When Liberals Blame Racism and Conservatives Blame Public Schools

I was hopeful this morning when I began to read a column by Naomi Schaefer Riley titled How to Save More At-Risk Kids in the NYPost.  In the often overly thick world of what educators refer to a pedagogy, “at-risk” broadly refers to children whom are in danger of poor academic outcomes. Some pedagogical researchers caution that the term is too-broadly utilized. In Riley’s column she narrows at-risk children to those in state-run protective services “at-risk” for abuse and neglect.

Riley opens effectively with the tragic death of Zymere Perkins of Harlem before moving on persuasively from an anecdote to a data based point-of-view:

…apparently all his mother had to do was tell the ACS workers that he had fallen — down the stairs, off a scooter, whatever — and they would close the case.

Now it turns out that as many as 10 children died in the 12 weeks before Zymere Perkins, despite each being the subject of at least four abuse or maltreatment complaints.

It doesn’t have to be like this. More and more cities are adopting predictive analytics as a powerful tool in determining which children are at the greatest risk for repeated abuse and even death at the hands of the adults in their lives.

Maura Corrigan, a former justice on the Michigan Supreme Court who studies child welfare, told a recent panel at the American Enterprise Institute, “If we were able to mine data in child welfare and intervene with good casework by the mining of that data, perhaps we would reduce the 1,500 to 3,000 deaths from child abuse and neglect in this country each year.”

She then take us to a predictable culprit: professionals are afraid of being accused of racism:

So why haven’t more states and cities — like New York — started using data from past cases in order to inform decisions about current ones? Joette Katz, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Children and Families, which has started to introduce predictive analytics, told the gathering: “Not surprisingly, predictive tools have been treated with suspicion in the child-welfare area, and you all know who I’m talking about.”

Who is she talking about? For one, she is talking about academics, lawyers and politicians who worry about everyone’s favorite topic — disparate impact. It turns out that there are a disproportionate number of racial minorities who are reported to and investigated by child services. So if an algorithm incorporates data about who has been engaged in abuse in the past, it might inadvertently target more black and Hispanic families.

Indeed, it is those same “academics, lawyers and politicians” who now serve as our societies insta-punditry through social media, talk radio and as TV talking heads. And Riley is correct, too. Her piece is an extremely effective take down of a poorly run children’s services bureaucracy and the oppressive politically correct pressures they cannot overcome.

But Riley couldn’t stop there. Like Democrats attempting to score political points with racialist dog whistles like “institutional racism” and the aforementioned “disparate impact,” she blamed “inner-city public schools.”

Perhaps this sounds familiar. A system that’s supposed to help the children but is really turning into a jobs program for adults? Yes, it’s our inner-city public schools. And just like low-performing public-school teachers don’t want the accountability that comes with teacher evaluations, so many case workers would be pretty unhappy if we tried to inject greater accountability into child services.

Riley inserted her own dog whistle at the end of what otherwise would have been a constructive critique which offered solutions of the sad triad of poverty, failing inner cities and the thankless task of children’s services. Instead she chose what’s become the opposite of the Democrat race-based mantras to one of equally misguided disingenuousness which blames public schools.

The insertion of the swipe at the inner city public schools by Riley is surprisingly lazy for writer of her talent and accomplishment. So lazy, in fact, that a public school teacher with a lap top can dispatch her conclusion.

First, Riley led her column off with the tragic story of an abused child.  Zymere Perkins was 6 and according to this NY Daily News story, his mother never registered him for school. A public school professional – one of those Riley callously described as in  “a jobs program for adults” never saw the child. This was a cheap shot, but one that many Republicans cheer.

Second, in the event that Perkins had made his way into a public school, those professionals in Riley’s jobs program wouldn’t have had to worry about accusations of racism, because federal statutes protects then when they report suspected abuse. It’s done so anonymously and procedures for doing so are detailed clearly for all.

Third, Riley cites statistics from the state of Michigan, but fails to mention anywhere that a large number of charter schools – without union teachers or employees part of a state bureaucracy educate a higher number of children in poverty than do public schools.  Moreover, the Detroit Free Press reported this past August that Michigan spends $1 billion a year on charter schools and “the state demands little accountability in how taxpayer dollars are spent and how well children are educated.”

Fourth, as Riley bemoans  how in”low-performing public-school teachers don’t want the accountability that comes with teacher evaluations” she fails to take the example from the one state she cites data from in Michigan. She also doesn’t tell readers that those “teacher evaluations” are based on test scores, something which teachers from any school oppose. Indeed, children in poverty score demonstrably lower than do children who don’t.

Incoming Department of Education Secretary  Betsy DeVos is as responsible for the failing charter school model of Michigan as anyone.

As someone familiar with Riley’s exemplary body of work, the cheap shot against inner-city public schools surprised me in it’s out-of-leftfield style. Perhaps she has some experiences as a mother with public schools living in New York. I hope that she didn’t insert such a flimsy aside  at the end of an otherwise solid column to please her editors at the New York Post who never miss a chance to take a shot at our nation’s public schools and teachers.

There are around 1200 posts in this blog that are written in support of public schools. I dare say that I am the only regsitered Republican voter with such a writing record. Indeed I share more in common ideologically with Riley and her husband, Jason, an excellent conservative Wall Street Journal writer, than anyone on the other side of the political spectrum I’ve worked with in support of public schools.

While it’s long past time for the left to stop blaming racism for failing inner-city public schools the same can be said for the right’s rhetorical war against public school teachers. Neither side seems inclined to recognize that the common denominator is poverty as they cannot retreat from a position which is most politically expediant. Someone needs to begin to bridge the devide. Hopefully, thoughtful conservative intellectuals like the Riley’s can help.

As for me, I’ll continue trying.


About Bob Sikes

A long time ago and a planet far, far away I was an athletic trainer for the New York Mets. I was blessed to be part of the now legendary 1986 World Series Championship. My late father told me that I'd one day be thankful I had that degree in teaching from Florida State University. He was right and I became twice blesses to become a teacher in the late 1990's. After dabbling with writing about the Mets and then politics, I settled on education.
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