In a February 14, 2019 editorial in the Courier Journal, you reflected on Martin Luther King and Black History Month, stating:
I have fond memories of school assemblies celebrating the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in January and Black History Month in February.
In fourth grade, although a year too young to formally compete, my school permitted me to participate in the annual MLK speech contest, reciting Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Thereafter, I participated annually in the contest, learning and reciting excerpts from, King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” and “The Drum Major Instinct” speeches.
As we reflect on the history and contributions of African-Americans during this Black History Month, my hope is that we also recognize that we have the opportunity to make black history today. In 2019, as African-Americans in Kentucky typically trail every other demographic group on education, economic, and health and wellness indicators, we have the opportunity to recommit ourselves to making significant positive movement on those indicators for young African-Americans.
The statements and policy positions of you, the Kentucky Board of Education, Governor Bevin, your friends in the GOP, and the think tanks that support you put the blame for achievement gaps squarely on the shoulders of public schools and public educators. And you all seem to argue that poverty is the end result of these achievement gaps, and not the other way around.
Consider what you've said in the past:
There is no doubt that socioeconomic and racial achievement gaps are a function of home, community and school factors, and the elimination of gaps will require that challenges in each of these areas are addressed. It is also true, however, that for many children who face significant challenges at home, public schools are their best hope for academic achievement and professional success.
Solomon, by placing poverty at the top of the list of excuses as to why traditional public education is failing too many Kentucky students, lends dangerous credibility to a frequently heard excuse that, if not properly addressed, could relegate thousands of minorities to a life of dependency.
“The root cause of our public schools not topping most of the other nations is poverty,” Solomon writes. “Reformers almost always blame teachers and can therefore claim that new schools are the answer, without ever examining carefully such assumptions – including the effects of poverty on poor academic performance as opposed to poor teaching.”
What are we to do, oh thou wise Solomon? Should we throw up our collective hands and simply surrender to a system that claims it cannot be held accountable for failing disadvantaged kids?
I will agree that teachers – at least the many good ones – should not shoulder the blame. They’re constrained by a system that seems to have resigned itself to the fact that, at worst, poor kids from the other side of the tracks don’t deserve the liberty that Douglas from his own experience knew comes with a great education. At best, it has lowered expectations greatly for those students.
There’s something wrong with a system that simply moves 450 students and their teachers at the abysmally performing Myers Middle School in Louisville – where only 11 percent are proficient in math – to Waggener High School, another failing school, simply because union-controlled elites on the school board gave up.
Contrast that with Barrett Traditional Middle School in Jefferson County. The free and reduced lunch population of the school the same year is 25.3% of its 628 students. The total parent volunteer hours were 7000. In reading, 64.2% of African American students were proficient or distinguished, and 56.5% of its free and reduced lunch population was proficient or distinguished. In math, 48% of its African American population achieved proficient or above. 51.6% of its free and reduced lunch population did the same. Could it be that less poverty at the school and
more parental involvement aided in that success?
It must be stated that Barrett Traditional Middle School is a magnet school. It's a program that parents are required to choose for their child. Mr. Lewis, you'd probably read this fact and say to me, "see, choice works.”
But here's the problem. Choice is a privilege. Choice requires that a child have an involved parent. Choice requires a parent that has access to information about schools and the savvy enough to make the right choice. Choice require a parent who can commit to the requirements of the school. A child who has all of these things in his corner is already on a better track to perform well. Because of this, these schools are often filled with students primed to do better than other schools. It's as true for a magnet program in public schools as it is in a charter, or a private school. Choice tends to lead to schools filled with students who have been better prepared by circumstance, which leads to those schools having better overall outcomes.
It is much tougher for a parent or family in poverty to make these choices for any number of reasons. Perhaps the family lacks access to the internet. Maybe they lack reliable transportation options to take their kid to "better" schools. Maybe one or both parents is working long hours at multiple jobs. Maybe they're incarcerated by a justice system biased against the poor and minorities. Maybe they can’t afford to choose the right neighborhood to live. Even poor families that do make a choice do not have the same abilities to enrich their child's education as middle and upper class families do.
All of these are factors that play into a student's performance and also factor into a family's choice or lack thereof.
Education does not automatically lift a child out of poverty. That child is still at the mercy of the forces that impact his or her entire family. Even if he manages to do well and graduate, there is still the prospect of paying for college or other higher education. There is a need not only for tuition, but also money for housing, food, books, and basic necessities of living once you get there. This is often a stretch for middle class families, and it can be nearly impossible for poorer families. It leads to a lot of people not graduating college and being saddled with expensive loans to boot.
There is no doubt that education is a tool for helping people climb out of poverty. But is only part of a much larger initiative that we must undertake if we wish to eliminate poverty and help the children of tomorrow.
But if you don't believe me, perhaps you can take a look at the wise words of Martin Luther King.
Our past thinking has proceeded from a premise that poverty is a consequence of multiple evils: Lack of education restricting job opportunities; poor housing which stultified home life and suppressed initiative; fragile family relationships which distorted personality development. The logic of this approach suggested that each of these causes be attacked, one by one. Hence, a housing program to transform living conditions, improved educational facilities to furnish tools for better job opportunities, and family counseling to create better personal adjustments were designed. In combination, these measures were intended to remove the causes of poverty. While none of these remedies in itself is unsound, all have a fatal disadvantage--the programs have never proceeded on a coordinated basis or at similar rates of development. Housing measures fluctuated at the whims of legislative bodies. They have been piecemeal. . . .
At no time has a total coordinated and fully adequate program been conceived, and as a consequence, fragmentary and spasmodic reforms have failed to reach the needs of the poor.
Teachers converged on Frankfort because they are concerned for the future of our public schools and the lack of support for our public school students or educators by the politicians and educational leaders in this state. No teacher I talked to wanted to spend six days in Frankfort. No teacher I know wanted to make a two hour or greater round trip to get legislators' attention. But teachers did it because they felt like public education had no voice in Frankfort, and that our legislators could not be trusted, regardless of how many times they said "trust us!"
Finally, as you gather names to threaten teachers under the guise that teachers should have found a better way to express their displeasure than six days of protest, let me remind you of the words of Martin Luther King in his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail", which addressed the people with little stake in the game, who called out protests as counterproductive.
You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.
The choice is yours. What do you want your legacy to be?