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A Crisis in Inner City Education

Text of Speech for “A Crisis in Inner City Education”,
sponsored by John F. Kennedy University

by Frank Marrero
Pleasant Hill, California

My name is Frank Marrero, and I teach a “four-five split” at an elementary school in Richmond, California. I have taught in the inner-city for several years, but my educational career goes back a quarter-century, including every elementary grade and administration. I want to give you a first-hand look at my school and the educational system I am in so that you can “see” what I see -- in both local and systematic terms. Thus apprised, I can then suggest to you what I think we should do about it.

For the last year, Richmond has the unfortunate moniker of being “murder capital of California” with death, drugs, and poverty seemingly everywhere “in the flats” (the more expensive hill areas excluded). The first week of school this year my kids rushed in with the exclamation, “Did you know that if you get shot right in the head your brains goosh out?!” I was close to tears all day. The young man’s body was tossed upon the steps of the middle school around the corner. The next week, around the other corner at the nearby high school, a school district employee was delivering furniture when he saw a man beating a pregnant woman on the sidewalk and yelled out, “Hey, you can’t do that!!” The man pulled out a gun, said, “Yes I can,” and shot him dead. Then next week of school an elderly woman, founder of the neighborhood watch program, was gunned down with 15 shots as she tended her roses by her sidewalk. The next week, ... well, you get the picture.

My students recently engaged a writing assignment in learning what “setting” implies. There were to describe three settings: their neighborhood, their school, their home. I was shocked when I read them: every single one complained of gunfire, shootings, and death. I am so sorry to tell you my students witness the death of their family and friends on a frequent basis and “funeral” is one of my more common excuses for absences.

Two years ago, when I was on my first yard duty at recess, my principal told me, “It’s safe during the day, just don’t come over here at night.” But I really understood where I was at when in mid-year the first graders finally posted an exemplar writing sample. It read, “Mr. ___________ is our principal. He is really tall. He smells good. He is really nice because he gives us prizes when we give him the weapons we find.” Just imagine the world where this kind of reality is the exemplar.

There are no windows in my school (excepting transits and the lower grade extension). It is solid block. There are no walls between half the classrooms (“open pod”) so a din of noise and disturbance permeates the environment. Surrounded by chain link fence, it looks like a prison…

The first year I was there, there was rarely toilet paper in the children’s bathrooms, and still no paper towels. There were two weeks I was without pencils or paper, though generally we have all the “basics”. But not always. The first six weeks of this year there were no markers with which to write on the board. (My wife brought me some from her school in a different district.) The supply room is locked, though I can usually find someone who’ll give me a key. As I write this, I haven’t had paper to use in the copier for weeks, and am told to wait another month -- and again I am lacking in markers for the board. Neither the furniture nor the carpet has been changed in decades. Just imagine.

In the beginning of the year I was delivered supplies: a pencil for every child, two reams of lined paper, and of course, a roll of toilet paper. Imagine that you have to “go” and you must pause at the rear of the room, and unroll as much tissue as you think you’ll need before going out. Most people would be rightly insulted, unless you’re used to that kind of treatment. Even then, it hurts, you just don’t notice it.

Repeated studies have shown that kindergarteners who enroll in our school are already two years behind. Two years behind at the age of five. Think about that. Homes under intense stress, without a culture of literacy. Newspapers, maybe, bedtime stories, maybe, magazines, maybe -- no; TV most definitely, attention-sucking electronic babysitter-games, you bet. Reading doesn’t quite rate as well under such conditions.

Last year, our tiny school library opened in January. We might get one field trip at the end of the year, after the State Test. There are no monies for enrichments, art supplies, software, electronic equipment, musical instruments, etc. I teach my kids how to use a 50 cent protractor then after the lesson, I must collect them and pass them to another teacher. I could go on and on and on like this for hours about what abject poverty in a school system looks like, but you get the picture, don’t you? Do we have _____________ ? No, we don’t.

We should consider ourselves lucky. We get Title 1 money, all of our students are fed before school and free lunch -- except you wouldn’t eat the food unless you were in prison. We are a Program Improvement school (year 4!) under No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and are given thousands of dollars that must be spent a certain way: of course this includes highly paid consultants and teacher-training designed for teaching to the standards favored by the State Test. Passing the big test is far more important than anything else in such an environment. (“Don’t retain children, they’ll just bring our scores down next year,” was once said... “No Child Left Behind”?). The full range of standards are subsumed or made subservient to the standards that are covered by The Test, with severe losses in literature, science, and social studies.

For instance, in 5th grade social studies State standards, students are supposed to learn about how explorers discovered the New World, founded colonies, declared independence, fought the Revolutionary War, wrote the Constitution and established democracy. We have textbooks and curriculum to support this, of course. These standards are the social underpinning every American should know thoroughly, right? But I am told, “With the focus on the language arts in the State Test, teach Social Studies only through the part that is embedded in the reading program. Social Studies is not on the State test.” It’s the same speech for science (except in the fifth grade, where science is on The Test), field trips, art, et cetera. Teaching has been parcelized ad absurdum and, under duress, teachers are pressured to convert to a role of being “servitile tabulators” of lists and data.

