Equity in RVA…

As a native of Prince Edward County, I think that the number of folks using Brown v. Board of Education to perpetuate their respective narratives regarding the state of our public schools, specifically Richmond Public Schools, is appalling.

Taikein Cooper, PECHS c/o 2006

Twenty-first century Americans may celebrate the landmark Brown decision often, but they regularly glare over this important truism: American schools have never been equitable, because they were not designed to serve all students. As we learn from the burgeoning college admissions scandal, if you have money, power, and privilege, you can buy the education you desire in America, even from public schools. Meanwhile, Black women, like Kelly Williams-Bolar, are literally jailed for taking steps to ensure that their children receive the education that they deserve. As you may remember, Williams-Bolar “stole an education” when she used her father’s address to send her children to a higher performing school district.

Brown states that public education “is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms,” and yet, we know that education continues to be a flawed system in America, exacerbated in places like Richmond. Brown ruled that separate but equal was unconstitutional, but Congress’s deliberate inaction over the past 65 years has failed to guarantee that a quality education is a right afforded to all. School divisions with high concentrations of Black and Brown students have a tendency to fail to provide students with courses that challenge them academically and are often funded in an inequitable manner. In short, the Brown decision, put a band-aid on a wound that needs stitches and intimate doctor care — it was a start in the right direction, but schools are still heavily haunted by the ghosts of Richmond’s past. Our students continue to attend schools that are still segregated, overcrowded and under-funded.

When I joined Virginia Excels last year, my goal was to eventually end the fight that began in Farmville in 1951. Leading an educational advocacy organization felt like a natural fit, since I began advocating for myself as a seventh grader at Prince Edward County Middle School. Unfortunately, and to my chagrin, many of the conditions that led to students walking out of R. R. Moton High School on April 23, 1951 are prevalent in 2019 in Richmond Public Schools. The decrepit buildings plagued with rodents and extreme temperatures coupled with faculty and staff who feel abandoned creates an environment that is not conducive to learning for our future leaders.

Over the past few months, I’ve listened to scores of people from across many spectrums, share their concerns about Richmond Public Schools. Students expressed that they feel invisible as they sit in freezing classrooms filled with foul aromas. I’ve heard parents say that if they lived on another side of the city, their children would receive a different education. I’ve heard the community ask, “What if these students received a rigorous education that prepared them for the global economy?” I’ve participated in two marches demanding that the state re-invest significantly in public education. During this same period, I’ve heard folks say, “the city needs to ante up as well.” While the city needs to do more to improve our schools, we must acknowledge that Richmond loses a significant amount of revenue on property that cannot be taxed. Issues like the absence of taxable property perpetuate the continued inequity we are battling; we must take a brave step forward, for our kids.

Last summer, that step was the meals tax, which was implemented for the sole purpose of building new schools. In a very short period of time, that bold move has paid dividends — we are building three new schools that will open September 2020! The new schools will bring some much-needed dignity, but to truly transform our educational system, we need more than new buildings. This transformation will only come with a continued investment to develop and implement innovative methods and a culturally relevant pedagogy. Last month, Mayor Stoney pledged to make that investment when he proposed his budget that fully funds the Richmond schools’ financial needs. This proposal was carefully curated after the General Assembly’s inaction to address the institutional racism that is being perpetuated in our public schools.

Subsequently, I’ve witnessed many people say that they want to enrich the city’s infrastructure, enhance our schools, and make Richmond a better place for all, but then they are adamantly against taking any of the necessary steps to accomplish those things. The proposed budget is not flawless, but instead of turning it down, we should work together over the coming weeks to perfect it for those who need it the most: instead of investing in aircraft for law enforcement, we can modernize the archaic technological systems in the city.

I cringe when I hear friends banter about moving to avoid the restoration of the real estate tax rates. I caution them, as I caution all, to remember that the folks who are truly marginalized don’t have that luxury. Life is about choices. In 1959, the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors voted not to fund a desegregated public-school system. Public schools were closed for five years. Families with money, power, and privilege sent their kids to private schools. Black and poor students were left to figure it out. Some families lied about their addresses in order to send kids to neighboring districts. Some families sent their children across the country to be educated, sometimes living with complete strangers. Some kids did not receive an education during the entire period of the shut down, and some potential students were never educated as a result of the school closing. That decision in 1959 continues to haunt my community to this day. Let’s make the right choice, Richmond: put our children first. That’s why I support the cigarette tax and restoring the pre-recession real estate tax rates. This budget is a big step to making Richmond a more inclusive place, for all.

When considering our students and the state of our school systems, I often think of this quote from Frederick Douglass: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground…Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

Let his words guide you, too.

Taikein Cooper

Executive Director, Virginia Excels