When Segregation is the Innovation
In a world where we’re more and more accustomed to jargon inherited from corporate start up world like “disruption” and “big data”, “innovation” stands out as one of the most empty vessels in which we project meaning without much thought of it.
In the education world in particular, almost anything can be “innovative”. Even bringing back purposeful segregation and differential treatment under the guise of educational opportunity. Governor Baker’s latest “Innovation Partnership Zones” may be clever, but it’s certainly not very innovative.
If only segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace had known it would be this easy to fool people, he’d had changed his 1963 speech to “innovation today, innovation tomorrow, innovation forever!”.
So what are “Innovation Partnership Zones” (IPZs), and what would the governor’s bill do? It’s important to note here this idea has prominent Democratic support as well, it was only last year that Education Committee co-chair Alice Peisch (D-Wellesley) and Senator Eric Lesser (D-Longmeadow) sponsored very similar legislation.
The bill allows groups of 2 schools or more (or one school with more than 1,000 students) to create an IPZ which would allow an outside organization to manage these schools and give the “zone” autonomy over things like budget, hiring, curriculum, etc. Essentially third-partying away the public good, but doesn’t “partnership” sounds so much better than “takeover”?
The IPZ can be triggered in two main ways.
- Through local initiative of school committee members, a superintendent, a mayor, a teachers group or union, and parents. .
- Through the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) Commissioner’s choice from schools determined to be “underperforming” by high stakes testing metrics.
The process would then call for proposals jointly with an outside entity that may include nonprofit charter operators and higher ed institutions.
The first option is notably reserved for schools that are not “underperforming”, and where the IPZ’s accountability will remain with the local school committee appointing the IPZ board, reviewing progress, and renewing agreements.
I’m here to tell you the first option will rarely, if ever be used. At least not by any of the wealthy, white W-towns and other well known-suburbs synonymous with excellent public education.
They won’t for the same reason none of them have taken up charter schools, long held as the bastion of “innovation” and soundly defeated from unchecked expansion in 2016. (Embarrassingly, these rich towns were the only ones to vote for them).
For the wealthy in our state they have already figured out the greatest innovation of all: a guarantee of quality for every school. In fact, that is not only the most effective innovation, it’s also the quickest path towards equity and justice for our communities.
The bill calls for a IPZ board of directors of 5–9 members, unpaid with priority for board members with experience in “education, youth development, management and finance”.
The bill further stipulates that a majority of the board should live in the school district, OR have “previously lived or worked in the community or region for at least 10 years”.
If past is prologue, the results should look familiar. Brown University Annenberg Institute’s 2016 report “Whose Schools?” analyzed the board composition of charter schools in Massachusetts. 60% of charter schools in the Commonwealth had no parent representation at all. 31% of charter board members were from the corporate sector, heavily from finance.
We should all look forward to our IPZs filled with executives from places like TD Bank, who certainly might live in the “region,”, but have no respect for Boston’s biggest neighborhood.
It is especially worrisome that IPZs will be inevitably pushed on communities of color, continuing a nationwide trend of stripping away voice from families of color from Philadelphia to Chicago, Detroit to New Orleans.
A 2015 Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools “Out Of Control” report examined the disenfranchisement of black and brown families through mechanisms such as appointed school boards, and state and district turnovers. In their 2014–15 analysis, there were 113 state takeover districts nationwide. 96 were handed to charter operators. 98% of affected students were Black and/or Latinx. In New Orleans, parents had to navigate 44 different governing authorities; in Detroit, 45.
As detailed above, these ideas are far from new, but, rather, are recycled policies peddled from one state to the next. While proponents of IPZs have put Springfield’s Empowerment Zone on a pedestal, it is barely in its 3rd year of implementation, and this bill clearly would set up different incentives that would undermine its supposed “collaboration” method.
A supporter of Innovation Zones, the Bridgespan Group, a group of nonprofit and philanthropy consultants, in 2017 described Springfield’s Empowerment Zone as “yet to accomplish its goals”, in an article overall propping up the model. In another report, it acknowledges while better than usual takeover models, Innovation Zones “have a long way to go to demonstrate the kind of sustainable progress it takes to help put low-income students on the academic path that leads to upward social mobility.”
And so I ask, why is this governor trying to rush an unproven model that segregates our students, strips away community voice, and does little to bring true justice to the wider school system?
Whether intentionally or coincidentally, architects of Governor Baker’s bill might have borrowed significantly from a 2010 American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) model legislation. To be fair, ALEC’s legislation calls for a 3-year review process of IPZs, Governor Baker’s extends it to 5-years.
Name a corporate-backed attack on civil and economic rights in this country and it was probably workshopped at an ALEC conference that brought together lawmakers and corporations eager to “innovate”. Some notable innovations include Voter ID laws, “Stand Your Ground”, a myriad of anti-immigrant measures, and, of course, the pushing the private prisons.
I’m struck by the insistence in the education world to create massive duplicative structures for communities of color. In the case of IPZs, they promise us not just separate but equal, but “separate and better (we promise!)”.
Black and brown communities are tired of being promised a shiny, special thing and being delivered much less than we deserve and what others just a few miles away already have by right.
The Journey 4 Justice Alliance’s 2018 “Failing Brown v. Board” report details equity assessments comparing course offerings between neighboring school districts by race and wealth.
The result is shocking in its inequity but not surprising to anyone who knows the history of our country. In no place where black and brown families are the majority in the school district is the innovation of a fully funded quality public school with adequate staffing, special education services, mental health supports, art and music, full-time librarians, and school nurses ever even attempted.
Our schools are not failing; they have been failed by generation after generation of policy makers that have found the segregation of resources and funding as the innovation that keeps on giving. Throughout the country, educators, families, students and community are standing together. We want justice, nothing less.