Passionate Perspectives: When Will Black Lives Matter in Education?

By Victoria Ford and Denzel Cummings

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The Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in the 114th Congress shaped itself to be an intense civil rights battle this past July. After nearly 14 years of gridlock and silence on updated federal education mandates, the passage of the Senate’s version of the bill (the Every Child Achieves Act/ECAA) and the House of Representative’s Student Success Act (SSA) was long overdue and yet, in many respects, a final, corrected gesture toward improved educational frontiers. However, upon reaching conference committee, the bill failed to achieve the support of 36 civil rights groups, all of whom refused to support the bill without targeted changes involving accountability and mitigating disparities for low-income students.

Quiet as it’s kept, the battle that brewed in congressional committees and the Senate and House floor this summer was only one aspect of the current education fray that is still ensuing across the country.

“How did we get here and when, if ever, will black lives matter in the American education system?”

As civil rights groups battle for a more effective ESEA in the halls of congress, students in Newark spent the spring protesting the closure of their public schools in favor of new charter schools — as documented in the novel “The Prize” by Dale Russakoff. Two years ago, the Philly Student Union began to battle school closures in Philadelphia, which disproportionately occurred in communities of color. And for more than a month, a hunger strike took place in Chicago to save Dyett High School from closure and to renew the school using the community school strategy and focusing on green technology and global leadership.

Victoria Ford
Denzel Cummings

Ostensibly, there are two paramount questions that need answers in light of these education plights: How did we get here and when, if ever, will black lives matter in the American education system?

When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the ESEA bill into law 50 years ago, its intention was to primarily counter the declared War on Poverty. The legislation sought to ensure that all states provided equal and quality resources for all teachers as well as educational opportunities to children of all income-levels, principally low-income students. The federal government’s original stake in ESEA’s design was simply to ensure state accountability. However, what we know of the bill’s overhaul in 2001 with President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act was that the mission to ensure quality education was plundered by 14 years worth of overwhelming “high-stakes testing measures.”

Until this summer, that overhaul has remained relatively untouched. Though there have been some significant decreases in dropout rates and other statistical data, low-income students and students of color have continued to suffer tremendously in our nation’s primary and secondary public education system.

“The intersection between the national education fight and the national battle for black lives is becoming more and more undeniable.”

Contrary to ESEA’s original mission, a statistic from the U.S. Department of Education in 2011 stated that “more than 40% of low-income schools do not get a fair share of state and local funds.” According to the U.S. News Report from January 2015, more than any other race, “[b]lack students are more likely to be held back, despite mounting research showing that holding back children doesn’t benefit them socially or academically and makes them more likely to drop out later on.” Moreover, the article defends that “while 12 percent of black students are held back in ninth grade, just 4 percent of white students are, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection.”

In addition, black students face increased obstacles when it comes to inflated discipline in American schools. According to the Center For Civil Rights Remedies, black students make up almost a quarter of all national school suspensions. Girls of color trail far behind their white counterparts when it comes to discipline in schools; black girls are suspended six times the rate of white girls across the country. Across the board, school-discipline for girls of color was often reported harsher than the discipline of their white counterparts.

The fight to prevent these statistics from growing in communities of color, coupled with the burgeoning Black Lives Matter protests that have challenged a number of presidential candidates, are the backdrop for this new wave educational revolution. The intersection between the national education fight and the national battle for black lives is becoming more and more undeniable.

“To say that low-income students and black children in our education system are falling behind would be a gross and dangerous understatement…”

We know firsthand that black children’s education matters. We both come from backgrounds of committed educators. Our families are made up of teachers, coordinators, and school principals. Growing up black, in many ways, meant that education was the passport to a propitious life for all of them. For the next decade, my (Victoria) ten-year-old brother and seven-year-old cousin will be swimming through our nation’s current educational system. And my (Denzel) three youngest cousins will all be starting their collegiate careers shortly. These policy changes will determine the course of their already too-delicate lives. The cost of our collective silence on this issue, then, is a risk we will are not willing to make.

To say that low-income students and black children in our education system are falling behind would be a gross and dangerous understatement — this stands when we average the percentage of black children wrapped in the juvenile justice system, those who make up vast percentages of teenage pregnancies, those who are continually bullied and experience discrimination on school grounds, and the lack of black girls and boys involved in STEM courses and safe, afterschool enrichment programs. If education is truly the great equalizer, it is time we each lift a corner of this issue and take actionable steps to ensure that bills like ESEA serve the communities who need it most.

For even more information and ways to think about how we can integrate an even stronger black lives matter momentum in education reform, we suggest further reading Rethinking Justice’s article “Black Students’ Lives Matter: Building the School-to-Justice Pipeline.”

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