Our city’s history of racial segregation via redlining is well-documented. But Seattle’s present-day race divide, most visible in its schools, goes less discussed.
Not so during a discussion on “Race, Class and Education” that I took part in on Wednesday night. In politically correct Seattle, the gloves came off.
Sponsored by Humanities Washington, a nonprofit dedicated to fostering conversation about culture and community, the talk took place at the Royal Room in Columbia City, the heart of rapidly gentrifying South Seattle.
I anticipated an audience full of parents wanting to discuss South End schools. But it was mostly teachers. And they had plenty to say.
For instance: Affluent parents who talk about equity in public education don’t really want it. They may like the way it sounds, but won’t embrace the hard fact of what it means to treat all students equally.
“It’s easy enough for everyone to say I’m down for equality,” observed my co-panelist Wayne Au, a former school teacher and now professor of education at the University of Washington, Bothell. “But when it comes to, say, de-tracking ninth-grade English, they go, ‘Wait a minute, you’re going to take away the honors program? Is that going to mess up my kid’s chance to get into Brown?’”
Au, who researches equity, policy and high-stakes testing in public schools, draws a sharp distinction between those who view education as a tool for upward mobility — by definition, a competitive process — and those who believe it should be aimed at strengthening community. As he put it, “Thinking about the public in public education.”
If applause is any barometer, this view found favor among many present and prompted a discussion on the difference between equity — low-income students getting what they need to catch up with those who start the race ahead — and equality, meaning that everyone is treated the same.
“There’s a huge difference,” said Sharonne Navas, executive director of the Equity in Education Coalition. “Not everybody starts from the same place.”
Perhaps the most poignant description came from Elaine Harger, a librarian at Washington Middle stunned at the racial divide in one of Seattle’s flagship schools.
“I was shocked,” she said of an academic caste system (i.e. accelerated learning, general education and special ed) that shows up a de facto race segregation. “It’s criminal.”
So what to do? That depends on your belief about the purpose of public schools.