The quest to bring urban schools up to par is more about money and curriculum than about whether black kids sit next to white kids in class.
So argued Mayor Toni Harp, weighing in on a debate over how best to move urban education forward 64 years after the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education declared racially segregated public school unconstitutional and 22 years after the Connecticut Supreme Court in Sheff v. O’Neill ordered the desegregation of public school.
The debate began with a lecture in New Haven last week delivered by leading education writer Nikole Hannah-Jones, who reported that our public schools are more racially segregated than ever. She called on white parents of privilege to send their kids to majority-black-and-brown traditional public schools; that more than any other step will finally bring equity and justice to urban education, she argued.
This article about Hannah-Jones’ speech set off this extensive, nuanced debate among Independent commenters. Harp — who has played an active role over 21 years as a state senator and now four years and counting as mayor — was asked about the matter during her latest appearance on WNHH FM’s “Mayor Monday” program. She offered a different perspective from Hannah-Jones’.
An edited excerpt of that conversation follows:
White Parents “Demand More”
WNHH: A New York Times writer, a MacArthur fellow named Nikole Hannah-Jones ... came to New Haven last week and gave a speech about schools and public education, and she threw a challenge out. She said [since] Brown vs. Board, we’re no better off than we were then. Our schools are as segregated, and in New Haven that’s pretty true still. ... People since then reconsidered what are the important goals here. ... She said that she thinks change today comes from white liberals who believe they support a more just society and diversity actually send[ing] their kids to majority-minority public schools. Instead of sending your kid to that charter school, that private school, that one school in the neighborhood where all the white kids go, live and send your kids to school in a [predominantly black and brown] school, and that’s what will improve education for everybody. Do you think Nikole Hannah-Jones is right?
Harp: I think that we’re looking at the wrong things, in all honesty. I don’t think that it’s necessarily about race. And I’m sure that there are some people who are African-Americans who felt that segregation has really crippled from an economic point of view black businesses, particularly in the South ...
... and historically black colleges and universities.
My daughters both went to Spellman College. They got an outstanding education. They were able to go to almost any graduate school they wanted to go to. My husband went to Howard and got professional degrees there. Even today the historically black colleges, that more and more white people are attending — I think that what they teach us about all of this is that you have to have strong academics no matter, if you want to educate children no matter their color, no matter their race.
I don’t want to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but when you look at urban areas across the state, across this country, what we see is that the resources to educate kids are just not there.
You have to factor in the higher percentage of low-income kids and special ed kids. Because without those numbers the [financial numbers] do look comparable.
If you have the right curriculum and you believe that you can actually educate kids — then you can do it no matter what color the kids are. But we haven’t had all of that.
First, we haven’t had the belief. We have a lot of people who say: “If you miss educating kids in pre-school, then you can forget it. You’re never going to be able to catch up.” They’ve done studies to show that. The people aren’t wrong, but I think it’s the wrong belief system to have.
And then no one is looking at the curriculum that we’re teaching our kids and the time on task. That’s across this country, and it’s certainly here. I think that there need to be higher accountability standards, more time on tasks. When you do that you have outcomes like Amistad High School, which is one of the highest testing in the state, and it’s all black and Hispanic.
Oftentimes when you have white parents, they’re going to demand more for their kids. And they’re going to make sure that the resources are there. It’s very complicated in places like New Haven, Hartford, Bridgeport, Waterbury. None of these cities are big enough to have the resources to put into their education systems so that they can have longer school days. So that they can make sure that their curriculums are adequate. But when you have an adequate curriculum, there’s enough time on task, you can move people.
So is there any alternative, [in] addressing issues like educational parity, to having all neighborhood schools be good enough that people consider that an option?
I think that’s what we really have to move towards. But we’ve got to make sure that there are the resources to make them good enough. That’s what we had a terrible time doing. In this state frankly because of the economic downturn, we don’t have the same kind of resources.
And two legislative sessions ago we had [state education] money moved from Bridgeport to Westport. ...
We allow this system that says every one of our 169 towns needs to be competitive with the other one and you send your legislators up to Hartford to compete for this money. In fact, we’re not all the same. We don’t all have the same ability to raise revenue for the things that we need to do in our community, not the least of which is to educate our children.
