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Friday, May 29, 2015

Escambia County Is Failing Our Students


White elected officials in general, especially those from the conservative Republican Party, are quick to locate the source of any failed Black outcome inside either the Black community, the Black family, or the Black child.

They rarely, if ever, consider that failed outcomes are actually the result of their own failed policies.  Whether these failed policies are based on racist intent, gross incompetence, inadequate knowledge base, or ideological or religious outlook, can be very difficult to determine.

But, the Southern Poverty Law Center's presentation last night at the Fricker Community Center raised two major points: the failure of our Black children in Escambia County is the result of law and Escambia County School Board policies, and, the data documenting that failure takes away the excuse of the inadequate knowledge base.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has brought five lawsuits against school board in Florida.  Four of those school boards are located in northwest Florida--arguably the most conservative area of the state.  And, the worst of the five, indeed, the worst in the state--that honor goes to the Escambia County School Board.

Students, parents, teachers, and the community at large need to be informed and mobilized to decrease the number of arrests of our children in school for misdemeanors, decrease the number of suspensions, and increase the high school graduation rates because, as the old advertisement goes, "a mind is a terrible thing to waste."

Not only is the Black community being shortchanged and damaged, but the failures of the Escambia County School Board's policies affect the economic competitiveness of the county and therefore the overall quality of life for all residents in the county.

For America's Political Elites, Failure Is An Option

Low tolerance and zero tolerance school policies--policies that no adult my age (63) ever grew up under--leads to greater numbers of suspensions and in-school arrests, which places Black children on the path of the school-to-prison pipeline.  This school-to-prison pipeline is only the latest manifestation of elite policies that have worked to weaken the Black community.

America's policy elites have deliberately enacted policies that have significantly destructive effects on Black men, Black families, and Black communities.

Recently, the New York Times published an article and editorial on the 1.5 missing million Black men--missing because of early death or prison.

For every 100 Black women aged 25 to 54, there were just 83 Black men.  For white women, there was parity at 99 white men for every 100 white women.  In the city of Ferguson, there were 60 Black men for every 100 Black women.  The article pointed out that prison accounted for 600,000 missing Black men due to much higher incarceration rates than other demographic groups and 900,000 missing Black men was due to death from homicide, heart disease, respiratory disease, and accidents.  The gap between Black women and Black men does not appear until Black men enter their 20s and 30s.

The article pointed that while the missing men problem has existed since the 1950s, the reasons for the gap has changed.  Mortality rates for Black men have been declining while incarceration rates for Black men have soared since the 1980s.

The New York Times editorial board provided its own analysis of the data.  They opined that the "astounding shortfall in black men translates into lower marriage rates, more out-of-wedlock births, a greater risk of poverty for families and, by extension, less stable communities. The missing men should be a source of concern to political leaders and policy makers everywhere."

The Times also noted that Black communities across America were hit with three waves of devastating elite policies:  "the collapse of the manufacturing and industrial centers, which was quickly followed by the 'war on drugs' and mass imprisonment, which drove up the national prison population more than sevenfold beginning in the 1970s."

In short, political elites, whether in Escambia County, Tallahassee, or Washington, D.C. need look no further than their own failed policies to account for what is wrong in the Black community.

Ecambia County: Failure Is The Preferred Policy Outcome

The Southern Poverty Law Center based in Montgomery, Alabama, and with a field office in Miami, Florida, has been studying Florida's education system for the past four years.  What they believed was a "crisis" in 2011 has become a near catastrophe in 2015 because the statistics keep getting worse--much much worse.  It is not a slight decline, but an escalation in the decline in the quality of education for our Black children.  The statistic that most alarmed the Southern Poverty Law Center was the 127 percent increase in the number of Black students suspended multiple times between 2010 and 2014:  from 9.8 percent to 22.2 percent for Black students and an increase from 2.8 percent to 4.7 percent for white students.

All of the data presented here is taken from the handout distributed by the Southern Poverty Law Center given out at the Fricker Community Center on May 28, 2015.  All of their data is derived either from statistics collected by the Florida Department of Education (FDE) or the Department of Justice's Office of Civil Rights (OCR).

In other words, this is data that has been reported by the Escambia County School Board to these organizations.  Ignorance of the data or an inadequate knowledge base is not the excuse for the school board's failures.  No, failure appears to be Escambia County School Board's preferred policy outcome for the Black community.

Bear in mind that Black students are only 35 percent of the total student body in Escambia County.  Thus, if policies were truly color-blind, Black students should only account for 35 percent of the disciplinary problems as well as 35 percent of the positive outcomes.

The data suggest that the Escambia County School Board's policies are not color-blind.  The SPLC pointed out that "Children in Escambia [County] are 32% more likely to be arrested than the rest of Florida.  Black youth are arrested at nearly 4 times the rate of White youth.  This disparity is higher in Escambia than 85% of Florida's counties."

