By Dr. Patrice S. Johnson
Could it be a sweet dream or a beautiful nightmare? For the few in our country, America’s educational system is the ladder to generational wealth and closed rooms filled with skin folk of the same color and often of the same gender. It is their gateway to the American dream, a door to a world often cleaned and furbished by those left to live on the outside. Those who “don’t see any American dream; but…see an American nightmare,” as Malcolm X said in 1964. The nightmare, to be direct, is invented, supported, and established by an uninspired educational infrastructure and runs parallel to the criminal justice system, an educational arrangement that places on a pedestal the very democratic hypocrisy our country has yet to escape. We aren’t giving our children a space to dream or our communities a place of cultural sanctuary. However, in the dawn of a new era, can the dream be for everyone?
President Biden, this is the civil rights issue of the day.
“The Color of Emergency,” my doctoral research on state takeovers of urban schools, explored how systemic oppression undermined public education in Michigan. I found that Michigan education finance policies such as Proposal A in 1994 were written with the vague intention to fund schools adequately. Yet evidence demonstrates that districts such as Detroit, Highland Park, Muskegon Heights, and Benton Harbor have been gravely underfunded for decades. Based on these districts’ financial struggles, policymakers suggested putting a Band-Aid on open wounds that state and federal policies created.
What I discovered during this study, surprisingly, is that emergency managers caused communal social and emotional trauma and disrupted long-standing traditions in schools that were not just places of learning but cultural vessels of pride. It’s important to note that before the management change these culturally rich, community-based schools enhanced student learning.
Almost 90 percent of schools taken over by states served Black and Brown children. In the name of reform, policymakers allowed charter school systems to infiltrate the public schools’ spaces. These charter school “districts” were more interested in profit than purpose. The outcome of policies like Emergency Financial Management, particularly for African American schools, included further financial stress, and left schools vulnerable with increasing uncertainty and local leadership’s severe disempowerment. Furthermore, the district that was the focus of my study experienced cultural and social repression that undermined student academic growth and development.
For decades, the American educational system has been riddled with savage inequalities that denied Black Americans the very right to a quality education. In 2020, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee ruled that children have the right to literacy and that these states must meet school-quality standards. My friend, educational policies in our country are inherently racist when we must conclude in the 21st century that all children have the right to read.
It’s time to reinvent education in America.
President Biden, you have the opportunity to overhaul this system in a manner that not only enriches our children but builds up and strengthens our communities—creating unified spaces for ingenuity, economic empowerment, cultural traditions, and safety.
Your team will follow Cruella De Vil (Betsy DeVos), who rolled back guidance on discriminatory practices and civil rights functions in the Department of Education. During her tenure, the “education debt” described by author Gloria Ladson-Billing, the cumulative cost and harm of denied opportunities and resources for students of color, has continued to grow. Our country has not honored the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.
Reinventing education today with a community focus is for the country’s good. The question of equitable education is an emergency; it is the opportunity to ensure that all children have access to the dream.
Therefore, like Diana Ross spinning through an old warehouse in the fantastical movie musical “The Wiz,” it’s a brand-new day. Can’t you feel it? With this sense of a Novo Lenio, we get the opportunity to dream. There’s no better place to dream than America. Many of us experience the nightmare beforehand, yet America offers a sense of hope.
Brand New Day: As you re-envision the plan for America’s educational system, President Biden, center children and their communities.
It’s not enough for our policies to focus on restructuring schools to improve standardized test scores or to put the burden on such schools to race to the top. Schools must also be co-learning, communal spaces for belonging. In communities across the country, I’d like to believe that there are schools that were just like those of my childhood: cultural centers, laced in traditions, with teachers who were “dream keepers” (Ladson-Billings, 1994), places where children felt a sense of pride, belonging, and safety.
In a world where children are viewed as at-risk, vulnerable, of color, and otherwise not humanized, here is an opportunity for us to consider children in terms of their aspirations. The schools should serve as anchors in Black and Brown communities. Learning institutions aren’t just about the MME scores, merit-based testing, and the Pledge of Allegiance on Monday mornings. These are centers of cultural and social pride.
One of my research participants said it best:
“Carter G. Woodson Schools was family. It was love, it was community, it was happy days, it was sad days, but it was happy and sad days together. Carter Woodson, and it still is to a certain point, a community of dedicated people that care about one another. Now we have our own issues. But at the end of the day, it was fun. It was enjoyable to go to school. It was fun knowing that you would see the student body. It was fun knowing that this kid or that kid was getting a scholarship to go here and to go there. Now, it’s an illusion. I’m not happy with how things are now. I’m not happy with it. It’s not about love. It’s not about families, not about community building. It’s not about helping our children to be able to adapt to society and to become gainful and profitable citizens. It’s not about that.”
This participant reflected on the school district before a state takeover and after. He alludes to the idea of culturally rich community-based schools. Here, I propose that federal legislation support a community-based ecosystem that focuses on the whole child—inspires them to dream, create, and become global leaders.
I suggest that we center children and their communities as one tenet to establish equity in education. This may include positioning the school as a social broker in the community, linking school culture to community revitalization projects, and connecting instruction to community realities (Green, 2016). Other ways to install this equitable ecosystem: conduct community-based equity audits that consider disrupting deficit views about the community, understanding the shared community experience (Green, 2016b), enabling cultural traditions, and empowering local leadership. Legislation can create a collective effort of private, public, and grass-roots collaboration by incentive equity as delivered through communal schooling.
In Michigan, we must restore the identity and sense of pride that many schools lost during emergency management.
As you establish a new plan for America’s schools, President Biden, embrace the idea of communal education. It is necessary to ensure our national security, make good on our promise of civil rights, and continue to restore the American dream.
After all, we know what happens to a dream deferred.
PATRICE S. JOHNSON is the Executive Director of Boys Hope Girls Hope of Detroit and a former vice-mayor of Muskegon Heights, Mich. “The Color of Emergency” is her dissertation completed to earn the Doctor of Education in Organizational Leadership and Development degree from Cornerstone University, Grand Rapids, Mich. She is a BMe Community Vanguard Fellow and the author of two faith-based non-fiction books.