It is an open secret in Minneapolis and the Twin Cities that black and brown children are being left behind within the public school system. The dominant narrative places the blame on poor children of color and their parents, as well as their communities. When racial stereotypes are used as the default to explain away systemic failures, everyone loses; but especially children of color who lag behind their white peers in reading, math and high school graduation rates. They are relegated to the margins of society and the criminal justice system.
We recently celebrated the life and legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his work toward a more equitable society. But it seems as if, in the area of education, our city and other cities across the country have gone backward.
Thankfully, some cities are doing a significantly better job than others at closing the opportunity gaps in education — as is made clear in a newly published report by brightbeam, a nonprofit education advocacy organization.
One might expect that politically progressive cities would be leading the way in closing the opportunity gap in education, given the history of racial segregation and oppression in this country, and the rhetoric of progressives about overcoming that history and creating a more just and inclusive society.
However, that could not be further from the truth.
The brightbeam report shows that progressive cities like Minneapolis do worse — and, surprisingly, conservative cities do better — when it comes to educating students of color. According to the report, conservative cities have gaps in math and reading that are on average 15 and 13 percentage points smaller than those in progressive cities.
To draw their conclusions, researchers used criteria developed by independent political scientists to compare education outcomes in the 12 most progressive cities and the 12 most conservative cities.
Researchers also controlled for other factors that could potentially explain different educational outcomes, including poverty rates, population size, per-pupil spending and private school attendance rates. Surprisingly, none of these other variables made a difference in predicting the size of the opportunity gap.
What mattered most was whether the city was conservative or progressive.
In three of the most conservative cities — Anaheim, Fort Worth and Virginia Beach, researchers found that leaders have either closed or eliminated opportunity gaps in either reading, math or high school graduation rates.
Meanwhile, in our own “progressive” city of Minneapolis, the report showed that the shameful gap in math achievement between black and white students in K-12 is 53 percentage points, while the gap in math between brown and white students is 45 points.
Similarly, in reading, the gap between black and white Minneapolis students is 53, while the gap between brown and white students is 47.
Compare that with “conservative” Jacksonville, Fla., where the reading gap between black and white students is 30; and the math gap is 27.
The data should cause us to wonder how it is possible that cities like Minneapolis, known for prosperity and progressive values, could continue to fail our most vulnerable children so miserably within the public-school system.
When progressive leaders fail to act with a sense of urgency in addressing these highly disturbing gaps, it sends the signal that the system and its leaders are comfortable with the status quo.
Parents and concerned citizens must become empowered to place demands on our public education system to make the changes that are necessary to produce positive learning outcomes. We must use our outrage and frustration as fuel to be persistent in challenging the status quo and holding our elected officials accountable for addressing these disgraceful gaps within our public education system.
Every child, regardless of ZIP code, family composition, disability status, language or skin color deserves access to a quality education.
Nekima Levy Armstrong is a civil rights attorney and executive director of Wayfinder Foundation.