COMMUNITY VOICE: Liz Palmer responds to Rep Kevin Bratcher on HB151

You may recognize the name Kevin Bratcher as the representative behind HB151, the bill meant to eliminate school busing in Jefferson County, which many hail as an unmitigated national success. Yesterday, Representative Bratcher reached out to Liz Palmer, an educator and journalist, on Twitter and Facebook to ask why she was pushing back so hard against the bill. Throughout their exchange, Bratcher evoked the story from Wave 3 of Tina Leonard, a parent that lives near Shawnee, as an example of the necessity of his bill. Below is Palmer’s response, which not only attends to the key issues at hand, but elaborates on the problems inherent in the de-segregation of JCPS. Read on.

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First, Wave’s Kasey Cunningham should have recognized a hole in her reporting. There’s a transfer process in JCPS that takes into consideration parental hardships like transportation. Just calling JCPS would start the process for Ms. Leonard’s son to transfer to Shawnee or Central – did Ms. Leonard pursue this? I used the process myself for my son when he was in kindergarten. He was enrolled at our closest school at the time, which had been my first choice school, but it became clear by mid-year that he had a different learning style. JCPS’s transfer office allowed him to transfer into kindergarten at Coleridge Taylor’s Montessori magnet program shortly thereafter, where he finished out kindergarten and flourished by comparison. (Elementary magnet programs are also important to parents, and they, too, could be lost under your bill.)

That was years ago, but since then I’ve befriended someone who worked in the office. He says the staff cares & bends over backward to accommodate parent concerns. As an office, it’s an “anti-bureaucracy.” I hope Ms. Leonard reaches out to them.

But let’s say the bill passes into law. Under the original wording, Ms. Leonard might be in a worse situation. Her child *still* might have to bus across town if Shawnee, his closest school, is at maximum capacity due to all the other students for whom the school is also their closest. And, as others have pointed out, he might not be able to enroll in his second closest school because others’ claims to the school would trump his. He might end up at *any* high school in the county with space. With fewer magnet options, he would have fewer ways to work with the transfer office to find anything that resembles a neighborhood school.

“When I taught at Shawnee in the mid-2000’s, I learned that for many families in poverty from the immediate area, there was often a constant state of trauma and crisis.”

Ms. Leonard is an exceptional parent. By that, I mean that she’s in an impoverished area, but she has the time and ability to be involved in her child’s school. When I taught at Shawnee in the mid-2000’s, I learned that for many families in poverty from the immediate area, there was often a constant state of trauma and crisis. Many of our families were dealing with problems that made involvement incredibly difficult. Unlike the stereotypes about people in poverty, research shows that impoverished people work longer and harder than their wealthier counterparts. Because transportation was more difficult, they spent longer hours commuting via public transit, leaving fewer hours to take care of other needs. Because pay and benefits are bad for low-income earners, our families were simply living with problems that were commonly addressed by people with money, including physical and mental health issues. If they had more than one child, it was even more difficult to be involved. Poverty’s also exhausting.

Seems like I should argue for neighborhood schools, right? The argument is that it would be easier for parents like Ms. Leonard to join in on school activities if it meant just crossing the street. But I’m not making that argument, because, aside from cases like Ms. Leonard, the “parent involvement” argument is a misconception. Research tells the same story that you’ll hear anecdotally from principals and teachers who serve in high poverty schools: parental proximity does not necessarily equal parent involvement – still because of the reasons above. At Shawnee, we changed our work hours to accommodate families on parent/teacher days, called home, sent letters, etc. We offered free dinners, too. It was still a night and day difference between conference days at Shawnee and my next school, Atherton, where I had a full day of parents scheduled while only serving as a part time teacher.

JCPS needs to help Ms. Leonard and anyone like her. The assignment plan needs retuning – we all knew that before we even began. Yet it just isn’t clear that neighborhood schools will pay off in terms of increased parent involvement overall. What we DO know from mountains of educational research is that diversifying schools DOES positively affect the academic and social growth of kids in poverty. The assignment plan is a difficult pill for people who find themselves in Ms. Leonard’s spot. But, keep in mind that in JCPS, 95% of students get their first choice school. Anecdotes to the contrary can go far in scaring people into thinking it’s a typical experience. It’s not.

“I’m not happy with JCPS some (a lot) of the time. But I’ve recently realized how proud I am of what we’re doing on the whole.”

I’m not happy with JCPS some (a lot) of the time. But I’ve recently realized how proud I am of what we’re doing on the whole. I’ve noticed that opponents of busing point to the ebb and flow of just a few recent years of JCPS testing data when declaring that busing was an enormous failure, which is a deliberately misleading and hasty generalization. More long-term research tells us that desegregation and income diversification efforts have positively impacted the nation’s students since the 70’s. On the flip side, we also know from research that high poverty schools often beget more poverty. We know that no matter how many Title 1 funds are funneled into a high poverty school, the outcome for impoverished students won’t be as good for each of them as simply moving those same students to a more diverse population. We know that teachers in high poverty schools burn out, transfer and quit the profession. We know that there’s a lower ceiling of achievement and opportunity in high poverty schools. It’s in your middle class constituents’ long term best interests to fight for the benefits of the assignment plan, because when people find their way out of poverty, it benefits our entire community. Less people in need of a social safety net. Less people committing crimes. Less people filling the emergency rooms for minor ailments. MORE people able to get to their kids’ school meetings.

Sorry this is so long, but this is a dense issue. It really has to be lengthy – in fact, this message to you really hasn’t done it justice. At least it’s a more nuanced exploration of the issue than an anecdotal story about an inflammatory subject on the 5 o’clock news. I wasn’t planning to write a research paper before bedtime tonight, so if you have questions, I’ll be happy to provide specific links to the figures I’m referencing.

“There is a bigger picture missing here, and journalists should act like this is a damn emergency.”

To WAVE 3 News, I would say: Why didn’t you ask for comment from JCPS about Ms. Leonard’s problem? Why aren’t WAVE reporters also focusing on the long term effects of the high poverty schools this bill would create? To journalists in general – why aren’t we advocating for the nearly 1/3 of all children in this country living in poverty? Why aren’t journalists – and we as citizens – holding our local, state and federal government’s feet to the fire when we are one of the richest nations in the world, yet we are among the WORST when it comes to percentages of children in poverty (and our percentage is increasing)? Schools are single-handedly trying to right the wrongs of poverty that should be aggressively addressed by other institutions closer to its stem. There is a bigger picture missing here, and journalists should act like this is a damn emergency.

Please withdraw support from House Bill 151. Thanks for your consideration, Kevin.

Sincerely,
Liz

Liz Palmer is an educator, journalist, and community activist and organizer. You can follow her on Twitter @lizpalmer1 and become part of the conversation. Picture credit to the amazing Carrie Neumayer.