According to the FDE/OCR data presented by the Southern Poverty Law Center:

  • Escambia County has higher suspension rates than 72 percent of all Florida counties, while Florida leads the nation in suspensions;
  • Escambia County's suspension rate exceeds Florida's by 27 percentage points;
  • Florida leads the nation in arrests of students while Escambia County's arrest rate is higher than 80 percent of Florida's counties;
  • Black students account for 65 percent of out-of-school suspensions, 76 percent of school arrests, and 80 percent of expulsions;
  • 92 percent of Disorderly Conduct arrests are of Black students;
  • 73 percent of Black student arrests are for misdemeanors compared to 49 percent for white students;
  • Miami-Dade county, arguably the most violent county in Florida, arrests only 3 minors per 1,000 students while Escambia County arrests 13 minors per 1,000 students--four times more;
  • Only 66 percent of Escambia County's students graduate from high school, while 76 percent is the state-wide average;
  • Less than 50 percent of Black students graduate in Escambia County and at Escambia High School the rate is a dismal 41.7 percent;
  • Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) scores in Math and Science declined from 2013 to 2014;
  • 69 percent of Florida's school districts tested higher than Escambia County on the FCAT;
  • Only 25 percent of Black tenth graders in Escambia County passed the FCAT compared to 66 percent of white tenth graders;
  • Only 4 percent of Black students are enrolled in Advancement Placement or International Baccalaureate classes compared to 13 percent of white students in Escambia County;
  • Black students are the only demographic group not increasing enrollment in AP/IB programs;
  • Only 2 percent of Black students are enrolled in Dual Enrollment compared to 8 percent of white students, meaning that their high school classes count towards both high school and college;
  • Black students account for 42 percent of Special Education students;
  • Only 12 percent of the teachers in Escambia County are Black and recent data show that the School Board is doing absolutely nothing to address this lack of diversity; and,
  • Less than 1 (one) percent of elementary school teachers are Black men.

Escambia County School Board: The Board of Nyet

In terms of school arrests it should be noted that the Escambia County School Board and the Escambia County Sheriff's Office are engaged in the time-honored bureaucratic game of finger-pointing.  The Sheriff's Office claims its School Resource Officers arrest students at the behest of the school principal.  The School Board claims the School Resource Officers arrest the students at their own initiative.

Who cares?  The finger-pointing is just a bureaucratic ploy to ensure that nothing gets resolved.

The Escambia County School Board, according to the SPLC presentation, has done nothing to examine alternative models utilized across the country that demonstrably reduce school arrests.  For one thing, the School Board could adopt a transparent policy stating which behaviors will result in arrest, expulsion, out-of-school suspension, in-school suspension, and being sent to the principals' office, while making fewer normal adolescent behaviors criminal acts.

Ms. Keyontay Humphries of the Northwest Regional office of the American Civil Liberties Union, an expert in this policy area, is ready, willing, and able to assist the Escambia County School Board in reviewing these alternative models.

But, like a mini-Soviet politburo, the Escambia County School Board and its imperious School Superintendent are unwilling to even meet with the Southern Poverty Law Center and have shown no interest in considering alternative policies that have worked in school districts across the country.

Concluding Observation

Bear in mind that Escambia County is one of the worst counties in America to be a child.  A study by two Harvard University researchers, according to a summary by the New York Times, found that "It’s among the worst counties in the U.S. in helping poor children up the income ladder.  It ranks 47th out of 2,478 counties, better than only about 2 percent of counties.  It is relatively worse for poor boys than it is for poor girls.  Although bad for poor children, it is somewhat better for higher-income children."  The researchers used five measures to determine upward social mobility, factors that make Escambia County rank near the very bottom of all counties in America:  "less segregation by income and race, lower levels of income inequality, better schools, lower rates of violent crime, and a larger share of two-parent households."

According to data published by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, between 2005 and 2012, the annual number of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or food stamps) recipients in Escambia County rose from 24,169 to 62,195.  From the start of the recession in 2008, it rose from 38,102 to 62,195 in 2012.

According to Sacred Heart Hospital's "2013 Community Health Needs Assessment Summary," in Escambia County the "percent of persons living below the poverty level in Escambia County is 16.4%, higher than the 13.8% rate for the State of Florida.  Median household income for Escambia County is $43,573, more than $4,000 below the state median of $47,661. Nearly 1 in 3 children (28%) in Escambia County live
in poverty, and 51% qualify for the free lunch program."

In its Attachment D, the "Summary of Results--Assessment 2012," Sacred Heart Hospital reported that "Florida ranks in the bottom third of U.S. states in key indexes of health and well-being for residents.  In the United Health Foundation’s America’s Health Rankings, through 2011, Florida ranks 33rd among the 50 states, and in the Gallup Healthway Well-Being Index, also through 2011, Florida ranks 42nd.  The fact that a significant number of important health status indicators in Escambia (61%) and Santa Rosa Counties (42%) do not compare favorably to Peers and State results, is unquestionably cause for public concern."

