Achievement Gap

Condoleezza Rice is the Wrong Messenger with the Right Message

I'm no fan of Condoleezza Rice’s politics, but her recent comments— calling out liberals and teachers unions for blocking policies that allow poor children of color opportunities to leave failing public schools—is on target. The only question is whether this opposition meets the definition of "racist." She says:
I’ll tell you what I think is the biggest problem of race today, it’s poor black children trapped in failing neighborhood schools.
I agree. She also says:
Anybody who isn't in favor of school choice, anybody who isn't in favor of educational reform, anybody who defends the status quo in the educational system, that's racist to me.
That sounds bombastic to my ears, but rings true to my experience with opponents of school reform and school choice. They are all too willing to assign black children to inferior schools that would never be acceptable for white students, and they make arguments that seem to blame the perceived deficiencies of children as justification for keeping them in bad schools. They’re poor and black, so we can’t expect schools to do miracles with that, right? I disagree with Rice on so many issues that it would be a waste of time to enumerate them, but when she says locking black children into bad schools is one of the biggest racial problems we have, I can’t argue. Misfiring public schools rob kids of their lifelong earning potential, and leave entire communities vulnerable to economic destabilization and open to exploitation.

Why Blame Liberals and Teachers Unions?

Rice points to the Vergara vs. California lawsuit that demonstrated in court how state tenure policy threatens the civil rights of students. Yet, a good portion of the political left is oblivious to that finding, preferring to obsess about how that case is a threat to teachers and their jobs. I can’t think of any group working harder in capital houses nationwide to prevent urban students in poverty from having access to higher quality teachers and better schools than teachers unions and their liberal allies. While they advocate a great deal of positive, pro-child policies such as a living wage, health care and early learning, it’s no consolation after blocking under-resourced children from the opportunities through public charter schools, open enrollment and post-secondary options. Even their calls for better funding of existing schools, however important, doesn't give them a special dispensation to pursue illiberal anti-choice policies that limit options for children. The fact that teachers put their own children in private schools at a higher rate than the general public should say a lot. It indicates a willingness to have two standards for education, one for middle-class and white children, another for poor and black children. That’s just wrong.

But is it Racist?

Still, you might wonder why we should call this “racist”? It’s a beastly term that stops conversation. Shouldn’t we just chalk this up to policy disputes, not racism? Perhaps. Yet, creating a policy portfolio that prioritizes keeping poor black children in their neighborhood schools where they receive lower quality instruction and inferior curricular opportunities only redlines them and diminishes their promise. Research seems to support the idea that race plays a part in this problem. A study last year found policymakers are more likely to pass school reform legislation when it benefits white students, and the problem exists in states where liberal politicians who seem to take their education agenda directly from teachers unions are prevailing? "It's when white students are doing poorly that you start seeing state legislators pass more controversial bills like linking teacher pay and evaluations to student test scores,” wrote one of the researchers in that study. You can give Rice a hard time for calling that racist. But the problem of crowding black children into public schools no one would want for white children is at very least racist- ish.
For another view point on Condoleezza Rice's message, read Executive Director Peter Cunningham's post.
Chris Stewart
Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of brightbeam. He was named CEO in April 2019, after formerly serving as chief executive of Wayfinder Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. In the past, Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, ...

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