A couple of weeks ago, I watched in horror as a school resource officer flung a teenager halfway across a room in the name of school discipline. The horrific event sparked a plethora of conversations that were already at peak levels since Secretary of Education Arne Duncan held a press conference on reducing what we have dubbed the effects of the school to prison pipeline. Yet, I was keenly aware of the special privileges charter schools have gotten across the country to instill zero tolerance policies in the name of a good education. From the students arrested in Mississippi for having the wrong uniform to the student arrested for a clock that the authorities knew wasn’t a bomb, our schools have increasingly used harsh discipline measures to silence children of color into obedience. After reading the report on a Success Academy school that creates lists of students who they need to not so secretly expel in the form of “Got To Go” lists, I saw what so many before me had seen.
American society generally applauds independence and creativity, and tolerates disruption in the name of speaking truth to power. But, apparently, it depends on who is doing the disrupting.
The report poked another hole in the rhetoric of Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz, who, as I’ve reported here and here, already has questionable practices in the name of educating children of color. Her repudiation of the principal in question and the ensuing press releases and conferences emphasize the point that she’s less interested in educating children than creating a wedge between the framework she’s created for her network and the reality that is education within New York City schools. The circus distracts from the militaristic pedagogy placed on students in tandem with the threatening of charter school parents. With Moskowitz winning so many public relations battles until recently, she’s had an unparalleled legislative red carpet rolled out for her.
In that sense, the “Got to Go” list comes across to the general public as a special privilege that Moskowitz gets away with that traditional public schools can’t.
I’m curious about the acrimony surrounding the Got To Go lists, though. Are we angry about them because Moskowitz hypocritically positions herself as a savior for black kids? Or is it because she can get away with it?
While the former speaks to the need to assure that all students, regardless of background, should have a chance to succeed academically and socio-emotionally, the latter speaks to an American problem of schooling children of color. Moskowitz’ vision for schooling children, specifically of color, is akin to one dominant narrative about educating children of color: obedience is at a premium.
For many, public education is one of the last safety nets America has left. The idea that we mandate that all children have a basic education speaks to the idea that all children should be able to read, write, and do math as a basic element of citizenship. Yet, this idea has often been corrupted to perpetuate inequity. Akin to having different levels of Internet access, some students are set up to read manuals and do grocery calculations while another gets to read classic literature and can access STEM topics. Discipline is equally disparate. Black boys are the largest population of suspended students in the country, and black girls get suspended at six times the rate that their white counterparts do. The conservative “no excuses” mantra gave way to stricter discipline measures in K-12 schools which were already hit hard by lack of equitable resources, including counseling, healthy breakfasts, recess, and qualified educators.
The terminology “school-to-prison pipeline” didn’t arise out of nowhere. Our public schools have long been sites of oppression and assimilation where communities of color have been told they would receive a specific type of education and, should a child not agree, they would find that child shunted from school to school or systemically thrown to the streets to fend for themselves. When teachers say “McDonald’s always needs people to flip burgers” or “If you keep that up, you’ll be selling drugs in no time,” we’re speaking to the idea of education as a privilege, not as a right.
The “no excuses” mantra has allowed for culture vultures to make false promises on the backs of communities of color.
Moskowitz takes advantage of this by framing public education as another layer of the doldrums. The “Got To Go” list posits the local public school as another layer of Dante’s educational inferno. Meanwhile, she and a handful of wealthy charter schools CEOs invest in inequity by stripping resources from the buildings they now occupy.
In many co-located public / charter schools, for example, the charter school will be given the front entrance for their students and the public school students come through the back entrance. The charter school teachers get to order all of their supplies through their business manager while the public school teachers form a line at Staples and barely get reimbursement for their supplies.
In sum, Families for Excellent Schools gets to say that inequity in public school exists because they are a factor in perpetuating it. These removal lists are part and parcel of what they do.
The debate over “Got To Go” lists become more inequitable when the adults in any classroom see themselves as the filter for who deserves an education and who doesn’t. For charter cheerleaders, it’s already understood that communities of color should segregate themselves between those who deserve a good education and those who don’t. “Got To Go” lists in private schools in Scarsdale and Montclair don’t have the same implications in that their local public schools are still well-funded and well-resourced. Plus, unlike in communities of color, it’s understood that the families in those communities have some form of political agency and will use it to assert their child’s humanity regardless of their disruptive behaviors.
Disruption takes many different forms, sounds, and races.
The “Got To Go” lists, written or otherwise, highlight the compromises white America has made in calling for educational equity. Zip code and income are determinants for what we’re calling college and career readiness, and the shortcuts reformers have used to address this inequity include the ostensible test prep factories like KIPP and Success. What price does society pay when it says it’s OK for children of color to be treated as shippable cartel? If the narrow vision of achievement is the only purpose for public education, then we should stop saying that public education is for the public. Hedge fund managers will clink their glasses to that vision early and often.
As a public school teacher, I don’t have the option of putting my students on a “Got To Go” list. To the contrary, I’m asked to address the situation in a plethora of ways, including meeting with parents and other teachers about the student. We’ve been asked as public school teachers to let everyone through our doors and to educate, meeting them where they are, and elevating them as well as we can. With a coherent vision from administrators and staff about how best to work with the students we serve, and the necessary resources to do so, I believe we don’t have to throw students out of our schools—we can find a suitable setting for the student to succeed.
If we’re engaged in public education as a right for any and all children who come through our doors, then we can’t settle for “got to go” lists. We still need a more inclusive vision for public education. Families for Excellent Schools can’t troll us forever.