Back To Schools White People Cannot See

Jeff Bryant

As the season for new school openings rolls out, there are reasons for a new consciousness-raising about those schools – the kind of consciousness-raising that can be brought about when there’s a shock to the system like Ferguson, Mo.

Of the many heartfelt, well thought-out, and clearly written responses to the ongoing travesty happening in Ferguson, one of the most insightful was “Dear White People: The Race You Can’t See Is Your Own” that appeared on Blue Nation Review.

Written by author and communications consultant Anat Shenker-Osorio, the post delved into the issue of race and perceptions of race – the starting point for understanding not only what caused events in Ferguson but also what conditions the different ways people have responded to those events.

From a scientific perspective, Shenker-Osorio explained, people “formulate judgments by race. Not only does race constrain our ability to recall and differentiate among faces and constrain empathy for physical pain, it structures our desired responses to public policies.”

These are just the facts of the matter – with one notable exception, as Shenker-Osorio noted: “whites don’t see race … when they’re looking at other whites.”

To illustrate this phenomenon, Shenker-Osorio recalled a focus group she had run in which “we showed different groups an all-white image and asked them to discuss it. None of the white folks remarked upon the lack of people of color, but for the African American, Latino and Asian-Pacific Island groups, it was the first thing they said.”

Shenker-Osorio also pointed out how the “oxymoronic” term “majority-minority” is another “clear indicator” of how white people continue to perceive themselves as a “majority” even when statistically they no longer are, in many respects.

Public education, in particular, is now one of those “majority-minority” arenas. As numerous recent reports have recently conveyed, this new school year will be the first in which white students are no longer a majority in public schools.

Of course, this seismic demographic change didn’t happen overnight. For years, schools have been becoming more and more populated by higher percentages of non-white children, with many districts having been mostly non-white.

But given this understanding of the way white privilege distorts perceptions of reality, it’s not a leap of logic to suggest that political and policy leaders have a distorted understanding of the conditions in schools populated by children who look nothing like them. And it’s not unfair in the least to wonder if these leaders are incapable of really seeing the schools for which they purport to render policy direction.

Failure To See The Funding Crisis

Take the issue of school finance. While some would have us believe that the “recovery” has healed school finances, the reality for most schools is very different.

The financial recovery that has occurred in some public and private sectors simply has not happened in K-12 education. Despite some improvements in overall state tax revenues (which provide about 45 percent of K-12 education funding), according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:

  • New state budgets for school year 2013-2014 provided less per-pupil funding for kindergarten through 12th grade than they did six years ago – often far less.
  • 34 states provided less per-student funding for K-12 education in 2013-14 than they did in fiscal year 2008.
  • Schools in around a third of states entered the school year with less state funding than they had the previous year.
  • At least 35 states provided less funding per student for the 2013-14 school year than they did before the recession hit.

Adding to the financial plight, counties and municipalities that fund schools at the local level collected 2.1 percent less in property tax revenue in the 12-month period ending in March 2013 than in the previous year. There are no indications 2014 is any better.

Federal funds for K-12 education have continued to decline too, according to a report in FiveThirtyEight. Federal per-student spending fell more than 20 percent from 2010 to 2012 and continued to fall in 2013-2014. Title I was down 12 percent. Spending on disabled education went down 11 percent. No increases are coming from the feds for the 2015 school year.

The impact of funding cuts were significant as school administrators had to dig deeper into budgets and cut instructional-related expenses, including teaching positions, instructional materials, and teacher professional development:

  • A survey of school superintendents found that federal funding cuts implemented in 2014 resulted in reduced expenditures on professional development (59 percent), eliminated personnel (53 percent), increased class size (48 percent), and deferred technology purchases (46 percent).
  • Another survey of school district leaders found only 11 percent disagreed/strongly disagreed that budget shortfalls would be “a challenge for my school district.” Only 16 percent of district officials surveyed about their instructional budgets in 2013 said they expected their financial situations to improve in 2014. It’s not likely 2015 will bring on a recovery.

