We shouldn't accept inequality at schools
Oakland Tribune, June 24,2003
THE DISPARITIES are stark and revolting. In
a middle school in Pleasanton, the teachers are experienced and credentialed;
the grounds are manicured; the computers in the computer lab are brand new and
operating; science labs have faucets and gas burners. Students have a textbook
at school and one at home. They chose from 14 electives and have seven periods.
The eighth-grade science class is studying endothermic and exothermic reactions.
In a middle school in an Oakland flatland neighborhood, almost half of the
teachers don't have a credential and many have fewer than two years of
experience. The grounds are overgrown and strewn with trash; profane graffiti
covers the bathroom walls; computers have been in boxes for more than a year
because the classroom has a mold problem; the science sinks are rusted and
dusty; students can't take textbooks home because there is only one set per
classroom. They chose between four electives and have six periods. The
eighth-grade geography class is finding the words within the word "geography."
In a separate exercise, they can't define the word "pedestrian."
In a stunning portrait of inequity, Oakland Tribune reporter Jill Tucker kicked
off last week's "Separate and Unequal" education series with the comparison of
the two public schools, Harvest Park Middle School in Pleasanton and Havenscourt
Middle School in Oakland.
Not surprisingly, Harvest Park's scores on the state's standardized tests are in
the top 10 percent. Havenscourt's scores are in the bottom 10 percent. Harvest
Park's student population is 72 percent white; 16 percent Asian; 7.3 percent
Latino; and 2 percent African American. Havenscourt's student population is 54
percent Latino; 39 percent African American, 4 percent Asian; and 0.4 percent
Harking back to the days of Jim Crow, even the water fountains at the two
schools are unequal. At Harvest Park, they are clean and working; at Havenscourt,
they are broken with missing parts and standing pools of water. Students chip in
$1 a month to buy bottled water so they can get a drink of water at school. A
drink of water. Is that even legal? Colored and white water fountains.
Tucker called the inequality in the public school system an unspoken truth. Of
course, we all know the schools in wealthier suburbs are better than those in
poor urban neighborhoods. That's one of the main reasons people move to the
suburbs. It's one of the things we know and pretend we don't. However, seeing
the night-and-day difference in the educations and resulting opportunities of
these two eighth-graders shakes you out of your delusional complacency. It's a
The inequities can be found within a school district. Schools in the Oakland
hills have more resources than schools in the flatlands. The series detailed the
causes of the disparities, including the bond system, parental involvement and
resources, and the fact experienced teachers prefer schools with more resources.
It's a self-perpetuating cycle.
The problem is difficult and multidimensional. But the over-reaching problem is
our tolerance of the inequities. The students who need the most get the least
and their bleak futures are determined. It would be shameful under any
circumstance. The fact that the disparity follows racial lines makes it even
more disgraceful. It's arguable the students at Havenscourt are even more
disadvantaged than the students in the segregated black schools prior to Brown
v. Board of Education. At least those students had a chance of being taught by
experienced and caring black teachers.
If we think we can ignore the elephant in the living room, then we are mistaken.
Lack of education and opportunity are directly related to the crime and homicide
rates afflicting our cities, limiting their abilities to attract business and
investment. Further, a city fails to reach its full potential if large numbers
of its residents are uneducated and underdeveloped
Even those who escaped to the suburbs haven't gotten away. They pay in the cost
of prisons and social services.
Education advocates have proposed remedies, including revamping the way public
schools are funded and incentives for experienced teachers to work in the
tougher schools. The PTAs of some wealthier schools pair with poorer schools to
help raise funds to supplement the state and federal funding.
But it will take more. We have to throw off the societal complacency that
tolerates these disparities.
We can't continue to allow them. We can't survive them.
Brenda Payton's column appears in the local section on Tuesdays and Fridays and
on the opinion page on Sundays.