Guest Column

The Root Criticism of Urban Schools

by Colin K. Armstrong

It is said that urban school districts are failing school districts. They are not successful like suburban districts. I believe urban districts are incredibly successful.

Schools districts should be assessed using the agenda society sets. Part of the agenda for urban districts is malignant and unspoken. The unspoken agenda is this: Urban districts are the repositories of society’s racist predisposition. Urban districts serve as ghettos for the poor, powerless and underprivileged. Urban districts keep “those students” away from “our students.”

Education is structured to preserve the status quo and enshrine privilege in certain school districts.

The continuation of haves and have nots among public school districts is by design. The fact some students have access to better-quality schools is unacceptable. The fact it is allowed to continue is immoral. Those with the power to change the status quo are also those who benefit from the status quo.

My Premise
Clearly, there is a degree of exaggeration in my premise. However, the premise has merit. Consider the following four exhibits.

Exhibit 1: Our nation has the worst infant mortality/low birthweight rates of any affluent country. The mortality for African American babies is comparable to several developing countries. Unfortunate or outrageous?

Quality pre-/postnatal care and proper nutrition can exponentially reduce infant mortality and low birthweight. All we need is money to fix this. The only reason it has not happened is because we choose not to allocate the resources. It is not an unfortunate situation. It is an outrageous situation because we choose not to act.

Where do the surviving children with low birthweight live? In urban school districts, such as Muskegon, Mich., where I am superintendent. The schools these children attend must deal with the developmental implications of low birthweight without the adequate resources to help them succeed.

Exhibit 2: Experts know experiences from birth through age 5 have a profound impact on child development. We know what needs to be done. We don’t do it. We choose not to do it. We choose not to afford it. Instead we provide grants to groups to study what is already known. This has the advantage of appearing to act.

Where do children who do not have access to quality preschool live? A disproportionately large number live in urban school districts, such as Muskegon. This is outrageous.

Exhibit 3: In public education, all students are held to the same expectations, even though students arrive with differing levels of readiness to learn. Their needs can be met. It merely takes the will to make a difference and the funding to implement the interventions to overcome the disadvantages they possess. Logic dictates education funding would take this into account and fund districts based on the needs of their students.

This is not the case. In California, a school district on one side of San Francisco Bay serves predominantly economically disadvantaged Latino students. Across the bay, another district serves an affluent, predominantly white student body. The district serving affluent students spends twice as much per student as the district serving needy students.

Ten school districts in North Carolina sued the state to address inequitable funding. The state Supreme Court agreed the state was negligent in its duty. Only then did money begin flowing to these districts.

In Michigan, the base funding per student is about $7,400. There are a number of school districts that get more than $10,000 per student. The $10,000-plus club is a members-only group restricted to districts serving affluent students; virtually no Latino students; few special education students; and, with one exception, an overwhelmingly white student body.

Why are urban school districts never the beneficiaries of such largesse? Unbelievably outrageous!

Exhibit 4: A recent national study concluded high-minority school districts were funded at $877 less per pupil than predominantly white districts. This difference has persisted over time and across the nation. The only logical interpretation is that inequitable funding is the goal. Outrageous!

Urban districts segregate the children of the powerless, the poor and minorities. The system is designed to enshrine privilege with those already privileged. Education has been subverted to ensure the status quo continues uninterrupted.

Given the unbalanced playing field we work on, we have, in some cases, attained remarkable success. Our graduation rate at Muskegon High School is about 77 percent. That is not high enough, but it is only 7-8 percent behind area suburban high schools.

A Malignant Agenda
In Michigan, legislators in the last year addressed the issue of equity in education funding. Districts receiving less than the mythical new base funding of $8,300 will get an additional $46 per student. Our legislators are proud of this fact.

With an increment of $46, school districts like mine will receive the new base funding of $8,300 in only 14 years. We will still receive $4,000 per student less than the richest school district. None of our students will ever receive the education opportunities that others in our state receive now. Our legislators have guaranteed the status quo while creating a façade of caring. Outrageous!

Clearly, my thesis is designed to enrage and engage. There are individuals, including some politicians, and institutions that truly believe in equity. Families and students living in urban school districts have a role to play in making things better, too. Urban school districts must get better faster.

The real solution is multilayered and complex. Unfortunately, one of those layers is society’s malignant agenda at the heart of the problems faced by urban school districts.

Colin Armstrong is superintendent in Muskegon, Mich. E-mail: