Cook: Educational apartheid in Chattanooga

Cook: Educational apartheid in Chattanooga

June 2nd, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

"There is no plan. If you want to save your children, you're going to have to do it yourself."

- Educator and social activist Geoffrey Canada, speaking in 2011 to a Chattanooga audience

It's like the civil rights movement never happened. It's like Jim Crow never left.

"Certain schools with high concentrations of poverty perpetuate underperformance -- fueling intergenerational poverty and a seemingly permanent underclass,'' reads the newly released report on education by the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies.

Those are dangerous words. Permanent underclass? Intergenerational poverty?

• Roughly half of all students at Thrasher, Nolan and Lookout Mountain elementaries were advanced in math, compared to 5 percent of students at Clifton Hills, Barger, Woodmore, East Lake and Orchard Knob.

• Half of all black students at Hixson Middle were suspended in 2012, compared to only 20 percent of the white student population.

• More than 60 percent of Hamilton County residents living in extreme poverty neighborhoods are black.

This "permanent underclass" is black and brown. Our city is divided by color and class, where white ZIP codes are more affluent and thus able to overperform academically while ZIP codes of color are disproportionately poor and prone to educational disadvantage.

The report calls it "racial isolation.''

It's educational apartheid.

"This failure spills into the rest of the community in the form of entrenched poverty, youth violence and community disorder,'' the report states.

Schools, ideally, are the most important place in a society, an equalizer that allows poor people to find a foothold in the American Dream. Schools should be our first and last thought, the place we deposit our best resources, hopes, leaders and brilliant ideas.

Here? It's like we do the exact opposite.

Tennessee is ranked 49th in the nation in per-pupil spending.

And Hamilton County? Our funding is an embarrassment.

Between 2007 and 2012, Hamilton County decreased its funding for schools when considering inflation. Our public school students received more funding five years ago than in 2012.

"Per-pupil spending in Hamilton County decreased by $321,'' the report states.

That is obscene.

The Hamilton County Commission ought to be ashamed. The school board, which recently gave Superintendent Rick Smith a glowing evaluation, ought to turn take-to-the-streets angry.

"Schools are not solely to blame for this failure,'' the report reads.

It would be misleading to interpret this report as condemning of poor schools, their teachers and students. Great, heroic work is being done there, but it is work often done against uphill resistance (ask a teacher at a poorly funded school how many photocopies they're allowed to make each semester).

Plus, schools are the coal mine canary where such societal problems are most visible.

Critics of this column will say that these kids and parents should fix their problems themselves. I agree: Affected communities should be the first to get their own house in order.

But to assume that all this can be swept away if black and brown Chattanoogans all suddenly pulled themselves up and became Citizens of the Year is to patronize and silence the unsung work already being done in those places ... while also allowing us to ignore the widespread, greatly influential network of whiteness in this city.

(Name one powerful system or organization in the county headed by a majority of black people.)

Maybe it's time for a simple question:

Do we value our children of color as much as our white children? Do we love them and want them to inhabit a world full of possibility, meaning and joy?

This report tells us that, at the moment, we don't.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.