In a speech about education earlier this year to the Georgia Education Leadership Institute, Gov. Nathan Deal euphemistically talked about “students who come from difficult backgrounds,” meaning low-income students, particularly low-income students of color, as well as other marginalized students.
Talking about the ways race, class and other factors impact student achievement is really important. Unfortunately, when Deal talks about wanting to improve things for “students who come from difficult backgrounds,” he’s not talking about the policy failures that have left these students in underfunded schools, in underfunded communities, lacking the wrap-around services and other resources they need to do well.
Deal is talking about his so-called “Opportunity School District” amendment, the plan to take over schools that he deems “failing.” In other words, students from marginalized populations are talking points to further Deal’s state public school takeover agenda. The actual policies needed to address the needs of low income students, students of color, disabled students and LGBT students are nowhere to be found in the fine print of the amendment language.
And, as a matter of fact, the school takeover would create one of most segregated school districts in the nation. It would be made up of 96 percent non-white students, and 95 percent students receiving free and reduced price lunch.
There is some good news here. Students of color in this state have been closing the achievement gap — despite the failure of policymakers to fully fund public education and invest in these students and their schools. And this is not getting talked about enough by policymakers eager to push through the school takeover on the backs of these students.
On the other hand, what the amendment fails to address are key areas where “students who come from difficult backgrounds,” need additional support. In other words, it fails to address the actual policy changes this state needs.
This looks like addressing homelessness. There are over 3,300 homeless youth in Atlanta alone, and they are disproportionately black and LGBTQ. Students navigating homelessness and other forms of housing insecurity must contend with the emotional trauma and stigma of their housing situation, and are also at a higher risk for chronic absenteeism, making succeeding in school and graduating challenging.
This looks like addressing hunger. One in four Georgia children live in food insecure households. Students who come to school hungry are more likely to to repeat a grade and have lower math scores, they also are more likely to display a range of behavioral problems, stemming from the very real, physical and neurological impacts of hunger.
This looks like addressing the discipline gap. Students of color and disabled students are disproportionately suspended and expelled from school, and disproportionately face arrest, starting as early as pre-kindergarten. The New York Times reports that, “in 132 Southern school districts, for example, black students were suspended at rates five times their representation in the student population, or higher.” And this problem has been shown to be pervasive in charter schools, as well.
This looks like addressing the lack of arts and physical education classes. Non-academic classes have shown to help students do better in school, and develop other, non-academic skills needed to be successful, particularly in young children developing their motor skills. But schools need to be fully funded in order to keep these important classes funded and available to students.
Just this year, this state has faced a lawsuit over its violation of the rights of students with disabilities and has joined a lawsuit against the Department of Education over a “dear colleague” letter asking states to treat transgender students with common courtesy and respect.
So, perhaps the next time Gov. Deal and others leading the pro-takeover campaign start talking about “students who come from difficult backgrounds,” and the need “to do something about our failing schools,” they need to start thinking about a different set of questions than how quickly can these education “solutions” benefit for-profit charter school companies.
When our policymakers refuse to make affordable housing and living wages a priority, when they cut TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) benefits and make food stamps (aka SNAP — Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) harder to get and maintain, when they ignore the racial disparities in how students are treated in schools, when the welfare of disabled and transgender students is of little concern, then it’s not surprising that our state fosters an environment where students find it hard to achieve in school.
“Students who come from difficult backgrounds” are not talking points to make your administration look more inclusive. These are the students dealing with the consequences of bad policy, and they need more than a school takeover to gain access to the resources, support and skills they need to thrive.