So when you have zoning laws that make it difficult for everybody to live wherever they want to live in our state, the exclusionary zoning, when you have only poor people in certain communities and a limited ability to raise revenue ... then when you can’t get resources from somewhere other than your property tax, other than the state, it lags behind [towns without as much tax-exempt property]. And then you go and compete for those same resources with those some people who can actually do more on behalf of their kids. It’s grossly unfair.
You brought up charter schools. Chris Peak’s [Independent] article noted that some of the most segregated schools in New Haven are charter schools [like Amistad and Booker T Washington Academy]. But then you have Common Ground High School ... [which is] in fact quite integrated. Is integration important? [Or is the issue that charters] don’t have to take on special ed or some of the other burdens on the New Haven school system?
Often what our folks in New Haven public schools have told us is that a lot of times it may not even be just the special ed kids, but the behavioral problems. Even with our magnets, a lot of the problem people in our suburban schools, they end up coming to New Haven. We end up having to shoulder more than our share of young people that are troubled and need special help. I’ve said: “We are happy to do it in New Haven. Just give us the resources to do it.”
Money Vs. Race
So you’re saying money’s more important than race?
It’s money, and it’s also making sure that you have adequate tools and adequate curriculum, good principals, time on task. Our school days are too short for what we have to overcome. In the meantime, since that’s what we can do politically, we have to find work arounds.
Does that mean that Brown vs. Board and Sheff are wrong, that the fundamental issue is not segregation?
No, I think that you had to start somewhere, and that was an obvious place to start. But it’s an iterative process. As we learn more and more about it, we know that that is not the only thing that can solve the problem, and that is not the only thing that will move our country forward.
We know that given the zoning that occurs and town lines, that we’re not going to solve the problem frankly by integration. Then there’s got to be another way to solve the problem, because we’ve got to have a highly educated workforce. People have got to be educated in order to take care of themselves and their families into the future. You have to have skills to live in the world that we live in.
The world moves as we’re thinking through problems of the 1950s. Here we are in 2018, and the answers have got to be different. We didn’t totally solve the 1950s issues. And we have got to solve the problems of today by dealing with them as best we can.
And is Nikole Hannah-Jones correct that white middle-class parents should make a point of sending their kids to places like Hill Central and Troup?
I don’t think that it hurts to do that, in all honesty. But I don’t know if that solves the problem. There are not enough white liberals to do that who live in town.
I think it [benefits] the white kids to be in the diverse environment. They get their “diversity” education.
Aaron Jafferis ...
He was one of the only two white kids at Hillhouse back in the day when he went there.
He’s a phenomenal thinker, creative personality that is impacting our world. It’s got to be partially because of that. [Click here and here to read about a sampling of the work Jafferis, a hip-hop poet and playwright who tackles tough racial and other social issues, has done in New Haven. Next week a retrospective event will touch on 20 years of his work.]
Did it help Hillhouse, that Aaron Jafferis went there?
I think that it might have, some people. I think that it’s important for white people to understand that black people are just people like they are, and it’s also important for black people to understand the same thing. And for all of the races to get together and to learn that we’re just one humanity.
The way that we’re set up, we all think that we’re so radically different. But it really would make a difference for young people who come to our city to work who are white — it would be nice for them to know and have a realistic view of the people that they’re going to interact with. “Gee this is Joe I went to school with I understand where he’s coming from. ...”
So, bottom line: Integration’s a good goal. It’s not the be all or end all, or even necessarily the number one issue in making the schools better [in your view]?
I think there are other things that are as important if not more important [than racial integration]. I think that if we’re going to have a democracy, we’ve got to have an educated populace.
(Aaron Jafferis’s take, offered in an email after the interview: “White liberal parents sending their kids to majority black and brown schools might be an important way to improve the white kids’ education, as much as anything else.”)
Click on or download the above audio file or the Facebook Live video below for the full episode of WNHH FM’s “Mayor Monday.”
This episode of “Mayor Monday” was made possible with the support of Gateway Community College and Berchem Moses P.C.