Making change

What role should parents play in promoting integration? Nikole Hannah-Jones and two other public school parents weigh in

PHOTO: Photo by Theodora Kuslan / Courtesy The Greene Space at WNYC & WQXR

Talking about segregation “should necessarily be uncomfortable, it should necessarily be a place a conflict because it isn’t just finding common ground. It’s giving up ground, frankly, for white folks.” That’s what New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones said last week when she joined WNYC’s Rebecca Carroll and novelist Lucinda Rosenfeld for a panel discussion about what it would take to integrate city schools.

Read some of Chalkbeat’s recent coverage of the issue here and here.

Here are some other highlights from the panel:

On growing up:

Carroll: I grew up in New Hampshire in an all-white environment. I was the only black kid in all 12 years of my schooling, more or less, and the first time I remember the n-word was on the fifth grade playground … I had no context, I had no sense at all of what that meant. I knew that it was not, you know, “You’re really cute.” But so, that was one of the things, among many, many others of my own experience, that informed our decision, my decision, to send our kid to a school where not just he would have black and brown peers, black and brown teachers, but that if and when he heard that word or any other kind of racial slur, he would have a sense of context. As it happened, he did.

On choosing a school:

Rosenfeld: I began looking for a kindergarten for my daughter six years ago … I went to our zoned school and I saw general education classes with no white children in them. And the only white children in the school were in the gifted and talented classes, which is a whole other issue. And I have an extremely blond daughter, and I thought, like everyone thinks to themselves, I think, “I don’t want to be the only one.” Nobody wants to be the only anything. And I felt uncomfortable there.

Hannah-Jones: I think it is very hard to be “the only,” period. I knew from being bused, when we were like five black kids in the school, that I was never going to put my daughter in that situation, where she was one of a handful of black kids. I do think that eventually it will be hard and that is why I say, the changes have to be individual and systemic. That, we have created a system full of schools that we know we cannot integrate, because if you’re depending on a single white parent to go into a school, it’s almost never going to happen.

On being a white parent in a diverse school:

Rosenfeld: As a white person, there was a learning curve for me. … I had never affiliated myself with an institution where demographically I was in the minority before. I had never done that. Like many white people, my only experience of institutions was majority white. And so there was a learning curve for me. I was a little uncomfortable the first day of kindergarten. I saw black families – I didn’t see individuals. I saw Hispanic families … It took me a while to see past race, in a way, if that makes any sense, and to see that these were potential friends for me, these were potential allies, mom friends.”

On gentrification:

Carroll: [Our son] was at a different preschool, which was predominantly Hispanic but very quickly being gentrified and sort of changed and curated in such a way … But I remember having conversations with white parents on the playground and I would say, and I sort of ended up feeling like a zealot, but I would say, “Does it not occur to you that in the next year or so, this school is going to look totally white … You don’t mind that?” And I did have parents say, “No, not really.” And that I find baffling.

Hannah-Jones: Schools will start to integrate and then very quickly lose that integration because we know that white parents are attracted to other white parents. I mean, that’s a fact. When you hear that a school is good, I can almost always promise you that that school has a large percentage of white students. Because that’s the language – it’s racialized – good means one thing and bad means something else. And when you talk about a “bad” school, we can close our eyes and we know what color the kids are in those seats.

On achieving integration:

Hannah-Jones: This problem will never be fixed on a school-by-school basis. You need leadership from the top, it has to be systemic. You’re going to have to pull in parents who, frankly, don’t want it. And you’re going to have to find a way to do that.

As long as you’re doing it on a school-by-school basis, there are going to be some schools that are beautiful, beautifully diverse, all the things that we all would want for our children, and then there are all these other children who get none of that. And black students in the city, in particular, even though they are not the largest racial group, are the most segregated. So what that tells you is it’s not just a matter of numbers, it’s a matter of a particular group of children that other parents have decided that they don’t want their children around.

