As teacher unions fight to keep schools closed, the true cost is being felt by students who are racking up failing grades, dropping out of virtual classes, increasing drug use, and, in rising numbers, committing suicide. In response, some union officials like the President of the Los Angeles Teacher’s Union has labelled calls to return to class examples of white privilege despite overwhelming science supporting resumption of classes. However, for minority students, this shutdown has taken a dire situation and turned into a free-fall disaster. The pandemic led to the closure of an already failing public school system, as evident in a shocking story out of Baltimore. As recently reported, a high school student almost graduated near the top half of his class after failing every class but three in four years. He has a 0.13 GPA. His mother finally went public in exasperation with the failures in the public schools.
Tiffany France is understandably upset. She is a mother of three who works three jobs to support her family. She was never told that her son failed 22 classes and was late or absent 272 days over his first three years of high school. She was called for only one teacher-student meeting and that meeting never occurred at Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts.
France ultimately had to pull her son out of the school and enrolled him in an accelerated program to allow him to graduate in 2023.
For decades, we have spent huge amounts of money in school districts like Washington, D.C. and Baltimore as these cities and their leaders have failed to address these failures. We have had a lost generation of kids who have neither the education nor the trained skills to succeed in society. Yet, there is no accountability for the political and educational leaders in these cities.
In the meantime, school officials seem intent on driving top performing students from their systems in Boston, New York and other cities where advanced programs are being shutdown or suspended. Mayor Bill deBlasio proclaimed that public schools are a means to redistribute wealth as students continue to fail on every level in the system. Other education officials have denounced “meritocracy” as racist. These officials, including a recent congressman, attack standardized tests as racist rather than make real progress to improve performance on such tests for these children.
The top spending public school districts are also some of the worst performing school districts. New York topped the per capita spending at $24,040 per kid. Washington, D.C. is close at $22,759. Baltimore is often ranked in the top three per capita spending districts. The total budget for Baltimore public schools is $1.2 billion. That is for a city with a total population of roughly 600,000 (The greater Baltimore metropolitan area is 2.8 million). In 2015, the school population was 84,000 kids.
According to a 2019 study, over half of the New York City public schoolkids cannot handle basic math or English. On tests, Asian kids shows a 74.4 percent proficiency in math with a 66.6 proficiency for whites, a 33.2 percent proficiency for Hispanics, and a 28.2 percent proficiency for African Americans. Thus, more than two third of African American kids were not able to handle basic math in a school system with one of the highest per capita expenditures for students in country. Thus, public schools may be a vehicle for deBlasio to “redistribute wealth” but he is not distributing education or learning to those who need it the most.
In Washington, with the highest per capita spending on students, education officials “celebrated” a small improvement of scores in 2019. However, the scores would make most people cringe. Only 21.1 percent of black students were proficient in math (as opposed to 78.8 percent for white students).
In Wisconsin, the 2019 scores (for students in grades 3 to 8 and grade 11) showed only 39.3% of students tested proficient or better in English/language and only 40.1% demonstrated a proficient or better understanding of math. Both showed drops. However, the racial disparity was particularly shocking. Ironically, the gap slightly narrowed due to white students declining in scores. However, in the eighth grade, only 12.1 percent of black students were proficient or advanced in English. There was still as 30 point gap for black students.
In the meantime, the pandemic has led to delays, reductions, or outright cancellations of standardized testing in many districts. So now students will not be going full-time to school and also not be tested on their proficiency in subjects in some districts. It is as if they did not exist, which is precisely the problem. Politically, they do not seem to register in terms of importance or influence. They are useful objects for politicians who use them for campaigns for more money or power. Yet, they seem utterly detached from any actual benefits as these leaders allow public schools to continue on the same course of proven failure.
Watching this happen to the public schools has been particularly hard for many of us who are ardent supporters of public education. Growing up in Chicago during the massive flight of white families from the public school system, I remained in public schools for much of my early education. My parents organized a group to convince affluent families remain in the system. They feared that, once such families left, the public schools would not only lose diversity but political clout and support. They also wanted their kids to benefit from such diversity. My wife and I also believe in that cause and we have kept our four kids in public schools through to college. We believe public education plays a key role in our national identity and civics. They shape our next generation of citizens. My children have benefitted greatly from public schools and the many caring and gifted teachers who have taught them through the years.
Reading accounts like that of Tiffany France is a disgrace. She is working three jobs and counting on the school system to give her three children an education . . . and a chance. Yet, Baltimore and other cities have failed such children for decades. There is no accountability in the system. These leaders are failing whole generations and leaving them to an endless cycle of poverty and crime. Yet, they are reelected or reappointed every year. Educational leaders demand more money but show little progress or success. The money evaporates and nothing seems to change for Tiffany France or her children.
The problem is not standardized testing. It is the lack of education where a student with below a 1.0 GPA could qualify for cum laude recognition in Baltimore. Decades and billions of dollars have been exhausted without significant improvement. However, the real cost of our failure is born by these students who find little solace in knowing that their per capita expenditures continue to rise as their scores continue to fall. If we ran our highway system like this, we would have billion-dollar gravel roads for highways. In our education system, we are spending billions but kids like Tiffany’s son are going nowhere fast.
A version of this column ran on Fox.com.