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Opinion | School Inequality Isn’t Always Just Black and White

Westlake is less than two miles away from Wildwood Elementary in Piedmont, which is on the same street where Sidney and Irene Dearing, whom I wrote about in my last newsletter, lived in 1924. The Dearings, Piedmont’s first Black family, were run out of town by months of harassment and bomb threats. Since then, Piedmont’s Black population hasn’t increased much. Nearly 55 percent of the students at Wildwood are white. A mere 1.5 percent are Black. (The remainder are Asian, Latino and students of two or more races.) Ninety-two percent of Wildwood students have achieved proficiency in math.

So much of the history of the disparities in American education can be told through these two schools. Westlake, because it is in a diverse, largely underperforming school district, is constantly under existential threat. In addition to trying to make sure that their students are at grade level academically, the teachers at schools like Westlake must contend with the fact that many of the kids are dealing with trauma, violence in their neighborhoods and the harmful effects of poverty. This doesn’t mean that the teachers at Wildwood have an easy job or don’t care about their students, but the tasks, challenges and missions of the two schools could not be more different.

Wildwood’s interest in diversifying its student body, by enrolling kids from nearby Oakland, is Westlake’s loss since funding for both schools is tied to enrollment. If the Piedmont Unified School District wants to truly diversify its schools and share its wealth with what they called “B.I.P.O.C.” students, they should just join the Oakland Unified School District. But this is probably not an option that almost anyone in Piedmont, whose high house prices are tied to its exclusive school district, would really be willing to consider.

It should be said that nobody, including San-Chez and Omolade, believes that all of O.U.S.D.’s issues come from Piedmont’s push to diversify. Their hunger strike isn’t just about the closure of some schools in a district that probably does have too many of them. They were also asking a larger question about who always wins and who always loses when a city has competing school systems.

A public school district that provides an equal opportunity for education for all its children is an unassailable goal that requires communal buy-in. Everyone wants to believe that education shouldn’t be a zero-sum game, but as with so many instances of constrained resources, this is the reality. If every frustrated parent can find a charter school or even a Piedmont-type district to take his or her child, is a robust, equitable school system possible?

I believe that integrated schools are the key to an egalitarian society and should be the top priority of any progressive politics. Nearly 70 years have passed since Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, and we still have schools like Westlake sitting less than two miles away from schools like Wildwood. This is not lost on many of Piedmont’s more liberal residents who support the integration plan. But if any gains in Piedmont lead to losses in Oakland, is partial integration, however admirable in its intentions, really a worthwhile goal?

Most educators, even those who go on hunger strike, are pragmatists who aren’t concerned with abstract questions about demographic balance and cosmetic equality. If they are given a classroom filled with Black and Latino students, they know that their job is to educate them to the best of their ability without worrying too much about where all the white students have gone.

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