The Failings of Our Education System Can No Longer Be Ignored
With schools opening and closing, many students are in crisis:
New York City public schools have partially reopened following a second shutdown due to the City reaching a 3-percent COVID-19 test positivity rate over a 7-day rolling average. Prolonged school closures are disruptive to student learning, and they create additional challenges for families at an already stressful time, especially the families who are low-income and depend on services like subsidized meals and after school care. Still, closing schools is essential to preserving the health and safety of students, teachers, staff, and families by helping slow the spread of the virus.
And yet, since the first shutdown educators and parents have criticized the City for its insufficient remote learning arrangements. Many students have experienced major disruptions in their education due to lack of access to the internet and technology, instability at home, differences in learning styles, and other factors. Teachers, who are already underpaid and undervalued, have also reported receiving very little training on how to effectively educate online and have struggled with confusing instructions.
As an educator myself, I was not at all surprised by the City’s mismanagement of things. A pandemic of this magnitude is unprecedented in our lifetimes, and the City’s failure isn’t rooted in their inability to predict and prepare for COVID-19 specifically. Rather, it has a deeper and more insidious cause: the systematic and long-term neglect of our schools.
Simply put: a well-funded, properly resourced, integrated, equitable public education system might not have been able to avoid the ravages of COVID-19, but it would’ve been far better prepared to weather them without forcing students, parents, and educators to carry the burden and further disadvantaging kids from low-income communities.
But that’s not the system we have. Instead, while politicians debate and agonize over calls to defund the NYPD’s bloated and ever-increasing budget, they passively accept — or worse, perpetrate — the constant defunding of our public schools. They turn a blind eye to teacher layoffs, increased class sizes, reduced resources and services, and a decline in educational quality, all of which have a disproportionate effect on students from marginalized communities. They allow our school system to remain deeply segregated despite the negative impact it has on all students, but particularly the most vulnerable.
Our city deserves better than this. Our children deserve better than this. We must prioritize education now. Doing so will mean radically reframing how we think about it.
All Children Deserve Quality Resources and Equal Access
We must start from the position that all children have a right to high-quality education, regardless of where they live, their family’s income level, their race or nationality or gender or religion, and whether or not they are living with a disability. The New York City public school system is the most segregated in the nation; this is both a cause of and perpetuated by the inequitable way in which resources are distributed to schools in low income neighborhoods and the lack of access Black and brown students have to “better” schools in the system.
First of all, there should be no “better” or “worse” schools. All NYC public schools should be well-funded, safe, and free of police presence, with a culturally responsive curriculum that accurately reflects and responds to the lived experiences of the students and communities they serve.
This is obviously not the case in NYC. Schools that have majority low-income and/or Black and Latinx students often have less funding, fewer qualified teachers, insufficient technology, and other resource deficits that directly affect the quality of education the students receive. The City’s Fair Student Funding formula, which was intended to direct additional budget to schools and students based on need, has never been fully funded; many schools in need are receiving less than they’re entitled to according to the formula, while other schools are receiving more than their fair share. This resourcing gap is only going to widen due to recent DOE budget cuts, which will reduce the budget of the Fair Student Funding formula by $100 million.
On top of the fact that so many schools in low-income neighborhoods lack the resources available at schools in wealthier, whiter areas, Black and Latinx students do not have the same level of access to high-performing schools. The extreme lack of diversity in the City’s elite specialized high schools has been making headlines for years, and yet the numbers of Black and Latinx students offered spots at Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech and the others are going down, not up.
The only criteria for entrance to these schools — top marks on the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) — receives much of the blame; this notorious, decades-old test has been criticized as “culturally biased” and discriminatory since the 1970s, and the rush to enshrine the test into state law fifty years ago seems to have been — at best — partially motivated by maintaining a status quo of white dominance over enrollment.
Even if this standardized test wasn’t leading to wildly low numbers of Black and Latinx students in the specialized high schools (which it is), those same student populations are less likely to have heard of the test, know about free test prep classes, or get encouragement from guidance counselors to apply for specialized high schools.
Until we all — elected and appointed officials, teachers and school administrators, parents, students, and community members alike — commit to treating education as a fundamental right, we will continue to see our schools defunded and our children deprived of the important tools they require to succeed.
Due to Remote Learning, We Must Absolutely Prioritize Closing the Technology Gap
Amid New York City school closures and hybrid-learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, many students have been left behind due to a lack of access to technology. The New York Department of Education has set up a program for families to request iPads or laptops to facilitate online learning, but about 60,000 students have yet to receive them.
This has been especially difficult for children and families in homeless shelters. Additionally, 18 percent of NYC households do not have access to the internet at home, while 46 percent of the city’s households in poverty lack broadband. While these issues need to be rectified immediately, it should not take a pandemic for our city to ensure all of New York City’s students have the necessary technology to obtain an education.
We must first focus on those who are most vulnerable, including students and families experiencing homelessness. Shelters and resource organizations should be outfitted with up-to-date computer labs and reliable internet. We should also allocate more funding toward New York City schools to ensure they have the proper technology for each student during both in-classroom learning as well as periods of major disruption.
