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Teachers and Students Walkout: Call Bullshit on Apartheid Schools in the Nation’s Capital

Washington, D.C.’s public school system is just one example of how the impacts of racial segregation in our schools have been ignored.

"Two elementary schools in Southeast D.C. show how inequities between district schools that serve white, middle class children, and those that serve low-income, Black students play out." (Photo: Joe Brusky/Flickr/cc)

"Two elementary schools in Southeast D.C. show how inequities between district schools that serve white, middle class children, and those that serve low-income, Black students play out." (Photo: Joe Brusky/Flickr/cc)

“The realization of common opportunities for all within a single society… will require a commitment to national action – compassionate, massive, and sustained, backed by the resources of the most powerful and richest nation on this earth.” – Report from The Kerner Commission, February 29, 1968

On Wednesday, teachers and students at Anacostia Senior High School in Southeast D.C. walked out to protest the facility’s poor conditions. Teachers said the cafeteria is flooded, no breakfast was served to students, there’s no running water, and bathrooms are broken, so some students were told to use bathrooms in a building three blocks away.

The need for this walkout exemplifies how the district has failed black neighborhoods and their schools. As one student told The Washington Post, “If it was any other school in the District, they would have closed school. That’s unsanitary.”

It didn’t have to end up this way. Fifty years ago, the Kerner Commission—appointed by President Johnson after a wave of civil unrest had rocked the country—offered the nation tough medicine on the best ways to resolve racial injustice. The 426-page document was a best seller, full of specific suggestions to break up residential segregation and increase black employment. But Johnson largely ignored his commission: Fifty years later, much of the work remains undone, especially in education. Despite a plethora of evidence about the benefits of integration, U.S. education reformers have not prioritized it.

Washington, D.C.’s public school system is just one example of how the impacts of racial segregation in our schools have been ignored. Not long ago, District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) was among the country’s lowest-performing districts. In 2011, just 58 percent of students graduated on time. Over the past decade, district and city leaders began an aggressive effort to improve the schools. The heart of this strategy was revamping the human capital system, and the district put in place new strategies to recruit, retain, train, and compensate teachers and leaders. They overhauled the salary structure to dramatically increase starting and mid-career salaries, and they provided strong financial incentives to high-performing teachers who chose to teach in schools serving low-income students. Today, a high-performing teacher at a high-poverty school in DCPS can earn over $130,000.

The district also implemented high-quality, free, universal pre-school and pre-kindergarten throughout the city. They implemented higher academic standards and embraced an annual test aligned to those standards. And they invested millions of dollars in renovating school facilities. The city also tripled the size of its charter sector (from 13 percent of enrollment in 2001 to 44.5 percent in 2016) and designed a unified system that families could use to enroll their children in both district or charter schools. In the years since, DCPS has seen rapid gains on National Assessment of Education Progress scores, earning it the reputation as the nation’s fastest-improving urban district.

However, as the protests today at Anacostia demonstrate, these reforms haven’t supported improved learning conditions across all district schools, in part because many neighborhoods remain highly segregated by race and socioeconomic status. In 2017, 66 percent of “priority schools”—where all students perform poorly—were concentrated in Wards 7 or 8, where most families are Black and low-income. The other 34 percent are spread across the six remaining wards, so other areas of the city, many of which have seen rapid increases in income and gentrification, do not have concentrations of struggling schools. 

Some reformers argue the expanded charter sector has created better schools in neighborhoods that need them. But, as in most cities, charter schools vary in terms of quality. Moreover, given the narrow curriculum or authoritarian discipline methods some charters that primarily serve low-income students of color rely on, the charter sector is not right for all families. The presense of a large charter sector does not absolve the district of its responsibility for its own schools, and choice alone is a poor substitute for educational equity.

Two elementary schools in Southeast D.C. show how inequities between district schools that serve white, middle class children, and those that serve low-income, Black students play out. Brent Elementary School is in the increasingly fashionable, gentrifying Eastern Market section of Capitol Hill. Two-thirds of the students there are white, and most students live in the surrounding neighborhood. Brent is a “rising” school: Roughly two-thirds of students performed in the highest levels of the PARCC assessment, which is the standardized test aligned to the Common Core State Standards. In a district where 77 percent of students are low-income, just 10 percent of the kids at Brent are.

Orr Elementary School is two miles away, across the river in the Randle Highlands part of Anacostia. Virtually all of Orr’s students are Black, and they are all low-income. In 2017, Just 13 percent of Orr students met grade-level expectations on the PARCC, and the school building itself is in disrepair. Students have had to deal with crumbling ceilings, outdated ventilation systems, problems with toilets, and vermin infestations—despite DC’s hyped investments in school facitlities. Many Orr students will eventually attend Anacostia Senior High, where the students walked out today in protest of similar conditions.

Officials in DCPS have tried to get more resources to schools like Orr, but they have primarily focused on the revamped salaries. They also provided nearly $80 million in supplemental “at risk” funds to the city’s highest poverty schools. But during the last school year, half of the so-called “supplemental” money was used to support core staffing and programs that schools were already supposed to have—like teaching assistants, afterschool programs, and attendance counselors.

Providing an adequate education to children in DC’s apartheid schools (and let’s start calling them what they are) requires more than just increasing overall district funding and teacher salaries. Even when advocates successfully sue the state for more education funding, like in New Jersey, courts cannot necessarily force the legislature or governor to actually increase spending, nor can the courts dictate what the money is spent on. Wealthy communities, on the other hand, can supplement funding through parent organizations. In D.C., these groups pay for international field trips, technology, and teacher training, but lower income communities do not have that funding available. So there is a massive resource gap.

Instead of addressing this disparity, too many policymakers and reform leaders seem to have accepted the idea that some schools are low-income and of poorer quality, and others are wealthy and give kids more opportunities. Most efforts to bridge the gulf between the two involve letting a few low-income kids attend wealthier schools, and leaving the rest to flounder.

There are more direct options available.  A “controlled choice” system, similar to what Cambridge uses, would consider students’ socioeconomic status when determining school assignments so that all schools enroll more balanced shares of low-income and non low-income students. This would not necessarily improve all schools overnight, but it would make it harder for the district to disinvest and ignore large segments of the student population (and their marginalized parents).

Doling out a few seats at a handful of good schools while neglecting everyone else merely enforces the status quo in which affluent children get a good education, and the education of low-income students is a matter of luck.

Our schools work best with strong social capital, and substantial investment from all levels of government, and schools that primarily serve low-income Black and Latino communities too often have neither. This was clear to the authors of the Kerner report, which was why they urged policymakers to exert time and resources into improving schools and neighborhoods that have historically been neglected. The walkout at Anacostia High School is yet another example of how this guidance remains relevant today.

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Abel McDaniels

Abel McDaniels is a Washington, D.C. resident. He is a former public school teacher and currently researches education policy at a think tank in Washington, D.C.

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