The Common Good

Education as an Exercise in Dominion

I remember the first time I ever got straight A’s. It was also the last time.

I was in Mrs. Becker’s 4th grade class at John Story Jenks School in Philadelphia. I was always good at reading, I LOVED science projects, and art class was fun — but math? Ugh. Math was my nemesis. In 4thgrade the times tables felt as insurmountable as that dang rope everybody else could whiz up and down in gym class. I just couldn’t figure it out. In fact, to this day, I haven’t figured the rope.

So, my father became my times tables drill sergeant and resorted to straight memorization tactics, making me write each one 10 times. Then he sat across from me at the dining room table and drilled me on the times tables until I said them in my sleep. It was brutal … and oddly, one of the fondest memories of my elementary school years. Not only did I master multiplication, but I also learned something much more important. When my report card came back that quarter with straight A’s, I learned that I could learn!

In Philadelphia, there are hundreds of elementary schools and high schools spread out all over the city, and a child’s school is not necessarily bound by their neighborhood. Parents can apply to get their children into schools anywhere in the city. So, schools compete with each other for the best students, and students compete with each other to get into the best schools.

My grandfather was one of the first black students to enter Boy’s High School, one of the most competitive high schools in Philadelphia. From the time I could remember, my mother put it in my head that my goal in life was to attend Girl’s High School — the other most competitive high school in Philly. Girl’s High was such a goal for me that I once wept out load when I got a pink-slip (a warning) for being late to class. I thought it would ruin my chances of being accepted at Girl’s High.

Then we moved.

Cape May, N.J., is a destination beach town for tourists from around the world who make the quaint country town their summer destination each year. The town’s reputation as the oldest Victorian village in the United States is reinforced by vibrantly colored gingerbread homes that line its narrow streets along with a board walk complete with one major arcade, tons of salt-water taffy, and a convention center. Mine was the only black family within a 5-mile radius in a small town just outside of Cape May.

There is one junior high school in Cape May, Richard M. Teitelman Middle School, and one high school, Lower Cape May Regional High School. There is no competition to get in because there is nothing to compete against.

On my first day of school in Cape May, I learned there were four levels of classes; level one was the slowest learners and level four was the smart kids. To this day, I don’t know how this happened, but I was placed in level two — general reading and general math. It’s possible that I tested poorly because I was going through a number of crises. We’d just moved away from family and a city I loved to this weird place where no one looked like me. My parents had just completed their divorce, my mom remarried, and now I was adjusting to being part of a large blended family. There were lots of reasons I may not have been able to concentrate on test day. But the outcome was that I was placed in the second-to-lowest reading and math groups in a non-competitive school.

My mother went to the school and fought for me to be retested. When they finally let me retest, I did better. I was moved up to group 3. It wasn’t the highest group, but at least it was with the college-bound kids, and I remained in that track all the way through high school.

My siblings had the same story. And, though they grew up there, their children had the same stories in Cape May. Each generation has been funneled into general math and reading. And each generation of parents has had to march up to the school and advocate for their black children to be retested or that their school grades be taken into account when placing their children in the track that would determine their future.

Now, imagine that it is not just one track in a school, but it is the majority of schools in public school systems that have become the “track” for the servant class and the prep schools for the prison pipeline. Imagine that it is not enough for parents to advocate for their children to get into a particular track in their school, but they must make enough money to get their students into a funded school.

I had two conversations with two different leaders in education a little over a decade apart. In 2000 the head of a major urban school district told me that most schools in the black and Latino areas did not have books! And most survived with full-time, year-round substitute or emergency-credentialed teachers because more qualified teachers were funneled into better-funded schools — schools in richer areas that can supplement the district’s funding with funds raised by their PTAs and alumni associations. In 2011, another public schools head told me the same was true in New York City.

The bottom line reason for this disparity is the way funds are distributed within our current American education system. School funding comes from a school district’s homeowner tax base. Districts with higher percentages of renters will inherently have less money to invest in their schools than districts with high percentages of homeowners. As a result, poorer communities — mostly black and Latino —  have schools without books and fewer qualified teachers while richer communities — mostly white — have Olympic-sized swimming pools, AP and college-credit courses, trips abroad, and books — good ones.

A decade apart, both education leaders told me: “Yes, it’s racist, but it’s the way things work.”

There are myriad issues with the public school system. Some say the problem is teachers unions. Others say it’s poor parental involvement. Still others say the issue is the students themselves. I believe the problem is much more fundamental than any of these very real challenges.

Here’s what I think: I think I’m not so sure we really believe that every single child in every single neighborhood is made in the image of God with, all things being equal, the capacity to exercise dominion in our world.

Albert Einstein said: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

Imagine a world where Tamika and Chante and DeShawn are equally expected by society to exercise stewardship over its future resources and to make decisions that affect the world. Imagine. Would we be content with a system of funding that inherently places them at such a disadvantage?

Would Jesus?

This post was featured in Sojourner’s monthly Faith in Action newsletter, which you can join by clicking here.

Lisa Sharon Harper is Director of Mobilizing for Sojourners.

Image: Two schoolchildren wait for the bus, Nolte Lourens / Shutterstock.com

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