Saturday, May 9, 2015

" When Different is the Same" Reflections on "School Choice" by Professor Lori Martin

One of the things I admire about my pastor, Raymond Jetson, is his desire and commitment to be different. His life's work is illustrative of a willingness to explore new and innovative ways to address complex social problems in collaborative ways. He is a leader in the true sense of the word. His goal is to be a church without walls that transforms lives and communities.

 Pastor Jetson's approach is arguably different than the perceptions of people about some community leaders. Our Schools Our Excellence, an initiative of MetroMorphosis, which Jetson created, is a great example of a different approach to addressing the educational needs of our children. The initiative was founded on the principle that every child deserves an excellent education. Sadly, every child is not getting an excellenct education. Students within the same school districts-even students in the same building-are not receiving an excellent education.

This is especially the case in magnet and charger schools in districts where many of the traditional public schools are considered "failing."In the East Baton Rouge School District, most of the majority minority schools in North Baton Rouge are considered failing. At the same time, new charter schools are cropping up across the parish.

There is a highly sought after magnet school, Baton Rouge Magnet High School, in the district that is popular, in part, because of the many advanced placement course offerings. The school is 38% white and about 43% black. About 34% of students receive free or reduced lunch. The school district is about 45% black and over 80% of students qualified for free or reduced lunch as of October 2014, before recent changes making all students in the district eligible. Another magnet school, Lee High Magnet School, which is in year two of transiting from a failed traditional public school to a magnet school, is increasing in popularity because of a focus on science, engineering, and math, and dual enrollment courses with the state's flagship institution, among other reasons.

 Traditional public schools either offer no such classes, or dual enrollment classes with Baton Rouge Community College. As Lee High Magnet continues to transition, many minority students who survived the turbulent first year may get to the mountain top, but seeing the promised land is doubtful. They are in a "different" situation than many in their cohort who were ill-prepared to maintain the required grade point average and were ultimately sentenced to serving out the remainder of their high school careers in failing neighborhood schools. The students that survived will not have access to all the promised technological changes, internships, additional course offerings, etc. as these will be phased in for new cohorts.

 For example, new cohorts are scheduled to enjoy Chrome Books with e-versions of all required textbooks and older cohorts will continue to haul around heavy and costly textbooks in new aged buildings that don't have lockers or desks where books can be stored. EBR schools are not alone in these regards. Administrators of magnet and charter schools in districts with "failing" schools across the country apparently read from the same script, which requires the repeated use of the term, "different." Magnet and charter schools, the administrators often contend, will have "different" curriculum, or produce "different" results, when compared with traditional public schools, when in fact, many of these schools represent more of the "same." The schools represent the perpetuation of a an unjust system that privileges some people, and is at the same time a continued source of misery and despair for others, especially people of color and the poor.

The celebration of "difference" is in many ways an indictment of the quality of education available to communities of color and the poor. It is also an acknowledgement of the existence of a two-tiered system, which prepares some for success and citizenship, while simultaneously reminding others of their place in a social institution, and in the broader society, that perpetuates inequality all the while extolling the virtues of fairness and justice. It's time to take off the blindfolds and throw out the pacifier that is privilege. According to these administrators of choice schools, considered by some the mouthpieces of a misguided movement to use public schools as a profit generating machine, parents with children in their schools should feel grateful that their children have the opportunity to enjoy a "different" academic experience. On the contrary, parents, community leaders, school administrators, teachers, elected officials, etc. everywhere should all feel the "same" moral outrage. Our Schools Our Excellence got it right. "Every" child deserves an excellent education and no one should turn a blind eye to the injustices that are preventing the initiative's rallying cry from becoming a reality.

Latrice Martin is associate professor of sociology and African American Studies. She is the author of Big Box Schools: Race, Education, and the Danger of the Wal-Martization of Public Schools in America.