The ‘Recovery’ Isn’t Happening

Where funding has increased, it has generally not increased enough to make up for cuts in past years.

A recent report on school funding levels in New York by the Alliance for Quality Education found a $5.9 billion shortfall on what is owed to schools in that state. The report quoted a school official who said, “We’ve cut writing classes, science, athletics, arts, everywhere.” Another official said, “We have eliminated our entire business program, cut our JV sports teams, reduced our academic intervention programs, as well as decimating our administrative leadership team.”

Cuts to school funding in Pennsylvania have been so severe that staffing levels have hit a 10-year low. Democratic state leaders accuse Governor Tom Corbett of cutting a billion dollars from the state education budget, with one public school advocate quoted as saying, “We’ve lost over 400 teachers … 20 percent of the teaching compliment of the Allentown School District.”

In the current North Carolina state budget, education gets $500 million less than the 2008 inflation-adjusted budget, even though school populations have grown dramatically. Progressive group NC Policy Watch has tracked, county by county, the effects of budget cuts on classrooms, documenting slashed classroom teacher and teacher assistant positions, increased class sizes, and cuts to instructional supplies and textbooks. One little-noticed provision in the budget ensures schools no longer get more money when their enrollments increase.

In Florida, Governor Rick Scott declared this year’s budget includes record levels of education funding, but his proposal left the state’s per pupil spending about $200 lower than in the 2007-08 school year, while district needs have only risen.

In Michigan, after a previous state budgets cut education spending over $1 billion, modest increases in the 2015 version barely recovered a quarter of what had been cut. This means a school district such as Ann Arbor, for example, will have funding levels of $6,445,869 (based on 2010-11 levels) compared to $7,727,263 from the previous year. But the cumulative results are still a near $30 million shortfall over a four-year period, and that’s just for one district.

In Kansas, largest-ever cuts in state school funding history took funding back to 1992 levels, when adjusted for inflation. The cuts resulted in the elimination of teaching aides, school specialists and classroom teachers. Textbook purchases were put on hold, schools resorted to radical measures including removing half the light bulbs, dropping tutoring activities, and canceling summer school.

In Nevada, state funding for schools is so inadequate, communities are resorting to unheard-of measures, including, as NPR recently reported, a district raising funds through bars and brothels.

Nationally, a recent survey of teachers found one in three using textbooks 10 years old or older. Thirty percent of teachers report not having enough textbooks to assign homework. Another national survey found budget cuts have resulted in only a third of schools now having school librarians.

Funding Disparities Follow Race and Income

The relationship of education cuts to race becomes even more obvious when recognizing how resources, as dear as they are, are being distributed.

The budget cuts themselves have been distributed in inequitable fashion, with schools serving the poorest – and by proxy nonwhite – children bearing the brunt of the disinvestment.

As an annually recurring report on school funding fairness found in its 2014 edition, “The Great Recession triggered dramatic reductions in state and local revenue from property, sales and income taxes. To prevent layoffs and cuts to education programs, the federal government provided substantial stimulus funds on a temporary basis. When the stimulus ended, however, states faced a crucial test: either restore revenue or allow cuts to education funding and programs. This report shows many of the states failed this test, sacrificing fair school funding after the foreseeable loss of federal stimulus.”

That report found “school funding in most states remains remarkably unfair … The majority of states have flat or regressive funding distribution patterns that ignore the need for additional funding in high poverty settings. Even among ‘progressive’ states, only eight provide more than a 10 percent boost to high poverty districts. In the five most regressive states (North Dakota, Vermont, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Nevada), the poorest districts receive at least 20 percent less funding than higher wealth districts.”

Even within school districts there are huge disparities in spending depending on the wealth – and by proxy, the race – of the local community. As a recent article on The Huffington Post contended, “Students who live in wealthy communities have huge advantages that rig the system in their favor.” The article pointed to an analysis  showing that “wealthier districts” use private local education foundations to ensure their students “attend summer schools that provide educational enrichment, help students make up courses they missed or failed during the academic year, and look good on students’ transcripts when they apply to college.” For students who aren’t in these affluent districts – no such luck.