Hannah-Jones: [Achieving integration] would actually require a fundamental shift in, one, our views on race, and two, how we run and operate public schools. Because what the research shows is that white parents will say that they are choosing schools based on test scores, but when you actually look at where they’re clicking online and how they’re making their decisions, they’re actually making decisions on the demographics of the school.

We have to disentangle, somehow, 400 years of racial history and what automatically comes into well-meaning white folks’ minds when they think about a good school.

College Access

How an effort to prepare Michigan high schoolers for college slipped through the cracks

The proposal to make it easier for students to earn college credit while still in high school seemed like the rare education policy idea with no natural enemies in the Michigan legislature.

When a bill was proposed in the Republican-controlled Senate, it passed in a unanimous vote.

Then it vanished — apparently pushed aside by more pressing concerns.

“Boy, we must have just missed it,” said Tim Kelly, a former representative who, as chairman of the house committee on education, had the power to bring the bill to a vote last year. “I can’t imagine why I wouldn’t have been in favor.”

Advocates of so-called dual enrollment are hoping their next attempt won’t meet the same fate. They want to lift a cap on state-funded college courses that students can take while still in high school. Dual enrollment is widely considered to be one of the most powerful ways to increase the number of people who earn college degrees.

In an inaugural address to the legislature, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer promised to sharply increase the number of Michiganders with degrees to 60 percent by 2030. That number currently hovers around 43 percent, putting Michigan in the bottom third of states.

Michigan is one of five states that limit dual enrollment; its limit is the strictest of any state. Advocates say that limiting students to 10 college courses in four years is unusual and unnecessary.

The cap is not the only obstacle preventing students from earning valuable experiences — not to mention college credits — before they turn 18.

It may not even be the most significant. When advocates worry that the growth of dual enrollment in Michigan is slowing, they lay much of the blame on financial incentives that give schools little reason to help students dual enroll.

“I think we should look at [lifting the cap], but we should also look at the funding mechanism,” said Brenda Carter, a state representative who serves on the house education committee. “How many schools in Michigan are limited in what they can offer their students because of funding?”

Schools are required to pay roughly $7,800 in annual tuition for students who choose to take college courses, and some have suggested that the state should help offset those costs.

But any new funding for dual enrollment would require a political battle. Lifting the cap, less so.

That’s why supporters of lifting the cap were so bemused when, last year, a bill that had garnered strong bipartisan support in the Senate never went to a vote in the House.

“That was really surprising,” said Brandy Johnson, executive director of the Michigan College Access Network, a nonprofit that aims to increase the number of students who earn college degrees. In a 2015 report, the organization called for the legislature to “eliminate restrictive rules” surrounding dual enrollment.

Johnson guessed that the 2018 dual enrollment bill slipped through the cracks in part because of its relatively low profile. It was eclipsed in the news cycle by an ongoing debate about school funding and by a political furor over social studies learning standards.

Several legislators told Chalkbeat they didn’t know that dual enrollment is capped.

Among them are Carter and Dayna Polehanki, a Democrat who was elected to the senate in November and is now a vice-chair of the Senate’s education committee, said she became familiar with dual enrollment while working as a high school teacher in Macomb County.

She thought it was good for her students, but said she wanted to learn more about the cap before making up her mind. She pointed out that if students decided to take courses at a community college that were already offered at their local school, schools could find themselves paying for teachers and for students’ community college tuition.

“I can see both sides of that issue,” she said.

The Republican chairs and vice-chairs of both the Senate and House education committees did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.

Advocates of dual enrollment say it’s worth sorting out the challenges that could come with allowing high schoolers to take unlimited college credits.

With the cap lifted, high school students could earn a diploma from a traditional high school and simultaneously complete a technical certification or an associates degree from a community college. Those students would save money on college credits, and they would finish high school better-prepared for college than peers who’d never set foot in a college classroom.

Lifting the cap “expands access for students, especially low-income students,” Johnson said.

