Mike Petrilli kicked off an intense and illuminating debate recently (see here, here, and here) when he seemed to blame the lagging academic achievement of black children on teen mothers and fatherless families.
— Michael Petrilli (@MichaelPetrilli) March 2, 2015
@citizenstewart I'm already offended. (and a single mom). Who should they marry me off to?
— Marianne Lombardo (@marianne_dfer) March 3, 2015
This made me think about my own experiences as a single mother. I’m a white, two-time teenage mom who has been a single mom a long time.
I came from a two-parent family. We were not at the poverty level, but we still were only able to just get by. Vacations, summer camps and SAT prep courses didn’t exist in families like mine.
Becoming a teen mom, though, threw me full-on into poverty. I eventually fought my way out but not because I’m different or special. Mostly because I got lucky.
I was able to finish high school at New Futures in Albuquerque, New Mexico, one of the first (and still few) schools for pregnant and parenting teens in the country. I moved to California, where community college and on-site child care were free. In both places, I got the benefit of a supportive, responsive education system, and I began to see the potential of what I could achieve.
Crossing Over to the Other Side
At first, my kids attended an inner-city school. My son’s second grade class chewed through five teachers. Although there were great people at the school—including a “hero” principal—the environment was chaotic. I thought I needed to get my kids into an environment with higher expectations and aspirations, so I moved us to the suburbs.
Rent was more than half my income. I took a second job, and oftentimes, a third. I performed risky forms of calculus to somehow pay the bills and be present in my kids’ lives.
Every day, I bounced between two disparate worlds—the “leafy suburb” with the calm school, and my job in the state juvenile corrections agency where student files contained testaments of the apathetic and unequal educational system for poor students, many from the very district from which we had just bolted.
What stressed my kids was not taking a yearly test that would let me know if they were, in fact, gaining the academic skills they needed to keep up with their more resourced peers, but trying to live up to “normal.” Any additional costs—$350 for driver’s ed, $125 for a yearbook, $82 for an AP exam—were a struggle.
My kids didn’t go to the summer camps all the other kids went to. I surely didn’t go to the $150-a-plate school fundraising galas ($75,000 raised in just one event!). The micro-aggressions, like kids calling my son “Hershey,” and a teacher asking “don’t you have a husband?” reinforced that we existed on the ragged edges of the social fabric of the community.
When the Grass Isn’t Greener
My trust in the district began to fray when the kids were in middle school. I watched as the inner-circle kids got access to the best teachers and the extra-curriculars, and as the district awarded a college scholarship to a child of one of the wealthiest families in town. I watched as other kids—those that lived “down the hill” near us—faded into the background.
It became clear to me that the number one priority for many parents in the district was making sure their kids were on top. For the district, it was perpetuating the inner circle of privilege and protecting their reputation.
I was lucky eventually to find an amazing charter school—the type accused of existing primarily for the benefit of wealthy people who are accused of wanting to privatize education—that changed my daughter’s life. The school assures everyone is treated fairly and feels included. A huge bonus is that the school’s racial and socioeconomic diversity more closely reflects our values.
The amazing teachers at her charter school are paid, on average, $35,000—less than half the $73,000 average the district teachers are paid. One reason for this is because the district contributes to a Robin Hood-in-reverse lobbying organization that successfully gets wealthy districts in the state more state funding than they should according to the state formula.
What This Means for ESEA
During the initial Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) hearings in 1965, Robert Kennedy passionately fought for federal accountability because history had proven that schoolmen were pretty good at protecting their own interests as well as those with influence within communities. Kennedy—and his own brother Ted nearly 35 years later—knew full well that low-income and marginalized kids didn’t have a well-organized and well-resourced advocacy machine standing up for them. They still don’t now.
Fifty years later, our country still hasn’t fully addressed educational inequality because framing poverty in terms of morality allows people to avoid acknowledging their part in perpetuating it.
The “Drive Like They’re Your Kids” signs imply that people won’t be cautious unless the well-being of their own kids is at stake. Our social policies reflect this individualistic thinking. Many other industrialized nations established universal policies to assure all children get equal resources and opportunities (e.g., family leave, high-quality early learning and child care, college) decades ago. In our country, many parents still have to work two or three jobs in order to live in a “good” school district, and way too much depends on luck.
I’m incredibly grateful for the educational opportunities that played a huge difference in my life. But the reality is that our public education system doesn’t provide an equal opportunity to all. All the talk about single-parent families and parents that don’t care ignores the structural and interactional power-imbalances people experience in daily life.
It’s worth taking another moment to reflect on the Kennedy brothers’ legacies. With the Edward M. Kennedy Institute opening in Boston yesterday, I can’t help but think what he would say today. Perhaps that in order to change people’s consciousness—getting one group of people to intuitively believe that other peoples’ children are as valuable as their own and getting another group to actually experience a system that is fair and works for them so they’ll buy into it—we need our policies and practices to reflect those values.
Visit BecauseTheyCan.com to find out how to close the Belief Gap.