Narrow and compartmentalized standards are especially forced upon impoverished schools and impoverished areas, where the industry’s lowest paid teachers have the largest classes, most difficult students, the least amount of support, and neglect bordering on criminal. This year my district, after a 2% pay raise over the last three years, finally offered us teachers a new contract: cut medical and retirement benefits and 0% increase in salary. How would you respond? (Three hours past the last minute, they agreed to a benefit freeze and 3% raise.)

Judicial address has been made, the most recent is the Williams case -- which sued over issues of textbook availability, broken windows, and bathroom atrocities in inner-city schools ... an important but extremely narrow help. When the long-awaited Williams inspection team finally made it to my school last spring!, the broken windows and horrid bathrooms were fixed the days before. Why didn’t they do those things in September? And why did the State have to be sued to meet such minimal requirement? I was so angry my ears must have been shooting proverbial steam.

I especially notice my work surroundings because my son is in the fourth grade, too, and, with my first-grade daughter, go to our local school, where it’s very nice and normal. I see these two worlds 30 minutes apart nearly every day, and I can’t believe the gulf of disparity is so wide.

At my children’s school, field trips compliment a full-range educational program. Somehow there is time for making art projects depicting what they are learning in social studies, developed science classes and materials for hands-on learning, music training, and community service. Class sizes are small, the library is large, there is toilet paper and paper towels in the bathrooms, everything is clean, and aides and volunteers are always helping.

I’m sure you’ve probably guessed by now, but let me make it perfectly clear. My son and daughter go to a mostly white school; the school where I teach is almost entirely African American and Latino. But these two schools are not isolated examples. The bad news is that segregation levels in the most populated areas of the entire country are worse now than before Martin Luther King, Jr was killed. And it is NOT “separate but equal”. Suddenly, it seems, we live in a world similar to that of apartheid South Africa, or Alabama in the 50’s where children of color are not given equal education or opportunity. Really. People don’t realize that this has happened, but let me tell you, it has and it is wrong. You could do a study (and similar ones have been done) on skin pigmentation of the students and the level of school funding and find a haunting correlation.

How can this all be? How has it come to be so bad? Haven’t we made several addresses to this phenomenon? Can it actually be changed?

These are fair questions, and must be addressed, but first, we need to honestly admit this is the case. Believe me, it has regressed and it’s bad. Read or download the audio of Jonathan Kozol’s The Shame of the Nation. By any manner, come to admit, “Sacramento, we have a problem.”

In order to move forward and remedy the kinds of atrocities and inequalities of our educational and legislative system, it is necessary to look back and see how such unfairness came to be.

Serrano vs Priest

Way back in 1971 in the LA region, one school district sued another over inequity in funding, known as Serrano vs Priest. Huge differences in property value unfairly endowed affluent schools over normal and impoverished ones. As a result, the state of California took over school funding, collecting from all and distributing (approximately) equally to all.

But as the years and decades rolled by, affluent areas chose voluntary taxes to re-endow their schools at their educational best, and the differences in funding widened again. Worse yet, in impoverished, industrial areas, we had a reverse Robin Hood effect. For instance, my school district in Richmond used to be well-cared-for by the taxes we got from Chevron and all its refineries. As a result of Serrano vs Priest, all those “extra” monies went to everyone else. In every industrially-oriented city in California, those with money came and took it from those who were enslaved in industrial poverty. Hooded Robin.

Serrano vs Priest and the resultant injunction was a great idea to inequities in education, but it backfired; it’s now worse than before. Levels of inequality continue to invoke judicial address, with the Williams case as the latest band-aid to a misaligned system. Over time, judicial solutions have shown their narrow assessments by these failures. With so much on the line, when does the court order a deep and wide study before making its far-reaching injunctions? They don’t. Therefore, judicial resolutions often suffer from a lack of comprehensiveness, born from the focus of the litigants before them. And over time, this lack of comprehensiveness and narrowness can reap the very inequities that their actions had tried to remedy.

Serrano vs Priest had another unforeseen effect. Taxes were divorced from the people paying them (“going to the far-away ‘pot’”), and in the State of California, inefficiencies and insensitivities of centralization combined with soaring property values to send taxes through the roof. Serrano vs Priest and the centralization of taxes invoked a reaction. Its name was Proposition 13. Judicial narrowness combined with a reactionary initiative and sent the State of California on a course that would cripple the education system and send it from first in the nation to worst.

Proposition 13

Prop 13 was genius. It was a brilliant solution at the right time. The wealthy, elderly, and monied interests were being gorged by the populace for their every whim and need. We should honor the wisdom in Prop 13 as we critically assess its impact across the decades. We see the good it has done, protecting the elderly, the settled homeowner, taxpayers, and fostering a business climate. Just as promised.

