Editor’s note: Doug Tuthill responds today to a post I wrote yesterday about the failure of school districts and teachers unions to enact meaningful differential pay plans for teachers – and how that’s indicative of a bigger failure to help low-income students.
Ron, you raised some excellent points in your blog post about the unwillingness of the Pinellas County, Fla. school district to provide each student with equal access to a quality education. For nine years, I received supplemental pay to work in a magnet program that served the district’s academic elite, and for 11 years I was a leader in the local teachers union, which was complicit in the district’s refusal to provide equal opportunity. So your criticisms stung, but they were accurate.
This may be self-serving, but I’m convinced the cause of this leadership failure is not bad people, but an organizational structure and culture that favors the politically strong over the politically weak.
Growing up in Pinellas, I attended segregated public schools. When the federal courts finally forced the school district to desegregate, the focus was on ratios and not learning. The district closed most of the black neighborhood schools and bused those children to schools in the white neighborhoods because busing white students into black neighborhoods was too politically difficult. But white flight meant some forced busing of white students was necessary, so the district created a rotation system that bused low-income/working class white students every two years to schools where the black population approached 30 percent. (The court order said no Pinellas school could be more than 30 percent black.)
While working-class white neighborhoods lacked the political clout to prevent their children from being bused every two years, their protests were loud enough to force the school board to look for alternatives. In the early 1980s, the district started creating magnet programs to entice white families to voluntarily attend schools that were in danger of exceeding the 30 percent threshold.
These magnet programs were designed to provide white students with a superior education. Class sizes were small, textbook and materials budgets seemed unlimited, professional development opportunities were extraordinary and special pay supplements to attract the best teachers were impressive. In my case, when I quit my job as a college professor to teach in the International Baccalaureate (IB) at St. Petersburg High School (SPHS), my annual salary increased 28 percent.
The magnet strategy worked – especially the IB program. Affluent white families began voluntarily busing their children to attend our program, and in many cases students got on buses at 5 a.m. and rode over 50 miles per day to attend.
Unfortunately, desegregation via magnet schools increased the resource inequities that desegregation was suppose to reduce.
My future (and current) wife taught in the “traditional” program at SPHS, and the contrast between our classes was striking. I taught in Deborah’s classroom during her planning periods. While she regularly had 38 students in her basic math classes, I averaged about 13 in my philosophy classes. Her classes were about 50 percent black, and I don’t recall ever having more than one or two black students in my classes. In fact, I’m sure black students historically comprise only a tiny percentage of the IB graduates at SPHS.
My professional development included flying to Chicago for a week to discuss how best to teach epistemology to high school students, while Deb’s involved sitting in a crowded room in Largo, Fla. hoping the clock would speed up.
When I left the IB program to become the Pinellas teachers union president in 1991, I sat down with the St. Petersburg Times education reporter at the time, Anne Lindberg, and gave a long interview on how desegregation should focus on reducing the achievement gap between black and white students, and not only on school-wide racial ratios. I also asserted that magnet schools were making the achievement gap worse because of the unequal distribution of resources.
To say the district responded badly to this interview would be an understatement. The superintendent and school board were outraged by my suggestion that higher black student achievement should be part of the district’s desegregation plan. They argued that desegregation was about ratios and not student learning. The superintendent had the district’s research department prepare a set of reports showing the district’s achievement gap was related to poverty, and not race. And since the district was not responsible for poverty, the district could not be responsible for the achievement gap caused by poverty.
Beyond interviews and speeches, I never did anything concrete during my four years as union president to address the district’s achievement gap. I should have done more, but back then, beyond a small nonprofit in Washington D.C. called the Education Trust, no one was talking about the achievement gap. It took a crusade by Gov. Jeb Bush 10 years later to put this issue on the front burner in Florida, and many still despise him for it to this day.
The Pinellas teachers union leaders who followed me have been more aggressive in raising the achievement gap issue with the school district, and have proposed supplemental pay plans for teachers working in high-poverty schools. But there are so many political forces within the union and the larger school district competing for resources that low-income children always get pushed aside.
School districts are politically-controlled monopolies in which power is centralized and every decision is a political decision. In this context, poor people are always going to lose the battle for resources. Most of the politically elite in our community have sent their children to the IB program at SPHS, including the mayor and the publisher of our newspaper. Any superintendent or school board member who proposes taking the IB teachers’ supplemental pay and giving it to teachers in high-poverty schools will soon be unemployed.
If public education is to fulfill the promise of equal opportunity, we need to create a structure in which political power is not the primary determiner of how resources get allocated. That’s why I support school choice for low-income and working-class parents. Empowering these parents to match their children with the schools that best meet their needs is not a silver bullet, but it is a necessary step on the road to equal opportunity.