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When President Lyndon Johnson called on Congress to establish full educational opportunity as a national goal with his 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), he did so to ensure the nation’s young people could thrive as global industry leaders.  Designed to safeguard equal access to education, the ESEA established high standards for academic performance, and mandated accountability from teachers, schools, and districts.  Fifty years later, with the majority of public schools serving African-American and Latino students, the promise of equal access, accountability, and high student achievement have failed miserably.

With the reauthorization of the ESEA looming, The Journey for Justice Alliance held a panel discussion, ESEA Reauthorization and the Broken Promise of School Privatization, to examine the impact mass closures, overcrowded classrooms, and the loss of community control over schools, have had on African-American and Latino students.

Parents from around the nation shared educational horror stories, including one kindergarten class with more than one hundred students being managed by a single teacher and teacher’s aide.  Others, who had already filed Title VI Civil Rights complaints against their children’s school boards, demanded a national platform to address equity.  Almost all asked, “Who is accountable to us?”

Yolanda Peebles, parent of a Detroit Public Schools student, said that before the schools were taken over by the state they had a budgetary surplus. With a $3.2 billion bond passed, however, the state took over the schools and immediately began dismantling advanced placement courses, skilled trades, and artistic, athletic, and elective programs. The result was the loss of key foundational instruction.

“A lot of children do not get the support they need and they go to the next grade ill-prepared. It is a constant failure after that. If you don’t get a solid foundation at the lower grade levels, you will never catch up,” Peebles said.

Others, like Empower D.C. activist Shannon Smith, who has waged a tireless effort to end school closures of Northwest’s Ferebee Hope, said that with the razing of public housing, the neighborhood schools have been shuttered for under-enrollment. This has forced children into overpopulated and under-resourced spaces.

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Concerned Americans from across the nation converged on the National Press Building to discuss ESEA.

“Within Ferebee Hope, there was a Dream Academy and the kids could walk across the street or up the hill to the school.  Now the children are spread all over the city,” said Smith, whose granddaughter now has to cross a highway at rush hour to get to and from school.  “If you are going to close schools, at least match what you took away.  Send them somewhere equal to or even better than where they were,” Smith said.

Jitu Brown, National Director for Journey for Justice Alliance said that African Americans should demand public schools institute the same model as the University of Chicago Lab School (UCLS), which both Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and President Obama’s children attended. “UCLS said that there cannot be more than twenty-three children in any one class, but we are constantly hearing horror stories of schools with a hundred students in one class.  There is a mandate of not having an overreliance on standardized tests, but create policies that have our children schooled in test factories,” Brown said.

Panelist Rosalind Friday, an educator with the National Education Association (NEA) in Willingboro, New Jersey, said it was important to disabuse educators of the theory that poor kids are not smart kids because they are poor.

“A full picture of a child is integral in order to understand how to help them learn and standardized tests are not equipped to do this.  We know there is a discrepancy between the known curriculum and the learned curriculum in schools so why not explore an assessment model that looks at all of the standards covered in a school and generate a test covering the learner’s mastery of the school’s curriculum and then compare states to states?” Friday asked.  “Stop pretending standardized tests pushed by for-profit companies are really measuring something.”

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, in a speech at Southeast’s Seaton Elementary School earlier this year, said without sweeping changes to the ESEA the nation’s public schools were poised to “turn back the clock to the days when the high school graduation rate for the nation was stagnating and when high school dropout rates were almost twice as high for African-Americans.”

The Journey for Justice Alliance, along with the Advancement Project and the Alliance for Educational Justice also called for a moratorium on public school closures and the expansion of privately operated charter schools in the ESEA Reauthorization.