Original URL: http://www.oaklandtribune.com/Stories/0,1413,82%257E1726%257E1474183,00.html

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 white.

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 crime.

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.