have. Back in Western PA, Propel Schools is a popular option for many families in struggling school districts in the area.

But from what I’ve seen, Propel stands out as an exception to the norm. Several other charter schools in the area have been established by individuals or groups who are not trained educators. Charter schools are not subject to the strict regulations that public schools are. Teachers are, on average, paid lower and the turnover is greater. These are not always bad characteristics. But as a parent, you need to do a lot of due diligence.

Harrisburg’s School District is a Blemish To the City

Harrisbug is the state capital and due to that, there will always be the economic base of government here. However in the 1980s – 1990s, the city’s nickname was “Horrible Harrisburg”. I am ashamed to say, when I moved here, I expected the worst. However the city has been on a slow, but sure upswing in the last 20 years. Downtown has been cleaned up; Midtown (just north of the city center) has been settled in by the young professional crowd. The combination of low cost of living, a healthy economy, and a ‘small town America’ feel has been utilized to change the city’s image.

But the school district is still the nail in the coffin when it comes to young families choosing to live here. Harrisburg’s main HS, John Harris, has failed every assessment measure. The smaller magnet HS, SciTech performs better. However their enrollment is capped at 400 students. This is not a bad thing. However if your child is more inclined to the arts, the charter school, CASA, would be more suitable. If your child can’t get into either of those two, you’re stuck.

To add fuel to the fire, results of an audit earlier this year showed gross mismanagement of $5 million of funds by the Harrisburg School District. It is very pretentious for them to complain about paying out $2.5 million for school vouchers. Also HSD is very much a school district of minority students. More then 90% of the students are African-American or Latino.

“Students in the Harrisburg School District deserve access to a quality education, and they have been denied that for too long by the mismanagement of the prior administration. We need to have a broader discussion about how to fix public education in places like Harrisburg. But we can’t let an entire generation go without access to quality education in the meantime.”

Eric Papenfuse – mayor of Harrisburg

Unspoken Messages Given to Black Students

For 1st and 2nd grade, I attended Catholic school. The tuition was not that bad, and even though we were not Catholic, my Grandparents wanted me to be in a learning environment that acknowledged God. For what it is worth, I am a strong believer in not only God, but in the overall positive influence that a healthy spiritual worldview has on people.

Now getting back to schools, 78 percent of private schools are affiliated with a religion. Putting up financial barriers to private education effectively cuts off low-income families from choosing an educational path for their children that is in line with their home belief system.

If poor Black families are marginalized from fully exercising their faith, then they begin to discount the importance of faith. Religion becomes a past time for the rich only. And our society reinforces that by sanitizing public schools of any faith-based initiatives whatsoever.

I am not trying to stuff religion down anyone else’s throat. In fact, I cherish the fact that I live in a country that has separation of church and state built into its constitution. However real freedom includes being able to incorporate your faith into your life to the extent that you see fit. Having educational options that incorporate your faith of choice is a part of that. And religion used to be a stalwart of the Black community. It no longer is…and I think we are living to see the ongoing negative effects of that.

Politically Speaking – Squash the Bipartisanship

Certain democrats, such as Joe Lieberman (as well as the mayor of Harrisburg), have spoken out in support of school choice. However in general, the party line is to support teachers unions (a cog in the public school machine) and tight government administration of education. Also, the Democratic party today has marginalized the role of religion in society (thanks to the extremist positions taken by religious fundamentalists). This is unfortunate….because while all this political posturing is going on, the children are missing out.

I hope that our legislators will make moves that will support parents and their dream to provide the best education possible to their children. They need to also understand that while you can lead a horse to water, you cannot force it to drink. But go ahead and lead it there anyway. Oh, and provide the water too….that is really the absolute least that you should be willing to do.