According to the Community Action Program Committee Inc.'s 2014 "Community Needs Assessment," identified "major causes of poverty in Escambia County" (page 13) that could be addressed by better public policy choices:  unemployment, under-employment, the disconnect between costs of living and actual wages, seasonal work due to tourism; an "educational pipeline" that leads to an "an institution of higher learning or a technical certification…to an employed position is needed;" and, "access to affordable child care" which would help reduce incidences of "absenteeism, tardiness, and reduced concentration at work."

The February 2013, Greater Pensacola Chamber of Commerce report on the "Economic Development Strategy 2013-2018," noted that a robust economy outside of defense and tourism benefited all residents in the county:  "Full employment, economic security, home ownership, the ability to fund quality education, fire and police protection, roads and parks, the increased vibrancy of downtown Pensacola – in sum, a good quality of life – all require a growing economy, good jobs, and a growing tax base."

But, the Chamber of Commerce noted that one of the "game changers" for the county was improving the "deeper skills" of the county's human resources:  "Workforce skills are the most important component of job growth. The region’s workforce (25 years or older) is average in terms of proportion of high school graduates, slightly ahead in terms of
associates degrees, and slightly behind in terms of bachelor’s degrees.  Many local high-growth tech firms report difficulty in hiring for key skilled positions.  The number of area children living in poverty is too high."

High poverty meant that many young people could not afford to attend a technical institute or an institution of higher learning in Escambia County.

Among the factors that would improve the competitiveness of the county, the Chamber of Commerce recommended more "Minority Business Development: Work through the Chamber Minority Business Council to identify the highest-potential MBEs to receive SBDC, SCORE, CIE, and/or Chamber Minority Business Council technical assistance and potential networking relationships with larger Chamber-member

In short, the failures in Escambia County are much more pervasive and not limited to its educational system.  And the failures of the Escambia County School Board affect not only the Black community directly, but the business communities, both white and Black, and all of the residents of the county now and into the future.

Failure of the Escambia County school system is not an option.

It should be evident to elected officials that their policies are failing.  But that appears to be the preferred outcome, especially regarding Black students.  Why?

The Republican Party from the local level to the state level to the national level has long pursued a strategy and policy to destroy teachers' unions and public schools in favor of private-sector schools.  This is a political-religious ideological choice not based on evidence.

It is based on greed.  The billionaires and Wall Street hedge fund managers who fund the privatization movement smell profits at the expense of a common democratic public school system.  And, the charter school movement is rooted in the white supremacist reaction to U.S. Supreme Court decisions to integrate segregated schools in the 1950s.

Charter schools are not superior to public schools despite all the hoopla and mythology spread by its proponents.

Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes reported (Isaiah Poole based on New York Times) in 2010 that "'a decent fraction of charter schools, 17 percent, provide superior education opportunities for their students.  Nearly half of the charter schools nationwide have results that are no different from the local public school options and over a third, 37 percent, deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their student would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools.'"

The conservative Charles Murray (of The Bell Curve infamy) gleefully noted:

"The latest evaluation of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, the oldest and most extensive system of vouchers and charter schools in America, came out last month, and most advocates of school choice were disheartened by the results.  The evaluation by the School Choice Demonstration Project, a national research group that matched more than 3,000 students from the choice program and from regular public schools, found that pupils in the choice program generally had “achievement growth rates that are comparable” to similar Milwaukee public-school students. This is just one of several evaluations of school choice programs that have failed to show major improvements in test scores, but the size and age of the Milwaukee program, combined with the rigor of the study, make these results hard to explain away."

Scholarly studies suggest that charter schools are both more segregated than traditional public schools and drive public schools to become more segregated.

Charter schools are increasingly linked to financial frauds and ripping off the public--frauds uncovered by whistleblowers and media coverage--not state regulatory audits.

And standardized testing, the offspring of the charter school movement that is used to condemn public school teachers, their unions and their schools, is linked to massive cheating scandals.  Elizabeth Hines reported that the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a non-profit group, "has found documented cases of cheating, and in some cases, systematic manipulation of scores, in 39 states and the District of Columbia, over the last five years alone. The organization has also identified more than 60 methods administrators and teachers have used to alter student scores on these tests, from urging low-scorers to be absent the day of the test, to shouting out and otherwise indicating correct answers during testing."

Why?  Is it because principals and teachers are natural born cheaters?  Are school boards hiring more and more crooks?  No.  It is because the premise that a standardized test score is solely the result of what the teacher teaches in the classroom is absurd--yet their very livelihoods and lives are jeopardized.  A child's test score is the product of many measured and unmeasured variables and is not necessarily a reflection of the teacher's ability to teach.

So, why the deliberate failures exhibited by the Escambia County School Board and its School Superintendent?  They are all either conservative-religious Republicans or some of them simply go along with the majority.  They cannot be easily dismissed from the larger political-religious ideological currents in the Republican Party.  Failure is an option because it brings profits to the backers of the charter school movement and eventually to the private prison system.  Is that their hidden agenda?

Black bodies are monetized and profitized, as they have historically been monetized, for the benefit of the white elite.  And, until the white elite in Escambia County change their policies in ways that benefit Black children, that is the only logical conclusion we can draw from the data.

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