Public Education Is a Storm But Our Kids Aren't Weathering it in the Same Boat

May 8, 2020 12:00:00 AM


“We’re all in the same storm, not the same boat.”

That’s the statement one of my friends made during a virtual town hall I hosted discussing the state of education in Chicago during COVID-19.

Y’all, I have never heard more accurate words to describe the inequality and injustice I’m seeing during this pandemic and what I’ve seen in public education. And this metaphor is something I’m going to carry in my activist bag forever.

It made me think about two things—how I and some of the other Black advocates I roll with find ourselves having to defend our stance on prioritizing education liberation for Black kids against people who like to “all lives matter” education, and how worse off those Black and Brown students may be after the pandemic.

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Addressing the “all lives matter” in education people real quick and for the final time—yes, all students have to battle a storm that is public education in this country because it’s an imperfect system. However, the tools—often determined by skin color and/or socioeconomic status—students have been given to navigate that storm aren’t the same. And, the storm is worse for some of them.

Some students are in a pretty decent boat, only having to navigate choppy waters here and there on their voyage to college or whatever their post-high school plans are. However, Black and Brown kids—particularly poor Black and Brown kids—are in a much smaller and raggedy boat, with holes in it, sharks circling it and a tsunami in their path.

That’s why this little thing—facade, really—called “educational equity” exists. That’s why there were—before Trump and Betsy got their hands on them—some policies in place to help prevent Black, Brown and poor kids from drowning in the cold and cruel K-12 waters. And as Black adults who had to survive those same storms in those rickety boats ourselves, we fight for the ones coming behind us to try to protect them from that struggle. And [pullquote position="right"]if you haven’t experienced our struggle, you wouldn’t understand.[/pullquote]

Get it now? If not, oh well. Moving along, unapologetically and for good. 

It’s no secret that Black and Brown kids have been and are currently victims of the opportunity gap. That they’ve been more harshly disciplined than White students, trotting them from preschool playmats to the school-to-prison pipeline. And it’s also been revealed that school districts with poorer and students of color receive less funding. These are all indications that racism and bias continue to percolate through the public school system. So to expect these injustices to improve or even disappear after COVID-19 is foolish, especially given America’s history and disposition towards communities of color and current economic distress.

I have questions that’ll test my theory.

Best-case scenario, we develop a vaccine and students are able to return to brick and mortar buildings next year. Will anti-bias training become a priority for educators and administrators who are suspension and expulsion happy? Because I guarantee a lot of kids—especially those in Black and Brown communities who are seeing higher fatality rates from COVID—are returning with greater trauma. So will those staffers be equipped to recognize those signs or will those kids be written off as troublemakers who are just acting out?

Will there finally be an investment in mental health professionals, nurses and restorative justice practitioners? More teachers of color the students can relate to and learn from?

Alright, worst-case scenario—shelter in place is still nationally mandated and e-learning is the norm for a while longer. Will students who’ve struggled to access technology and the internet finally receive those resources? Will e-learning be enhanced to support the virtual needs of diverse learners? Will districts support impoverished and homeless populations who rely on school meals to eat every day or those closed buildings as a temporary shelter?

Will achievement be measured in a way that accounts for inaccessibility, special needs, home environment and variations in school efforts/effectiveness?

The answer to all of these questions is “no” because we’re already seeing states slashing education budgets and, as I said before, these investments haven’t been made in the past and they won’t be made in the future—if left up to usual bureaucratic suspects to decide.

So that “boat” I was talking about earlier that carries Black and Brown students is likely to be about as strong as that door Rose was floating on in the movie Titanic if Jack would’ve been added to it. We cannot leave it up to the government or the system to save our kids from sinking. It’s time to demand a better vessel or build our own ships.

Tanesha Peeples

Tanesha Peeples is driven by one question in her work—“If not me, then who?” As the former Deputy Director of Activist Development for brightbeam, Tanesha merges the worlds of communications and grassroots activism to push for change in the public education system. Her passion for community and relentless mission for justice and liberation drive her in uplifting and amplifying the voices and advocacy of those that are often ignored. Tanesha wholeheartedly believes that education is the foundation for success. Her grand vision is one where everyone—regardless of ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender or ZIP code—can have access to a comfortable quality of life and enjoy the freedoms and liberties promised to all Americans. And that's what she works towards every day.

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