On February 21st, Carol Burris shared her unsolicited perspective on the turnaround of John Wister Elementary School in 2015. Let me tell you what Carol Burris missed in her analysis of the effort. To give it a name, she missed the Black community in America. Carol can see charter schools. She can see district schools. But, Burris’ discussion lacks even the slightest degree of complexity, understanding, or nuance as it relates to the Black families involved in this struggle.
I was on the ground in Philadelphia during the Wister fight. I attended the School Reform Commission meetings and some community meetings. I had one-on-one conversations with parents on both sides of the turnaround issue. And what I experienced was the quintessential struggle that Black families face when searching for a high-quality, affordable education for their children.
I agree with Burris that the Wister fight represents a teachable moment for everyone who expects to engage in the education discussion in this age of Trump and Devos. However, she isn’t picking up the right lessons. So let me lay out five things that Carol Burris and other White people in this space (education reformers and district protectionists alike) should keep in mind as we all do our work to improve education outcomes for children in Black families.
- White institutions usually don’t care about the Black struggle until White interests are on the line.
In order to provide an accurate analysis of this situation, there must be an admission of that fact that White institutions like Mastery, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, and Carol Burris’ Network for Public Education were not actively engaged in the conditions at John Wister Elementary School until their interests were on the line.
For decades, little Black boys and little Black girls went to Wister and received a substandard education. The Union didn’t provide intensive wrap-around services for students and families; they held no press conferences or rallies calling for improved student outcomes. Not until Mastery decided that they wanted to turnaround Wister did the PFT and its allies find themselves up in arms.
But before I come down too hard on the PFT, I have to note that Mastery never showed up in Germantown to tutor students or train staff and parents. Mastery never held a fundraiser to fix up the playground at Wister or provide arts programming after school. Wister was not on Mastery’s radar until the district identified the school as a potential turnaround opportunity.
And where was Carol Burris? I’m not exactly sure, but there is no evidence that she even knew that Wister existed until it became a potential proof point for the anti-school reform rhetoric to which she and her employer are so very devoted.
The families that Mastery and the PFT campaigned to and organized; the families that Burris interviewed and wrote about did not have the luxury of these White-led organizations. These black families were there in North Philadelphia every day trying to do what they could for their children with what they had. So the frame of any conversation about Wister has to be about “what happened to those Black children?”. Not about who is more right between the reformers and anti-reformers.
- It is very frustrating that only White solutions are available for Black children.
Every time I observe this “District School vs. Charter School” fight, I am almost amused at the vigor with which both sides extol the “community support” they can build. District charter applications ask for it. Carol Burris is quick to introduce it in her article with a classically generalized claim to Black families holding forth that “Increasing numbers of parents” are saying that they agree with her on this issue.
But if you want to know the real (nope that’s not a typo), Black families are deeply frustrated that the American system of oppression has left them with nowhere to turn except to White “experts” from outside of their geographical and cultural community for solutions. Much to the chagrin of many charter school proponents, the vast majority of Black families don’t hate teachers’ unions and district-run schools. And even though it may come as a severe disappointment to public school traditionalists like Burris, Black families don’t hate charter schools either. Black families love Black children and are willing to work with districts, charters and whoever else they need to work with to get a great education for those precious Black minds.
It is not only important that our White partners (on any side of this debate) acknowledge this fact, but they should also respect it. Respect the fact that a complex web of systematic oppression has left our communities without the economic and structural resources to channel our own ingenuity, love, and intelligence into concrete solutions for our children. Respect the fact that many times offering our “support” for White solutions to Black problems is something done out of necessity. It is often not a source of joy for us, but rather a source of real frustration.
- The Black community is not intellectually monolithic.
It is easy to think of Black folks as helpless victims. A thousand messages in popular culture reinforce this stereotype for White and Black people alike.
That’s why I am not surprised to see Carol Burris use her platform in the Washington post to promulgate unsubstantiated claims about parents receiving jobs as payment for their “support.” I am not surprised that Burris would suggest that one middle-aged White woman (Ceci Shickle) came into this Black community, waved her magical White wand and made all these Black people start knocking on doors, making phone calls and showing up at meetings in support of the Mastery turnaround.
But that is not how it works in the Black community. And that is not how it worked at Wister.
There were parents who agreed with PFT that the school should remain in district control. There were also parents who wanted a change. Both groups of parents worked in coalition with institutions that shared their viewpoint. And I would not be shocked if those coalitions functioned like any other coalition would; sharing information and resources to create leverage and synergy that might help their side win. Black families are savvier than you might think. Black families read and listen. Black people think and form opinions. And more often than not, different people inside the community arrive at very different conclusions on issues. Believe it or not, all of this happens inside the Black community without the assistance or coercion of an outside, White voices.
- We don’t think of our children as budget items.
This is probably the most frustrating thing about being around this District vs. Charter fight. It almost always comes down to an accusation or at least a suggestion that the big problem with charter schools is the amount of money that they take away from district schools. While the factual reality of this claim varies greatly from district to district, the bigger problem is how badly it misses the point.
While anti-school reform advocates would love to ignore reality, Black families know that resources in federal, state and local budgets go far beyond the portions spent on educating Black children. So, the “we simply can’t afford to provide Black kids with a great education” routine espoused in the Burris article simply doesn’t work. That’s not how we see our children. If there is an opportunity to provide a Black child with a better education, we demand that the opportunity is afforded that child…whatever it cost.
Our children are not budget items to be cut back when money is tight. They are human to us and precious. They are worth great sacrifice. Most Black families don’t think it is ever right to deny even one child a better education because it might be hard to fit into the budget. Our children are worth more than that.
- This is really about Black Futures
The most disturbing thing about Carol Burris’ article is that she never even takes to account the most important thing: educational outcomes for Black children. It is as if the performance of the school before the turnaround is of no consequence at all. And it seems that Burris doesn’t care if those outcomes have improved since Mastery took over the operations.
In fact, the story that Burris chooses to relay at the end of her piece tells it all. A group of Black high school students from Mastery are described as being programmed to believe that they are going to Harvard for college. An anti-reform, union teacher reports that “I worry for them.” And Burris seems to affirm the sentiment.
How profoundly telling.
The concept of a Black student believing that they can go to Harvard is so foreign to Burris that she would “worry” that such a response is inauthentic. I know a lot of Black parents that would love to have that kind of response be “automatic” in their children. I know many Black educators who would be proud of them and not “worry about them.”
John Wister was converted from a traditional district school to a Mastery-run district school as a result of a hard fought battle. But the story of Wister, like many of the stories that are playing out in Black communities across the country, does not belong to the charters and it does not belong to school districts or teachers unions. It certainly does not belong to Carol Burris. These stories belong to the Black community and they must be viewed and analyzed from that perspective.