labor How Black Lives Matter Activists Plan to Fix Schools
, Jonathan Bachman
Black Lives Matter activists have already successfully pushed some colleges to address racism on campus and make curriculum more inclusive. But the movement as a whole has been less visible in the K-12 space. That’s changing.
As my colleague Vann Newkirk has noted, the Movement for Black Lives Matter coalition recently published a platform outlining a range of specific policies it would like to see take shape at the local, state, and federal levels. The education proposals are rooted in the K-12 space, activists who helped draft them told me, because the U.S. public-school system is so broken that college is never an option for many young people of color. And while many universities are privately controlled, the group sees an opportunity to return control of K-12 public schools to the students, parents, and communities they serve.
Public schools, even in the nation’s most affluent cities, remain highly segregated, with black children disproportionately likely to attend schools with fewer resources and concentrated poverty. There are more school security officers than counselors in four of the 10 biggest school districts in the country. And whereas spending on corrections increased by 324 percent between 1979 and 2013, that on education rose just 107 percent during the same time.
The coalition’s proposals are wide-ranging and, depending on who is talking, either aspirational or entirely unrealistic. They range from calling for a constitutional amendment for “fully funded” education (activists say federal funding is inadequate and not distributed equally) and a moratorium on charter schools to the removal of police from schools and the closure of all juvenile detention centers.
Mostly, said Jonathan Stith, the national coordinator for the Washington-based Alliance for Educational Justice and one of the lead authors, the propositions are an attempt to crystallize what the movement supports and to provide activists with a platform from which to move forward. “It’s always been clear what we’re against, but [articulating] what we’re for, what we want to see, was a real labor,” Stith, 41, said. The document is also an effort to connect education priorities to health care, the economy, criminal justice, and a range of other public-policy areas, and to, as Stith put it, force progress “in concert.”.
The plan, which lambasts the “privatization” of education by foundations that wield fat wallets to shape policy and criticizes charter-school networks for decimating black communities and robbing traditional neighborhood schools of resources, drew immediate criticism from education reformers who see charters and groups like Teach for America (the plan calls for its demise) as providing badly needed services to students of color. Some of these reformers said it signaled that the movement was cozy with teachers’ unions and the status quo. Lily Eskelsen Garcia, the head of the National Education Association, one of the country’s two main teachers’ unions, wrote in an emailed comment, “The NEA is honored to stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and proud to be a partner with the organizations that support community-based solutions to support students and public schools.”
But Hiram Rivera, the 39-year-old executive director of the Philadelphia Student Union and another author of the platform, pointed out that the plan offers plenty for the unions to dislike, too, such as community control of curriculum, and the flexibility to hire and fire teachers. “The education system in this country has never worked for poor people and people of color,” said Rivera. “We’re not calling for the status quo. We don't want things to continue as they’ve always done.”
Stith (who has a child enrolled in a charter school and said the desire to eliminate them “comes from a lived experience”) and Rivera think that reformer-union dichotomy ignores the movement’s broader goal of returning control of schools to parents, students, and local communities. “A lot of the real issues get lost,” Rivera said, citing curriculum, school safety, resources, and college-and-career preparation as examples.
The Philadelphia Student Union, as its name suggests, works directly with young people to improve schools in the city, which has been reeling from a lack of funding that saw nurses and counselors cut from school rosters. (The plan calls for free health services.) Rivera was able to incorporate young people’s voices into the education platform. Students, he said, told him they do not feel safer with police officers in schools, and school closures, often in impoverished communities, leave them feeling set up to fail by the system.
“The education system in this country has never worked for poor people and people of color.”
While the education platform covers a broad array of issues, both Rivera and Stith hope activists at all levels will see it as a starting point; they’re also optimistic that it will give community members who may not have seen a clear way to take action the framework they need to get started. “Visions change as time and conditions change,” Stith said. He noted, for instance, that parents in Illinois have pushed for elected instead of appointed school boards, something the platform advocates, and wants groups to be able to point to the platform as a source of ideas and support.
It should give “community members, people directly impacted, folks working inside of schools, a set of policy suggestions they can think on and move forward,” Rivera said. Broadly, Stith hopes it will “prompt a dialogue among African Americans about the quality of education in this country. That dialogue is one that’s long overdue and a particularly important one at the moment.”
With the recent passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, a new federal education law, activists see an opportunity to push for equity in schools. But Stith and others are also nervous the act, which returns some control of education policy to states, will exacerbate inequities in states where lawmakers do not see ending them as a priority.
Mobilizing community members can be difficult, particularly when it comes to communities whose educational needs and priorities have long been ignored. Parents may assume they will be ignored, or they may not have a vision of themselves as community activists or leaders because they have never seen anyone like them in that role. But Stith says the plan has been well-received and that it’s “starting to do some of what our intention was, which is to stir a conversation around black education in this country.”
“These are not the be all, end all,” Rivera added. “These are conversation starters, something for people who needed someplace to start.”