“Just within Los Angeles County,” the author noted, “there are huge differences between wealthy communities like La Cañada Flintridge (with a median household income of $154,947 and 2.1 percent poverty rate) and San Marino ($139,122 — 4.6 percent) and poorer cities like Pomona ($48,864 — 20.4 percent) and Huntington Park ($36,620 — 27.7 percent) in their ability to raise additional money for their local schools.”

Regarding federal funds, as the above referenced report from FiveThirtyEight noted, “most federal education aid targets two groups, low-income and special education students, who are overrepresented in urban school districts. As a result, urban districts have been hit harder by the recent cuts.”

Funding Fairness Matters, A Lot

These funding disparities have consequences.

As the author of the above-linked Huffington Post article noted, “Affluent students in well-off school districts have higher rates of high school graduation, college attendance, and entry to the more selective colleges. This has little to do with intelligence or ability.”

According to a report at Vox, researchers found, “Spending more money on educating children in poor districts can dramatically change the trajectory of those children’s lives.”

The analysis found, “A 20 percent increase in per-pupil spending could make a big difference for students from poor families … The additional spending had virtually closed the high school graduation gap between poor students and their wealthier peers. High school graduation rates increased 23 percentage points for poor students, and those students attended school or college for another year on average.”

Another recent study, according to an article at Education Week, found, “How much state governments spend per pupil and how they spend it does in fact have a significant correlation with achievement, particularly for the low-income students.”

The researches found, “A $1,000-per-pupil funding increase is correlated with a .42-point increase in National Assessment of Education Progress scores for low-income 4th graders … an increase of 20 percentage points in the state share of spending correlated with a 1-point improvement in the 8th grade math scores of low-income students.”

Funding fairness mattered even more, as “an improvement in the equity of funding across a state can improve academic performance without any additional spending overall. And the effect is significant: For example, a 20-point improvement in the equity ratio, holding all other factors constant, is correlated with nearly 2 point improvement in 4th grade NAEP [National Assessment of Educational Progress] reading scores for low-income students, equal to a roughly 1 percent gain.”

The School Reality White People Cannot See

Many who slough off the importance of equitable funding for schools instead point to other issues they deem to be more apt to even the playing field – such as promulgating new standards or changing teacher personnel policies.

According to this view, if we were just to “raise the bar” on what we expect all students to achieve or “hold teachers more accountable” for the results students get on standardized tests, then these issues of funding simply wouldn’t matter.

These arguments are distractions. As the new president of the National Education Association Lily Eskelsen Garcia recently stated, “That is their narrative. Because if you can talk about something like that you don’t have to talk about why do these kids have an Olympic swimming pool and these kids have a leaky roof. How come these kids get French classes and AP classes – and they should – and these kids don’t even get recess because they spend it drilling and practicing for the standardized test. Equity costs money, so you want to change the subject as fast as you can.”

Shenker-Osorio concluded her reflection on the Ferguson tragedy with a call “to face some hard truths. The race we don’t see is our own, and it keeps us from understanding our privilege and thus others’ lived experience of baked-in, perpetual, harms.”

One of those “baked-in, perpetual harms” is that too many of the schools in this country are like the school Michael Brown attended in Ferguson. As a recent post on the liberal blog site Daily Kos noted, Brown’s schools “was created by merging two of the poorest, most heavily minority districts around St. Louis – Normandy and Wellston. The poverty rate for families sending their kids to Normandy Schools was 92 percent. At Wellston School District, the poverty rate was 98 percent. Every single student in the Wellston district was African American.”

The fact that Brown graduated from this school and was about to attend college may have been a “miracle,” as the post claimed. But the reality of his dead body bleeding on the street should spur a call to action very different from the actions education policy leaders want us to undertake. The fact these folks can’t see that is what really is the whole problem.

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