Unfortunately, Prop 13 hasn’t been all good. Its flaws have caused serious problems. Fortunately, this is fixable. Two things need adjustment, a fine tuning that will keep intact its benefits while correcting the unforeseen problems. First and most obvious, is the unfair advantage corporate interests took. A commercial property could be partially sold over and over again, without ever triggering the kind of reassessment residential owners must face. This provides a dis-incentive to new businesses (who must pay much higher taxes), and thus does not fund infrastructure at appropriate levels to support business. The Kopps Bill, which would have fixed this, needs to be reintroduced or made into an initiative so that we can correct this corporate loophole. But as we reform Proposition 13, let’s remember the genius and reason for the “taxpayer’s revolt” at its inception. Therefore, we must not attack business with drastic, idealistic change. For instance, perhaps we could sweeten the Kopps bill with a reduction in the business tax commensurate with business property tax increase. Then we may judiciously allow property taxes for commercial holdings to come to appropriate levels and fairness.

The other piece of Prop 13 that needs change is the two-thirds percentage. That’s a super-majority and is objectionable on a fundamental principle: a super-majority should be reserved to the legislative body over-turning an executive veto or injunction. Instead, we should have three kinds of majority: one, a simple majority or 50% +1; two, a super-majority, 67%, and three, a clear majority, around 60%.

We have all witnessed the wisdom of a simple majority, where one vote makes the difference, and we have occasionally seen the legislative over-powering of an arrogant or out-of-touch executive branch, but with super-majority applying to every financial decision, we see a different phenomenon: a fanatical and penurious minority is given the power of the majority, thus exploiting the people. Requiring a super-majority for the increase of spending is reactionary; it is the right idea done too hard. Instead, we should reserve the decisions for financial and fiduciary increases to the clear majority. By having a clear majority, we protect the wealthy from the whims, ebbs and flows, and fickleness of the populace, AND by having a clear majority, we protect the populace from the power of the wealthy class.

We need to tender and appreciate Prop 13 for sure, but mostly we need to honestly examine what we have done to our neediest children. We have robbed them, neglected them, and shamed them. Now we should help them (and us) by teaching them to help themselves and their world. This is not done through the business model of accountability, dispensation, tabulation, and product (though all of this should be included), but through full education, enrichment, help, requirements, and rewards.

Above the Labyrinth

“If you are planning for a year, plant rice; if you are planning for a decade, plant trees; if you are planning for a lifetime, educate people.” Chinese Proverb

The Byzantinian maze of educational funding in California started off with such great intentions and logic. Every categorical fund makes wonderful sense. Judicial injunctions to equity seemed to be full of heart, but they have all backfired and we are left with a flawed system that begets systematic racism and penurious, well-meaning laws.

We seem to say, “Gee, we’d love to invest more in education, but there’s no clear way to do it. It would be a waste of money now, but let’s talk later.”
Much address to our problematic way of funding and shaping education needs to be made, no doubt, and every efficiency needs to be nurtured and required. Adequacy and efficiency are the guideposts in this endeavor for sure, but let us not equivocate: it is our will, vision, and desire that drives the change we need.

We first need to reaffirm our commitment to educational values. We need to remind ourselves that our democracy and prosperity stand upon the education of its citizens. We need to give in the spirit of parents and elders, that is, give more than we thought. We need to endow our children with true richness. In the social and political arenas, this translates into a hearty support for public education. We need to remember that education is deeply valued (and valuable), and commit our heart, head, and wallet to this fulcrum of common good.

Grounded in this remembrance, we must ask ourselves what is the best use of our energies? What needs our help the most? What problems can we solve?

I know the educational problem is very, very complex. Judicial and citizen initiatives have been shown to be flawed and, by nature, narrow. We need legislative strength. Let us urge our legislators to step forward and address the inadvertent harm their policies, judicial narrowness, and citizen initiatives have inflicted, particularly upon the inner city educational system.

Therefore, let me suggest something we can do right now. Start where the hurt is greatest. Give the inner city schools a Marshall Plan, not just a set of standards they must be whipped and threatened into doing. Fund preschool for all low-performing areas and lower class size in grades K-9. Then make it real: provide abundant aides for concentrated acceleration and accommodation, with extra tutors and resource for those who need extra help, particularly at the lower levels. Finally, surround this response with psychological and social support, and find a way to give incentives to the teachers who work in the most disadvantaged areas. Attract the best. We can’t afford to lavish help everywhere, but we don’t have to do it everywhere, just where we’re bleeding. It’s cheaper that way. And the rewards will be appreciated for generations.

Then give all teachers a small raise. The custodian at my school makes more money than I do. Show the teachers that we care.

Dear Legislators: Don’t hide behind the maze. Don’t hide behind the selfishness of monied interests and penurious inaction. Don’t hide in bureaucracy’s labyrinth or inertia. Show us you are the hero you promised. Please.

Published in In Motion Magazine April 25, 2006.

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