She warned that not all high schoolers are ready to take a heavy college course load. If the cap is lifted, she said, the state should also make sure that students meet a “readiness threshold” — perhaps a minimum standardized test score — before being allowed to dive into college coursework.

But she added that after the bill passed the Senate last year, she believed it had a chance in 2019.

“I am very hopeful,” she said.

Kelly, who reached his term limit in the house last year, said he hopes his former colleagues take a second look at the issue.

“I would hope somebody does,” he said.

Preschool math

Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker plows $100 million more into early ed — but no universal preschool this year

In the past decade, as other states have ramped up their spending on early education, budget-strapped Illinois has fallen further behind.

In his first budget proposal as governor on Wednesday, J.B. Pritzker, a philanthropist who has contributed millions to early childhood causes at home and nationally, laid out a plan to reverse that Illinois trend with a historic $100 million bump for preschool and other early learning programs.

“I have been advocating for large investments in early childhood education for decades, long before I became governor,” he said, laying out a $594 million early education spending plan that is part of an overall $77 billion package. “Investing in early childhood is the single most important education policy decision government can make.”

Later in the address, Pritzker detailed a smaller increase, but one that some advocates said was a welcome shift in policy: He described first steps toward repairing a child care assistance program that was drained of families and providers during the administration of his predecessor, Gov. Bruce Rauner. The new governor plans to spend $30 million more to rebuild the program. He also will increase income eligibility so an estimated 10,000 more families can participate.

“These priorities turn us in a different direction,” said Maria Whelan, CEO of Illinois Action for Children, which administers the child care assistance program in Cook County. Compared with the state’s previous approach, “I feel like I just woke up from a bad dream.”

Pritzker’s otherwise “austere” budget address, as he described it in his speech, came 12 days after his office revealed that the state’s budget deficit was 14 percent higher than expected — some $3.2 billion.

The state’s early childhood budget funds a preschool-for-all program that serves more than 72,000 3- and 4-year-olds statewide in a mix of partial- and full-day programs. Chicago has been using its share of state dollars to help underwrite its four-year universal pre-K rollout, which has gotten off to a bumpy start in its first year.  

The state early childhood grant also supports prenatal programs and infant and toddler care for low-income families.

Pritzker pledged on the campaign trail to pave a pathway toward universal pre-K for the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds, and this budget falls short of the estimated $2.4 billion it would cost, at least according to a moonshot proposal made in January by the lame duck state board of education. The state’s school Superintendent Tony Smith stepped down at the end of January, and Pritzker has yet to name a successor.

But policymakers and advocates on Wednesday said the considerable $100 million increase is a step in the right direction for a state that has been spending less per student than many of its neighbors. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, Illinois spent $4,226 per young learner in 2016-2017 compared with a national average that topped $5,000. Seven states spent $7,000 or more.   

“This is a big amount in one year, but also it is what we think is needed to move programs forward, and we’re excited to see it,” said Ireta Gasner, vice president of policy at the Ounce of Prevention, an early-education advocacy group

One item Gasner said she hoped to hear, but didn’t, was increased spending on home visiting programs for families with new babies. Spending on such programs next year will remain flat under Pritzker’s proposal. Home visiting has been suggested as one antidote to the state’s troublingly high maternal mortality rates. An October report from the state’s public health department found that 72 percent of pregnancy-related deaths in Illinois were preventable.

“Overall, we still have a long way to go to serve our youngest families and youngest children,” she said.  

In addition to the $100 million, Pritzker’s office reportedly also will add $7 million to early intervention services for young learners with disabilities and set aside $107 million to help buffer the impact of his new minimum wage increase on daycare center owners and other child care providers who operate on thin margins.

On Tuesday, Pritzker signed into a law a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour.

Illinois faces a critical staffing shortage of preschool providers, and several operators have warned that they face mounting pressures from staff turnover, increased regulations, and stagnant reimbursement rates.