Two news stories that recently went viral tell an important story about America today and the nation’s misbegotten values.
The first image comes from Baltimore, Maryland, where students and teachers recently had to wear coats, gloves, and blankets in classrooms because their schools weren’t adequately heated for winter weather. Pipes froze and burst and boilers broke down. About a third of schools were initially affected, and when an intense winter storm sent temperatures plunging further, the city had to close all schools.
The second image is a video from Vermillion Parish, Louisiana, showing a school teacher who politely questioned her school board about teacher pay and working conditions was escorted out of the meeting by an armed guard and then thrown to the floor, handcuffed, taken into police custody, and charged with a crime.
What each of these images has in common is a story about money and priorities.
In a nation that can afford to give businesses a $2.6 trillion tax cut and spend at least $4 trillion on endless wars in the Middle East, we can’t seem to be able to guarantee students that their classrooms will be heated nor promise teachers that they can depend on decent wages and reasonable working conditions.
That’s shameful for sure. But what these two images also convey is that the targets for the systemic abuse are blatantly selective.
Look closely at the images from Baltimore and you’ll see the skin colors of the school children are generally not white. Eighty percent of Baltimore city schools students are black, 10 percent are Latino, and only 9 percent are white.
Watch the video from Louisiana and you can’t help but notice the autocratic board members are predominantly male while the teacher and her colleagues speaking out in her support are mostly female
At a time when wildly popular hashtag-driven campaigns are whipping up intense public fervor for the rights of black lives and women, now might be a good time to address how nonwhite children and women are being treated in our public school system.
It's About Race
It’s neither a mischaracterization or an exaggeration to point to the unheated Baltimore classrooms and claim their conditions are a national concern.
“Public school buildings are falling apart, and students are suffering for it,” reads the headline of a recent article in The Washington Post. The reporter, freelance journalist Rachel Cohen, points to a study way back in the 1990s that told us millions of students attended schools with structural problems, and thousands of students were in buildings with poor air quality. A more recent study by the American Society of Civil Engineers gave public schools a “D+” grade on it’s A-F national report card on the conditions of public school buildings. And a 2016 report estimated, “In total, the nation is underspending on school facilities by $46 billion — an annual shortfall of 32 percent.”
Not only is the problem national in scope, but as Cohen points out, “These problems disproportionately affect poor communities,” especially in older cities, where schools tend to be 60 to 70 years old. “Low-wealth jurisdictions such as Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Detroit face far greater challenges borrowing money and accessing capital investment,” she writes, “making it even harder to address needed repairs. And when repairs are deferred, the costs increase. As a result, students in affluent communities can enjoy higher-quality school buildings than those in lower-income districts.”
The blatant inequity of school facilities funding extends beyond buildings to programs and personnel.
A 2011 report from the federal government found, “More than 40 percent of low-income schools don’t get a fair share of state and local funds.” Consequently, as a more recent article from The Atlantic reports, “High-poverty districts spend 15.6 percent less per student than low-poverty districts do,” which translates to “fewer guidance counselors, tutors, and psychologists, lower-paid teachers, more dilapidated facilities, and bigger class sizes than wealthier districts.”
In a district like Vermillion Parish, Louisiana, where the teacher, Deyshia Hargrave, was forcibly ejected from a board meeting, lack of funding adversely affects teachers’ working conditions too.
Listen closely to what Hargrave said, and you’ll hear her complaints are very specific. As Education Week reports, Hargrave questioned why the board increased the salary of the current superintendent by $38,000 while teachers and other district employees remained underpaid and overworked. “The teachers of this parish have not received a raise in ten years,” the local teachers’ union reports, and Hargrave tells the board her class sizes have swollen from 21 students to 29.
Press accounts of the incident differ on whether or not board president Anthony Fontana signaled for the officer to escort Hargrave out, and there’s so far been no explanation for why the officer threw Hargrave to the floor once they entered a hallway, but Fontana stated he was “100 percent” behind the officer’s actions, even though the video convinced city and board attorneys Hargrave was completely innocent of wrong doing and deserved no formal charges.
The video sparked widespread outrage, including some threatening violence against the board, according to USA Today. But one observation worth noting, by female board member Laura LeBeouf, was that, “What happened here tonight – the way the females are treated in Vermillion Parish … I have never seen a man removed from this room.” USA Today quotes LeBeouf saying, “When [Hargrave] realized she had to get out, she picked up her purse and walked out … Women in this parish are not getting the same treatment.”
This is especially true in public education where the vast majority of classroom teachers are female, while administration is dominated by males, and teachers receive salaries that are much lower than what other professionals with similar levels of education earn.
Not an 'Education Only' Issue
The problems that plague student learning conditions and teacher working conditions have become chronic and are growing more acute. But the issue shouldn’t be siloed as an “education only” concern.
This is not to say there aren’t important education ramifications at stake. Research consistently shows there is a direct correlation between what we spend on schools to how well our students perform on achievement tests and other measures. In states that were forced by court order to increase education spending, research shows students experienced gains in student achievement. Studies also show that higher teacher salaries tend to correlate with better student outcomes. And smaller class size reductions often correlate with improvements in student achievement.
But issues related to school funding should not be confined to dry statistical analysis but deserve also to be lifted to the higher ground of what is moral and just. If white male leaders need to be challenged about their views on race and gender, they also must be required to address the worsening conditions in our public schools and the plight of our classroom teachers.