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Race and Education: Where do we go from here?

Written By: jhcruz on April 27, 2008 No Comment

Race has once again become an issue in America. By saying this I do not mean to imply that race was ever not an issue in America. On the contrary, I argue that race has always been an issue in this country and that we have been ignoring it. We have done so with happy slogans about “colorblindness” and “celebrating diversity” and pretending that racism ended with the civil rights movement. All the while racial injustice and outrage simmered beneath the surface of our colorblind world. I say that race is once again an issue in America because recently our nation’s forgotten issue has begun to boil over and, in the process, has caused us to consider just how far we really have come. This essay is a challenge to consider how far we have yet to go.

There are many aspects of racial injustice in this country, but to me none stands above that of our school system; and this system of oppression will be my focus. I say “oppression” and many wince or roll their eyes, but it is not my intent to point to a racist conspiracy among those in power or bigotry among everyday whites. I intend to show that the system itself is fatally flawed and that a meritocracy is its own form of oppression when built on a foundation that is fundamentally unequal. It is my argument that segregation did not end with Jim Crow. The way we fund our schools, our obsession with standardized testing, and our ignorance of how the system works lead to a cycle of inequality that must be broken because this is a problem that is getting worse, not better. We cut schools and build prisons. California has recently announced budget cuts to its K-12 and Community College system that will have a disproportionately negative effect on minority communities. George W. Bush’s failed No Child Left Behind Act has served to instead leave a very large number of our students behind, particularly within the minority community. These things happen and we, content in our ignorance, do not see.

Until 1976, California school funding was based on local property taxes. In 1976 this practice was declared unconstitutional. The continued general segregation of communities and the fact that the separateness of these communities was never equal led to much better schools in affluent white communities. This was struck down and replaced with a state formula distribution system where monies were distributed more equally. This lasted about three years until in 1979 Proposition 13 passed, putting a cap on property taxes. After all, if your taxes aren’t going to your own children’s education then why pay them? This set the stage for a system that has carried through to our own time. To make up for low funding, affluent suburban communities began to take out bond issues that, as community funding rather than taxes, did not fit under the restrictions imposed in 1976. Bolstered by these funds, schools in these communities drew more students and produced higher production, giving them more state funding as a consequence. So what stopped inner city urban schools from doing the same? A lack of capital of course! Wealthy whites in urban areas had fled to private schools, leaving urban poor, typically minority, communities decidedly disadvantaged. Teacher’s salary, classroom resources, and overall building upkeep are directly tied to school funding. This leaves poorly funded minority schools stuck in a downward spiral that leaves students without hope of a real education, making many who should be assets to their communities a burden instead.

It is for these reasons that the current Schwarzenegger cuts in funding will have a greater negative impact on inner-city minority schools. Well-off schools are buffered by bond issue money and, for reasons previously stated, already receive greater state funding than their inner city counterparts. So the schools that are most in need will have less money. Less money means an inability to hire enough capable staff, stock the school with adequate supplies, and provide basic upkeep for the schools themselves. These factors lead to a lower quality of education as well as an increase in feelings of apathy or inferiority within the student body that cause more dropouts and lower test scores. These factors lead to a worse rating and even less funding, and the cycle begins again.

Further burdening minority community schools is federal policy enacted at the behest of President George W. Bush in 2001. The No Child Left Behind Act is flawed in many ways. The Act’s disproportionate emphasis on math and English lead to the loss of curriculum in the arts and sciences and the limitations of “teaching to the test” have been well expressed by teachers everywhere. However, it is the racial inequalities that are of most interest in this essay. First, emphasizing English testing puts schools with ESL students at a direct disadvantage. Secondly, the bill has been enormously under funded, leaving the schools which rate the worst in the system without resources needed to improve. It is well known that the schools that have the worst test scores are inner city minority schools. In fact, the Act’s reliance on standardized testing is a major issue. Minority students score lower on “standardized” tests not only because their schools are ill equipped to teach them, but also because of intrinsic flaws within the tests themselves which advantage white students.

It is well recorded that African American and Latino students score significantly lower on standardized tests than other groups. Part of this is they are disproportionately poor and stuck in bad schools but this is only part. To fully understand you must look at the history of standardized testing in America. The SAT is considered the most important test for a high school student. The test was created by a white man named Carl Brigham in the 1920s but was not widely adopted until 1960 when it was made mandatory by the UC system. An important thing to note was that these ideas of standardization and merit are taking hold just as Jim Crow is ending. You also must really ask what it means to be “standard” and who was this test made for? The answer to both is white people. The test was created by white people, for white people, and its ideas of what it is to be standard are founded entirely on the white experience. The SAT has been shown to be culturally biased in the manner of its questioning in many studies. Also, the test is not even created to show success in college but success in the first semester of college. Which leads you to ask, who do you think is more likely to have difficulty, regardless of intelligence, in their first semester of college? The answer is those kids from the schools that don’t have enough books. In fact, the SAT is a much better indicator of race than of success in college. This is because of the key question of “standards,” because if whiteness is the standard then these tests are testing not only how smart you are, but how white you are as well.

All of these give evidence to a system that is built on inequality that, if it stands as is, will continue to reproduce inequality and injustice. Past programs of affirmative action were created for the purpose of breaking this cycle and have done so to varying degrees of success. Affirmative action was not only about fairness but also the enrichment of the community as a whole though enforcing policies of equality and justice. Affirmative Action programs do not fit in a meritocracy, however, and in 1996 proposition 209 banned the consideration of gender, race and sexuality in California’s schools. This is where we stand today.

This essay is not an essay about banning the SAT or reintroducing affirmative action programs but is instead a simple statement that what we are doing is not working. A merit-based system cannot function equally if its foundations are not equal. Education is the heart of any community and by
denying a segment of our nation equality in education we are allowing a great injustice to take place. And so here is my call to action for you. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last book was entitled Where Do We Go From Here? Forty years later this is what I ask you this question. So if you disagree with what’s written in this paper, respond, but do some research and look around. Ask yourself what you really see. If you agree, respond, add your thoughts and think of solutions. We came a long way to get where we are but we are not finished yet. Nowhere near. Every crisis is an opportunity for change and we represent that opportunity. How can we make the change we need?

Note: This written piece was written by Daniel Traverso and contributed by Davetta, Coleen, Shirley, Trinh, Jose, Ann, Jordan, Daniel, and Zohair. All of them are part of Sociology 141 course, Spring 08.

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