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It Just Happened
5/30/2016 10:31:43 AM

Jon Butzon
By Jon Butzon 

I imagine sighs of relief were shared all over Charleston County when people recently read that the Superintendent of Schools said that she “hasn’t seen anything that leads me to believe that the effect was intentional”.

Presumably, she was talking about how the school choice system has provided a better education for many white middle class students while leaving poorer or minority children behind in failed and shrinking schools.

Presumably. But she could have also been talking about the whole system of K-12 education she now manages, a system that persists in producing discrepancies in access, in opportunity, and in outcomes that are stunning and shameful and, frankly, indefensible.

We could try to explain those discrepancies the same way we’ve done for years. We can blame funding and poverty and parents and students themselves. Not our fault. It’s inadequate funding, it’s all those poor kids, it’s disinterested parents, it’s unmotivated students.

Or we can talk about the numbers as if they are the result of the forces of nature. Nobody is responsible for a thunderstorm or drought. They just happen. And nobody is responsible for the deplorable system of public education we have. It has just happened. But I’m not buying it.

The Superintendent of Schools has looked and hasn’t seen anything that leads her to believe that anything is intentional. It has just happened, again and again and again. The School Board has turned the same blind eye to the education of disadvantaged and minority children that it turned to the District’s finances with even worse results.

I’m guessing the Superintendent of Schools looked for but could not find the file folder labeled “The Plan to Create and Maintain the Black/White Achievement Gap,” or the strategy for closing neighborhood schools for Black children. And she probably did not find the policy that says the District will balance its budget on the backs of Black children.

And she couldn’t find the Minutes of the secret meeting that discussed ways to let parental choice be the cover for re-segregating the district’s schools or the way the District would “preserve” one of the best high schools in the nation for white kids. She couldn’t find notes from the strategy session that figured out that if we persist in operating ineffective schools, parents who have the wherewithal will demand to move their children out of those schools. And we will let them.

After all, who would make parents send their children to ineffective and worse schools? Well, the Charleston County School Board has and does, not to put too fine a point on it. They just didn’t do it to ALL parents and ALL kids.

The Superintendent couldn’t find evidence of intent, but all of these things and more have happened. They’ve “just happened”.

Maybe we’ve been operating ineffective and worse schools for so long that they don’t stand out. We have certainly been operating them long enough to fix them. And that begs the question: why haven’t we fixed them? It would be refreshing to hear the straightforward, honest answer “we don’t know what to do or how to do it’ because that would take away the intentionality. But I’m betting the answer they’d give is they do know what to do and how to do it.

That brings us to a much less positive explanation. We do not fix these schools because we’ve chosen not to fix them. This is no accident. For whatever reason, the children in those schools simply aren’t important enough to motivate the District to take action, aside from closing neighborhood schools for some children. These children apparently are not important enough to motivate the community to stand up and demand a lot better. We are talking about it, but there are no demands yet.

I guess there may be one more possibility, one that I used to hear from my father. When my brothers and I would offer the excuse that we didn’t mean to do something, he would say, “Yes, I know, but you didn’t mean not to.”

In the legal arena related to discrimination it’s called “disparate impact”. The fact that we don’t mean to discriminate doesn’t mean we don’t, in fact, discriminate.

Maybe we haven’t meant to discriminate against some of our children. Maybe we haven’t meant to allow children to attend ineffective and worse schools year after year without improving them. Maybe we haven’t meant to deny access and opportunity. But we haven’t meant not to, either. And in my father’s house that did not mitigate the consequences and we should not allow it to mitigate the consequences for the school district or for us.

Maybe we didn’t mean to. Maybe. But the numbers are so stark, the disparities so large and enduring, and the impact on children so wrong, I believe that on some level we did mean to…we do mean to.

The demand: Madam Superintendent and School Board- quit dragging your feet and making excuses and FIX IT! If you don’t know what to do and how to do it, just say so. We’ll all figure it out together.

Mr. Butzon, an advocate for a complete, competitive, college and career ready education for every child, is the former Director of the Charleston Education Network.

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