In lamenting last week’s disruptive School Board meeting — the one that likely led to Superintendent Raj Manhas’ decision to resign — Seattle P-I columnist Robert Jamieson brings up the issue of race and class, and how it played into Seattle’s school closure process.
Dollars and cents.
That is what the plan to close public schools in Seattle was supposed be about — how to save money, fix a cash crunch and improve classrooms.
Yet something else is there — something that Seattle, for all of its liberal pride, has trouble grappling with.
As a white male raised in relative privilege, I am uncomfortable attempting to speak with authority on issues of race, but from my personal experience fighting to save my daughter’s school from closure it became abundantly clear that the district is at times crippled by this issue, and the pervasive educational disparity that follows Seattle’s racial lines. Though I doubt it was intentional, there is no question that the district’s original school closure plan overwhelmingly and disproportionately impacted children of color. And yet at the same time, the district cynically raised the issue of racial disparity as a tool to drive a wedge through my daughter’s own school, in an effort to justify its closure. While racism is a sledgehammer that predominantly falls on one side of the divide, it can swing both ways.
Jamieson says that the closure plan was only supposed to be about dollars and cents, but I say that the district should have seen this coming. The closure process inherently pitted school against school and neighborhood against neighborhood; why shouldn’t we expect a bitter fight over shrinking resources to bring out the worst in us? That’s human nature.
Which brings me to my biggest criticism of Raj Manhas and the current school board’s attempt to lead our district through our current, dire fiscal straights — their inability to provide effective leadership towards solving the district’s real problem: inadequate funding.
School closures are nothing more than a band-aid on a gangrenous wound, a half-measure that can only lead to further cuts and closures down the road. While Manhas speaks bluntly of the Legislature’s stunning failure to adequately fund K-12 education, he never made an effort to unite the city’s parents in a drive to pressure their elected officials for more money. Instead, in a Vichy-like acquiescence to the political needs of a handful of timid legislators, he made school closures the centerpiece of his reform efforts, thus turning the district’s parents against each other. For all of his business acumen, and for all of his good intentions, Manhas simply could not provide the leadership our school district desperately needs. And neither can the current school board.
It has become politically unfashionable to throw money at a problem, but that is exactly what our schools most desperately need at the moment — specifically, a thousand dollars per student per year more, granted directly into the classroom. How did I come up with that number? I didn’t. The “free market” did. For that is how much the parents of our most affluent North Seattle and Eastside schools raise each year to pay for smaller class size, teaching assistants, art, music, foreign language and other enrichment programs that they deem necessary for their own children’s academic success. That is what the children of our poorer, predominantly minority neighborhoods are being denied.
On the surface, Washington state has one of the most equitable school funding systems in the nation, with only about a quarter of any district’s operating budget coming from local taxpayers. But over the years, as the state has failed to live up to it’s financial obligations, and per-student spending has steadily shrunk in real dollars, parents who could afford to make up the difference through PTA fundraisers, did. In Seattle, that has only exacerbated the disparities that already existed, creating a handful of affluent North End schools that are public in name but half-private in nature.
There is a stunning lack of equity between Seattle schools, and all the parents see it. So while it is unfortunate that the anger and frustration generated by the closure process should boil over into racial epithets, it is entirely understandable. Those of us faced with closure were asked to sacrifice our schools and the educational stability of our children for the good of all the district’s children, but deep down, we understand that it just doesn’t work that way. Some children simply benefit more from the current system than others, and nothing in the closure process suggests that this will change.
If like me, you believe that all children should have access to a quality public education, regardless of race, income, geography or individual special needs, then you must believe that all our public schools should be adequately and equitably funded. And until we meet this very basic need, no amount of well-intentioned reform will quell the rancor displayed at last week’s School Board meeting.