If You Ask For My Blind Faith in Public Schools I’ll Ask What You’re Drinking

As a public school parent, I feel pressured to take a solemn oath of loyalty to free government schooling as if these schools are little temples of a high democratic order. I comply, mostly, uncomfortably, because whether I want to or not I must create a compensatory bond with the entity that keeps my children five days a week. For the most part, it works out. My kids survive and I cling to the weak belief that the school staff and the powers that govern them hold my children’s safety and well-being as the highest priority.

But, I see signs all over telling me something is wrong. One huge example is the string of news reports about water in public schools that is contaminated with lead and the fact that our “leaders” haven’t told us the truth about it.

That reality breaks something irreplaceable for me. In fact, it’s the most important thing in all human history: trust. Break that and nothing is the same.

With that in mind, my message to my parenting peers is beware, education is one area of life you can only trust cautiously and you must verify religiously. That’s not easy, I know. Who wants to be the problem parent, the bossy one, or the one who knows-it-all?

I’m a sharp-tongued education activist and at home in my civilian life I mostly pretend to buy the illusion of our local schools, but deep down I know the real world has no completely safe places for our kids. Government is not the ideal education provider. Slouching into naivete on these matters puts my kids and yours in jeopardy.

Last year, the Charlotte Mecklenburg school district tested their water for lead in 58 schools and more than one-third of their buildings had lead levels as high as 430 parts per billion. The federal government says 15 parts per billion puts children at risk for lowered IQ, hyperactivity, behavior and learning problems, and slowed growth. The American Pediatric Association says anything above 1ppb should raise concerns.

According to the Center for Disease Control, there is no safe lead level in children. Water should be lead-free.

Parent organizers issued a statement saying CMS made an “executive decision not to inform parents that lead was in the drinking water at one or more water outlets in 27 CMS elementary schools.” When they gathered to discuss the issue last week, a local pastor told a group of concerned parents “We send our children to school to learn. We send our children to school to help them develop into healthy, able citizens of our nation. One of the things that we could never imagine is sending our children to school and having them poisoned.”

Others said it’s inconceivable that public officials failed to warn the public that their children were at-risk.

But, why is it inconceivable?

In the years since Flint, Michigan became the symbol for public poisoning we’ve seen the same problem across the country.

25 percent of New York City’s public schools have lead problems. Inspectors found elevated lead levels in nearly two-thirds of Detroit’s public schools.  One school in New Jersey found 1110 ppb of lead in its water.

It’s not just the water

Telling people their water is tainted with lead sparks all the outrage you’d expect because it’s easy to understand. Dirty water isn’t a mystery. But, in truth, our schools are man-made lakes polluted with inequity and cultural indifference.

For evidence, look to a report released this week called The Opportunity Myth by the education nonprofit The New Teacher Project. It says millions of young people in American public schools are working hard to complete the assignments assigned by their teachers, but those same students aren’t aware that the work they are doing isn’t preparing them for college, because the bar is too low.

TNTP’s Kenya Bradshaw tweeted yesterday saying “Nationally we have a two-tier grading system. That is lying to students of color about how well they are actually doing. This is NOT about students ability this is about adult bias and choices. Students are not even getting access to rigorous content. #TheOpportunityMyth.”

TNTP isn’t the first to provide solid information on the shortchanging of our students and it’s doubtful they will be the last.

Earlier this year, a study by the New York Equity Coalition found substantial barriers for black students to access the “gateway” courses and programs that predict college enrollment and completion. That builds on The Education Trust’s study from 2003 that found capable low-income students are missing from Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes even when they clearly qualify.

All of that means we need to be as vigilant about what our children learn as what they drink.

We want to believe that our kids are on track, their grades reflect reality, their teachers are the best, and if there are any human efforts that can be made to get them to- and through – college, those efforts are happening. Black parents in particular are the most likely to tell pollsters we expect our kids will go to college, which speaks to the trust we have in our schools, our teachers, and our education system overall.

Unfortunately, our system leaders have data mountains to show any rational person our kids aren’t growing academically as they should. In fact, year after year some of our brightest students are falling the furthest behind. Making matters far worse is that the very education officials and public employees we trust to have our back are busy pushing policies that would effectively scrap the data, hide the test results, and make the public more ignorant about the systemic threats to the development of our young people.

Irresponsible and deceitful behavior such as this hides a problem that is at least as hurtful as high lead levels in school drinking fountains.


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