All Children Deserve Equitable Testing and Exposure to a Quality Curriculum
New York City’s specialized high schools have a serious race problem. Currently, admission to specialized high schools is based solely on the SHSAT. While objective measures like test scores can be used to reduce bias and promote equity, the SHSAT does not achieve these goals. Instead, the results of this admissions process have created highly segregated schools, with top high schools admitting almost no Black and Latino students.
This entrenches racial disparities and cuts off a valuable opportunity for upward mobility within the school system. Additionally, it deprives specialized high school students of the many benefits that come from a racially diverse student body. The City and State must work together to eliminate the SHSAT (which would require a New York State law to be overturned) and redesign the specialized high school admissions process with racial equity, diversity, and fairness as central pillars.
Specialized education cannot remain a zero sum game. In a city as well-resourced as New York, students deserve hundreds of excellent high schools rather than a scant few. The City has expanded the number of specialized schools in the past, and should continue to create more. Unfortunately this is a long-term solution for a situation that needs immediate attention. In the near term, the City should increase the size of existing specialized schools to accommodate a larger, more racially diverse student body.
We Must Seriously Consider the “Community School Model”
Community schools are schools that partner with community-based organizations, and provide wraparound services to students and families ranging from after-school programs to medical and dental care, continuing education for parents, social services (e.g. immigration help), and even laundry. By supporting students and families holistically, these schools create the conditions for students to succeed. It is an innovative model, proven to improve outcomes like attendance, graduation rates, and student achievement.
As with many things, the devil is in the details. There is no one-size-fits-all set of services to provide: the success and utility of wraparound services depends on how in-tune the school is with the specific needs of the community. Providing these extra services is expensive, and NYC’s community schools rely on continuous support from community organizations, philanthropic donors, and government budgets. This balance should be shifted such that community schools are consistently and reliably funded by the city, so that they can operate without fear of instability.
When adopting a community school model, or supporting existing community schools, we need to elevate the voices of local students and parents and prioritize their continued involvement in shaping the educational environment. Ultimately, the community school model is a stepping stone on the path towards greater equity and justice. Education, food, housing, and health are all human rights, and community schools can be a hub for providing access and supporting communities to realize all of these rights.
We Must Take Police out of Schools and Focus on Student Safety and Wellbeing
The NYPD has no place in our schools. Police presence in schools does not protect our children — it terrorizes them, criminalizes them, and represents a gross misuse of resources that would be better directed towards investments in counselors and care workers.
There are over 5,100 police officers in NYC schools, making it one of the largest police forces in the country. There can be no abolitionist vision for our city that does not address the need to remove police from the places where they can cause considerable harm to our children on a daily basis. And like with every aspect of policing, our Black and brown youth bear a disproportionate burden of state terror. More than 92% of students arrested in schools in 2016, and 96% of those that were handcuffed, were Black or Latinx.
Over-policing is both harmful and costly in more ways than one. While the budget for so-called “school safety agents” rose 2% in 2020, the same schools in our neighborhoods that need mental health counselors, after-school programming, building upgrades, and better pay for teachers remain woefully under-resourced. Nearly 10,000 times a year in our city, a child suffers a mental health crisis at school and then has to interact with a police officer. Imagine how much less traumatizing it would be for those children — half of whom are twelve years old or younger — to be attended to by a trained mental health professional instead.
A society shows what it values by what it chooses to invest in. Today, instead of investing in the true health and safety of our students, we invest in tools of the carceral state, like metal detectors — through which 48% of Black students and 38% of Latinx students walk every day at school. This is how the school-to-prison pipeline is upheld: we have designed a system that treats our Black and Brown children like criminals.
We must prioritize the wellbeing of our children by making investments in a model of school safety that is rooted in restorative justice, emotional wellness, and healing. It is not good enough to shift funding and oversight for police in schools from one department to another, like what happened in this year’s budget farce. We need a new vision for school safety, one that has no place for the NYPD.
A quality education empowers. It builds more peaceful societies and reduces crime. It strengthens economies and helps end cycles of poverty. Quality education for all, regardless of income, produces nothing but positive outcomes for our communities. It’s beyond time for us to stop reserving education for a privileged few, and start creating a school system that works for everyone, especially for those students whom the existing system has always neglected.
Kristin Richardson Jordan
Kristin Richardson Jordan (KRJ), Candidate for New York City Council District 9 Kristin is a poet, local activist, speaker, teacher, DSA member, Black queer woman, and third-generation Harlemite on a mission to disrupt District 9 (Central Harlem) with radical love. Started almost a year and a half before the murder of George Floyd, her Kristin for H.A.R.L.E.M. political platform includes advocacy for police accountability, abolition, affordable housing, redistribution of resources, senior care, gun control, education, and environmental justice. She is interested in making change both through her grassroots campaign and through a community-based participatory democracy once elected and has drafted policy on each of her HARLEM platform points. Find out more and get involved at KristinForHarlem.com.